10 Myths About Gluten

Gluten is the protein that makes dough elastic and bread chewy. But lately, it's been taking a lot of heat for being bad for you. Is that reputation warranted? Adam Gaul/OJO Images/Getty Images

A few years ago, you probably didn't even know that the stuff that gives bread its chewy texture had a name. It's a protein called gluten, which is formed when two chemicals, glutenin and gliadin, come into contact and form a bond. When dough is kneaded, this bond creates an elastic membrane, which causes bread to have chewiness [source: Specter]. Gluten is naturally found in wheat, barley and rye, and humans have been eating it for about 10,000 years, maybe longer. It's one of the most heavily consumed proteins on our planet.

Nevertheless, in recent years − thanks in part to celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Gwyneth Paltrow who've sworn off the stuff − gluten has become the latest nutritional boogeyman, a substance that increasingly more people remove from their diets because of its evil qualities [source: Hellmich]. A 2014 survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center found that a third of Americans were buying gluten-free products or trying to avoid gluten in other ways, and more than six in 10 believed that a following a gluten-free diet would improve their health or mental well-being.

True, there are a small number of people (1 percent of the world's population) who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, who often get really sick if they eat it. But if anti-gluten evangelists are to be believed, the stuff is also incredibly bad for the rest of us. They claim that it causes woes ranging from obesity to cancer. But medical and nutritional experts take a dim view of many of those claims. Here are 10 myths about gluten that they're out to debunk.

Today's Wheat Has More Gluten in It
No evidence has been found that today's wheat contains more gluten than wheat of the past. Digital Vision/Thinkstock

This is an appealing myth, because it fits nicely with popular conceptions about giant agro-businesses and their insidious role in ruining our health with high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified Frankenfood. There has been an increase in the incidence of celiac disease in the second half of the 20th century. And wheat that's been genetically pumped up with extra gluten would provide a nice simple explanation for that phenomenon.

Inconveniently for gluten conspiracy theories, though, in a study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry in 2013, researcher Donald D. Kasarda analyzed data about wheat breeding, and found no evidence that wheat contains more protein than before. Additionally, Kasarda noted that there isn't any GMO wheat used commercially in the U.S., so gluten content isn't being increased that way, either.

Lots of People Are Gluten-intolerant
Teresa Andrasik, who organized a support group at St. Mary's Hospital to help others who have celiac disease, checks her recipe as she makes gluten-free cinnamon rolls. Only 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease. The Washington Post/Getty Images

Actually, it's only a small number. About 1 percent of the U.S. population (and also the world's population) has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that injures the small intestine and prevents patients from absorbing other nutrients from food when they ingest gluten [source: Mahadov and Green]. It can cause all sorts of awful side effects, from gastrointestinal distress and chronic fatigue to anemia [source: NFCA]. Additionally, another 6 percent of the American public may have a controversial condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), in which they don't test positive for celiac disease but complain of some of the same symptoms. As of 2015, there was no lab test for NCGS [sources: NFCA, Brody].

Interestingly, even for some people with NCGS, gluten may not be the real problem. In a study published in 2013 in the journal Gastroenterology, researchers examined 37 subjects with NCGS. They found that when a broad class of nutrients called FODMAPS − which includes everything from fructose to the fiber found in bananas, asparagus and wheat − was cut out of the subjects' diets, they suddenly stopped having gastrointestinal distress, even when they ate gluten [sources: Specter, Biesiekierski et al.].

To Avoid Gluten, You Need to Buy Special Food
All the foods pictured in this basket are naturally gluten-free. William Shaw/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

OK, so maybe you need to stay away from gluten because of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Or maybe you're part of the 93 percent of people who don't fit into either of those categories, but you're convinced that gluten is bad for you. You're the sort of person who manufacturers of gluten-free foods hope to attract, as those products tend to be way more expensive than those containing gluten. A bag of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, for example, may cost close to five times as much as the regular kind, according to one study [source: Cureton].

