Study: Gluten-free diets don’t entirely protect consumers from gluten

Gluten-free food products have skyrocketed in popularity during recent years, preferred in part by consumers seeking health benefits from gluten-free diets. But there’s also another very important component to the buyer base for gluten-free goods: people with gluten intolerances, wheat allergies and celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, and those who suffer from it have immune responses in their small intestine when they consume gluten, over time damaging the small intestine’s lining. People with the disease must be extremely careful not to let any gluten into their diets. Meanwhile, people without celiac disease generally consume between 5,000 and 15,000 milligrams of gluten daily. Two bites of bread contain about 500 milligrams of gluten.

In a study published earlier this year, a team of researchers investigated how effectively celiac patients were managing to avoid gluten in their diets. The team looked at data from two different clinical programs that estimated gluten consumption based on measuring undigested traces of gluten in urine and stool samples.

Their findings suggested that, despite best efforts, even the savviest gluten-avoiders were usually consuming more gluten than desired.

According to the study, celiac patients, on average, consume up to 244 milligrams of gluten daily. Some patients consume as little as 150 milligrams, while others consume as many as 400 milligrams per day — more than enough to trigger symptoms and contribute to intestinal damage.

“This study reflects what many celiacs experience in real life,” one of the study’s authors told NPR. “I was diagnosed with celiac in the early 2000s and even on a gluten-free diet, I was still getting sick. I began to actually analyze my own food using mass spectrometry techniques, and I found out that some of the gluten-free pastas I was eating, and even a body wash I was using, contained gluten.”

The findings suggest even people who are dedicated to a gluten-free diet are still ingesting it somehow. The study doesn’t answer, however, where the gluten is coming from. It could be due to cross-contamination of gluten-free products with gluten-containing ones at the production or processing levels, or during packaging or shipping.

Screening for gluten with a rapid test kit is one way for food processors to ensure they are cleaning their environments thoroughly enough to avoid cross-contamination.

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