Is it just us, or does every restaurant, bakery and cafe you frequent these days offering some kind of “gluten-free” alternative on the menu?
Gluten sensitivity or avoidance is probably one of the most common dietary restrictions these days, but like many supposed health risks that gain national attention and enter the cultural zeitgeist for a moment, this particular one might be on its way to being debunked as a total myth. Now to be clear, celiac disease is a very real, chronic condition which triggers an immune reaction when a person suffering from it ingests gluten (causing damage to the intestinal tract and a whole host of problems like bloating, diarrhea, and malnutrition), but that is an entirely different (gluten-free) cake than non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). It might sound like biological semantics, but it’s not.
In 2011, a study conducted in Australia by Monash University professor Peter Gibson sought to answer the question that has been plaguing the gastroenterological scientific community: why does gluten adversely affect people who don’t suffer from celiac disease? However, because the study didn’t yield answers the first time it was conducted, it was re-launched with plans to be way more strict and comprehensive than it was initially, including the limiting of other potential triggers for gastrointestinal symptoms such as lactose, some types of preservatives like benzoates, propionate, sulfites, and nitrites, as well as poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates. The trial patients were closely monitored, their eating habits recorded in each bite of food, and their diets (which consisted of identical no-gluten, low-gluten, and high-gluten plans) controlled. Samples of their bathroom business were collected over a period of nine days and thoroughly analyzed in hopes that they would reveal elusive mysteries of the gut.
When the study took place, the trial patients served as their own control group by being cycled through different versions of the three diets without knowing which they were on at any given time. It turned out that all the participants exhibited a variety of stomach problems the entire time they were participating in the study. Interesting. The no-cebo effect ran rampant throughout the study and people with no other triggers seemed to be psychologically prompted to get tummy aches from anything or nothing at all, based solely on the assumption that they would. Further, they found that those short-chain carbohydrates mentioned above (also called FODMAPs, shorthand for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols, if you must know) might be more likely to be a cause of gastrointestinal disruption than gluten itself. The fact that they happen to be found in many bread products alongside gluten complicates things, making gluten the victim of a case mistaken identity for people who suffer from NCGS.
The big gluten scare that has gripped the United States and other countries around the world in recent times could possibly be just that: a scare. Those who suffered from celiac disease declared a vendetta against gluten and its evil, insidious ways (and rightfully so, at least for them), and then certain uncomfortable moments experienced by the rest of the world seemed to back up and validate those claims. It didn’t help that the food industry went crazy flooding supermarket shelves with gluten-free versions of all our favorite grain products. More research certainly needs to be done around the role FODMAPs play in problems of the gastroenterological nature, and if they validate the preliminary findings of Gibson’s research, gluten might be able to rip off its boogeyman mask and be welcomed back into the culinary world, at least for those people who don’t suffer from a documented case of celiac disease. However, if you feel like your stomach’s an oven every time you drop some bread in there, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something upsetting your stomach.
But it could just be the belief system your brain is clinging to.