But you don't need to buy a $13 bag of cookies or a $6 loaf of bread to avoid gluten. A lot of foods naturally don't have any gluten in them, including fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, nuts, milk, most cheeses and yogurt, herbs, spices, and oils, butter, margarines, rice, certain cereals, and corn tortillas [source: Cureton]. You won't be as trendy, though. And it still will be a challenge to replace some of the nutrients that you may lose, which we'll explain in the next section.

A Gluten-free Diet Is Always More Nutritious
Gluten-free cupcakes are no more nutritious than regular cupcakes. In fact, they might be less, because flour is usually enriched with vitamins. Alison Aliano/Photolibrary/Getty Images

That definitely is true for someone who has celiac disease, because as we previously explained, the autoimmune disorder prevents the person from absorbing nutrients unless he or she avoids gluten. But for most of us, gluten isn't going to have that effect. And avoiding gluten actually may lead to a less nutritious diet if you're not careful. For most people, whole wheat flour is a major source of dietary fiber, so gluten-free dieters risk not getting enough unless they make an effort to replace it with sources such as fruits, vegetables, beans and brown rice [source: Strawbridge].

Additionally, conventional products, like your typical loaf of wheat bread, often are enriched with nutrients such as iron, calcium, thiamine, riboflavin and folate. When you avoid those grain products, you may also get lesser amounts of those nutrients, unless you take a vitamin supplement to counteract the loss. Additionally, cutting out gluten may cause a decrease in beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can have a negative impact on your immune system [sources: UW Health, Strawbridge].

Eliminating Gluten Will Help You Lose Weight
Just because these Girl Scout cookies are gluten-free doesn’t mean they are low in calories. © David Bro/ZUMA Press/Corbis

This is a tricky one, because some people who go on gluten-free diets do actually lose weight, at least at the beginning. However, cutting out gluten isn't the reason. Gluten-abstainers who lose weight probably are the ones who're cutting out processed foods that are higher in calories and fats, and eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes and lean meats. As a result, they consume fewer calories,.

But people who eliminate gluten by switching to processed gluten-free foods aren't going to get that benefit, especially if they consume gluten-free cakes, cookies and other sweets [sources: Cleveland Clinic, UW Health]. As Dr. Kelly Thomsen, a gastroenterologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News in 2014: "Some gluten-free foods contain extra sugar or calories to make them more palatable – to make up for the loss of the gluten."

The misconception might be due to the fact that people with celiac disease are usually thin, but this is more because they're unable to absorb nutrients from food that contains gluten. Once they go on a gluten-free diet, they often gain weight.

Eliminating Gluten Will Improve Your Digestion
Your digestion may improve from gluten elimination if you have a real intolerance to wheat, but for most everyone else, it won’t make a difference. lo filolo/iStock/Thinkstock

A 2014 University of Florida study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found that 35 percent of subjects believed that avoiding gluten would improve their digestive health [source: Buck]. Like other hype about gluten-free diets, there's at least a grain of truth to it. If you're part of the 1 percent of the world's population with celiac disease, eliminating gluten is vital for good digestion, and at least some of those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may benefit as well from cutting it out [source: Green].

Additionally, a study published in Gastroenterology and Hepatology in 2013 found that some patients with irritable bowel syndrome seemed to benefit from a gluten-free diet, although the reasons weren't clear [source: Eswaran et al.]. Gluten is just one component of wheat, so the improvement could be related to several factors.

For most people without gluten-sensitivity, eliminating gluten won't help your upset stomach. University of Florida dietician and researcher Caroline Dunn explained to Women's Health magazine in 2014, "There's really no evidence that removing gluten from the diet will improve your digestive health."

Avoiding Gluten Will Give You More Energy
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is what gives you energy -- not avoiding gluten. Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Another claim you'll hear on anti-gluten websites is that eliminating the protein from your diet will make you feel less sluggish and increase your vim and vigor. This is supposedly because your body will be expending less energy to digest gluten.

