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  • Writer's pictureLynn Elsey

Gluten Free Foods: Magic or Myth?

The gluten-free phenomena is not just a frustrating conundrum for health and medical professionals, it may be downright unhealthy, reports LYNN ELSEY.

Is the world in the midst of a gluten-free food epidemic? In 2015, 10 per cent of all new food and beverage products launched worldwide were gluten free; from 2011 to 2016 the market value of gluten-free foods increased from US$1.7 billion to $3.5 billion, according to The Financial Times.

Although less than 1 per cent of the population suffers from coeliac disease, a serious immune reaction to gluten, at least 20 per cent of the Australian and global population (mainly women) believe that going gluten-free could make their bodies healthier.

So why are so many people who don’t have a medically-diagnosed illness, devoting money, time and energy to avoid gluten?

Some believe that gluten-free foods are a miracle cure for everything from autism, arthritis and weight loss to cancer; others just think they are healthier in general.

Another group believes they suffer from gluten intolerance, sometimes known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which they think causes bloating and other digestive-related symptoms, including irritable bowel syndrome. As there is no validated test to diagnose gluten intolerance, people are either self-diagnosing or following advice from other sources, including alternative health care gurus, celebrities and magazine articles.

However, an array of studies and research shows no connection between perceived gluten intolerance and the consumption of gluten.

Science speaks

In 2014, Monash University researchers Dr Jessica Biesiekierski and Peter Gibson found no physical responses or underlying causes for any gastrointestinal distress reported from eating gluten.

After noting that 63 per cent of the subjects were either self-diagnosed or following the recommendations of an alternative health provider, the researchers surmised that the problems were psychological.

Similar results were replicated in another study in Spain, which found that just 16 per cent of subjects who said they suffered from gluten intolerance exhibited related symptoms when exposed to gluten. And 40 per cent of those who were on the gluten-free diet in the double-blind study also reported symptoms. The researchers concluded that their results “cast doubt on gluten as the culprit food component in most patients with presumptive NCGS and highlight the importance of the placebo effect”.



What’s the truth behind other trendy foods? Take this quick quiz to test your food knowledge.

1 Energy bars are a healthy way to boost your energy

Convenient, yes. Healthy, not so much.

As they often contain chocolate or yogurt, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (linked to high blood pressure and clogged arteries) and artificial sweeteners and often have minimal nutritional value, many nutritionists rate them the same as a candy bar.

Anything that provides calories helps boost energy levels, whether a banana, a chocolate cupcake or an energy bar. Eating a roll with a slice of cheese provides a similar energy burst as many bars and is probably healthier and cheaper. So, false.

2 Eating salad without dressing is the healthiest option

Tossing your salad with lemon juice, low calorie or reduced fat- dressing, or avoiding it altogether, may lower the overall calorie count – but when it comes to your health, using an oil-based dressing is the smarter choice.

The fats in full-fat dressings (especially olive and canola oil) increase the uptake of important nutrients in salads, including carotenoids, which are associated with a reduced risk of several chronic and degenerative diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration.

3 Coconut water improves athletic performance

Afraid not. Studies show that drinking coconut water has no impact on hydration or performance during intensive workouts.


What’s behind the reality gap?

According to a US-based coeliac specialist, Dr Amy Burkhart, “misinformation stems in part from internet lore and well-meaning friends. Friends describe the benefits they’ve achieved with a gluten-free diet, so others aim for similar results. Books and media outlets tout miraculous cures with gluten-free diets, so people follow suit”.

But, other than concerns that people are wasting money, what’s the problem?

Health and medical experts are increasingly concerned that gluten-free products are unhealthy. For starters, many contain high levels of sugar and fats and have significantly lower levels of protein, nutrients and useful dietary fibre than the ingredients they are replacing.

“Many gluten-free products are higher in calories, fat, sodium and sugar because they need to enhance the flavour and texture to make up for the lack of gluten,” according to Marina Chaparro, a spokesperson for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Researchers at the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition have called for a widespread reformulation of gluten-free products to ensure they match the nutritional values of the foods they are replacing, following an assessment of 654 gluten-free products.

Researchers at Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition have found that eliminating food such as bread, cereals and pasta leads to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, as the replacements often contain less dietary fibre and micronutrients, especially B vitamins. And whole grains – including wheat, barley and rye – are known to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases.

This is why most health professionals prefer people to avoid gluten-free diets unless absolutely necessary. “There is no need to be on a strict gluten-free diet unless you are diagnosed with coeliac disease,” according to Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) Georgie Rist, the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) spokesperson.

“The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without coeliac disease should not be encouraged,” concluded Dr Andrew Chan, one the Harvard researchers.

People who believe they suffer from gluten intolerance might want to read up on studies focusing on fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs), types of carbohydrates found in wheat, lentils, and mushrooms, which may play a role in stomach discomfort.

In the meantime, the gluten-free craze will undoubtedly continue to delight food manufacturers and baffle health professionals.


Originally published in the July 2017 edition of the NSW Law Society Journal.

NSW Law Society Journal, July 2017

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