How gluten-free is your gluten-free diet?

A deeper look at grains and cross-reactive foods


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Lately I have been delving a little deeper into the gluten-free movement and there have been some interesting surprises. For many this is just the latest health fad, but for those who genuinely cannot handle gluten, this is a very real situation. I will address the difference between gluten sensitivity, allergy, intolerance and Celiac’s disease in a separate post – way too much to get into right here. I will say this: the incidence of people with gluten ‘issues’ is alot more common than we have been led to believe; and your gluten sensitivity is NOT just in your head! According to Dr Allessio Fasana, a world authority on gluten research and Celiac disease, “60-70% of those who think they have Celiac disease and seek help from his research center are actually gluten sensitive – they do not have Celiac disease (which means that standard Celiac testing would show nothing)”. This means that there are a large percentage of people out there who are reacting to gluten and are not being properly evaluated or treated.

Alright, so the issue at hand here is “how gluten-free is your gluten-free diet (GFD)?” The reason why this is important to ask is because the gluten-free food industry is absolutely booming right now! The market in the US is projected to hit $23.1 bn by 2020; up from $900m in 2006 (1). The other reason is that many people who cut out gluten from their diet don’t actually improve their health all that much.

The traditional GFD

So what is a gluten-free diet? Traditionally a GFD removes gluten-containing grains from the diet. These include wheat (and all related cousins such as spelt and kamut), barley, rye and occasionally oats. Doctors will usually only recommend this diet to someone who has been diagnosed with Celiac disease. Side note: it is well documented that Celiac patients following a strict gluten-free diet (GFD) never actually heal their gut and make a full recovery despite going on this GFD for many months or years (2). Surely then, the traditional GFD must have some fundamental flaws? (Note: I am referencing Celiac here as this is the area with the most research on it when it comes to gluten. As I explained earlier, there are alot of people reacting to gluten who are not Celiac)

What is gluten?

Gluten is the storage protein found in all grains.  Most research focuses on alpha gliadin (a main component of gluten protein) as the main culprit when it comes to gluten sensitivities. Alpha gliadin antibodies are what are measured to test for Celiac and gluten sensitivity. BUT, new research has discovered that there are in fact roughly 400 different types of gluten proteins found in grains (3). Some of these have actually been shown to be more problematic than alpha gliadin. The truth of the matter is that ALL grains contain gluten proteins (3). Yes, you read that correctly. There are tons of gluten-free products that are made from ‘gluten-free’ grains. These include things like corn, rice, amaranth, buckwheat, oats, millet, quinoa and teff. While these are free from alpha gliadin, they do contain other gluten proteins (as well as prolamines). So, the traditional GFD is actually an ‘alpha gliadin free’ diet. And this is big part of the reason why it doesn’t always work. This also explains why many people going the traditional GFD route only marginally and/or temporarily notice improvements. What often happens is that people give up the GFD thinking that gluten is not the problem. This inevitably leads them back onto a gluten-containing diet and looking for answers elsewhere; running around in circles and never getting lasting results.

Cross reactivity: foods that cross react with gluten in the sensitive individual

There is also the question of non-grain/gluten foods that are usually thought of as being ‘safe foods’. Below is a list of foods that have been shown to cross-react and essentially trick your body into thinking it’s still eating gluten. Many gluten-free food products are made from or include these items.

  • Potato
  • Hemp
  • Soy
  • Milk (Alpha-Casein, Beta-Casein, Casomorphin, Butyrophilin, Whey Protein and whole milk)
  • Chocolate
  • Yeast
  • Instant Coffee (imported, latte, espresso)
  • Sesame
  • Tapioca (a.k.a. cassava or yucca)
  • Eggs

So, an updated and more correct GFD should remove all of these food items for at least 3 weeks. If gluten proteins are an issue, you will notice a significant improvement. You can also then test items by reintroducing them one by one every 3-4 days. The next post in this series will deep-dive into the difference between gluten sensitivity, allergy, intolerance and Celiac’s disease and why it is important to make the distinction.

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/261099/us-gluten-free-and-free-from-retail-sales/
  2. Rates of intestinal mucosal repair on gluten free diet in Celiac’s patients
  3. https://www.glutenfreesociety.org/new-glutens-discovered-to-be-harmful-to-health/
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