However, no studies have found that the gluten-free diet leads to more energy [source: UW Health]. It is true that some people seem to experience such a boost, if their regimen includes cutting back on foods that are high in sugar, fat and calories and consuming more fruit and vegetables. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health, if someone starts eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, he or she may feel that they have more energy, whether or not that person is eating gluten.

Gluten Causes Cancer
A gluten-free diet may actually increase the risk of cancer since whole grains are good sources of fiber and anti-oxidants that do protect against the disease. grafvision/iStock/Thinkstock

Some websites claim that gluten causes cancer, and therefore should be avoided by everyone. It is true that people with celiac disease who don't follow a gluten-free diet will increase their risk of developing several types of cancer, including intestinal lymphoma; small bowel cancer; and liver, esophageal and pharyngeal cancers [sources: Mayo Clinic, NCFA]. But again, remember, that's only 1 percent of Americans (or people in the world).

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, studies show that avoiding gluten doesn't provide any additional protection from cancer for people without celiac disease. In fact, as the organization notes, a gluten-free diet may actually increase the risk, since whole grains containing gluten are good sources of fiber and antioxidants that do protect against cancer.

You Should Use Gluten-free Soaps
You don’t absorb gluten through the skin -- only through eating it. Avesun/iStock/Thinkstock

Companies are picking up on Americans' newfound gluten aversion and marketing an increasing array of gluten-free products − everything from potato chips and bread to cosmetics, soap and even laundry detergent. A report by the marketing research firm Mintel stated that sales of such products reached an estimated $8.8 billion in 2014, a startling 63 percent increase from two years before.

The idea behind selling gluten-free soaps, shampoos and cosmetics is that in the conventional versions of these products, gluten could be present. And that's bad news. The source of this myth may be that some people with celiac disease get something called dermatitis herpetiformis, which causes an itchy rash and blisters. But that condition isn't caused by touching gluten, but rather by ingesting it. Gluten can't be absorbed through the skin, unless you have a deep cut [source: Bast].

Even for people with celiac disease, "gluten-containing skin care products and cosmetics aren't a problem unless you accidentally swallow them," writes Mayo Clinic physician Dr. Michael F. Picco. If you have the condition, avoid lipsticks and toothpaste with gluten (where you might risk ingestion), but otherwise, you don't need to worry about it.

It's Possible to Live Completely Gluten-free
Despite the plethora of gluten-free products on grocery store shelves, you can’t avoid the protein completely. Some of these special products might even have trace amounts of gluten. © Ruaridh Stewart/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Eating a 100-percent gluten-free diet may be theoretically possible, "but in reality, it's nearly an impossible feat," National Foundation for Celiac Awareness president Alice Bast told the Mayo Clinic. The Food and Drug Administration actually allows products to be labeled gluten-free, even if they contain extremely small amounts of up to 20 parts per million, because it says that there aren't reliable laboratory tests to detect gluten at lower levels than that.

Further, the FDA doesn't actually require food manufacturers to test their finished products for gluten content. Instead, they can meet the requirements simply by obtaining certificates from their ingredient suppliers, attesting that the ingredients are gluten-free [source: FDA]. As Consumer Reports points out, if a manufacturer uses the same equipment for manufacturing food with gluten in it, it's entirely possible for cross-contamination to occur. Additionally, recent research has shown that some supposedly gluten-free products turn out to contain malt, malt extract or malt syrup as minor ingredients, which usually are made from barley with gluten in it.

The FDA reassures people with celiac disease that all this probably doesn't put them at too much risk, since research shows that most of them can tolerate extremely small amounts of gluten. But for those who believe that gluten is an intolerable poison that must be avoided in any amount, the reality is going to be difficult to swallow.


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Author's Note: 10 Myths About Gluten

I've never really given much credence to nutritional fads, ever since I saw the 1973 Woody Allen movie "Sleeper," in which a health-food devotee Miles Monroe awakens after two centuries, in a world in which scientists have discovered that red meat, foods fried in deep fat and hot fudge are actually vital to one's well-being.

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