SAN ANTONIO – Sales of gluten-free foods have nearly tripled in recent years as more people become convinced that gluten causes many health problems, but for people who don’t have a real medical reason to avoid gluten, a gluten-free diet may be doing more harm than good.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It has been blamed for problems such as migraines, depression and joint pain, based on limited scientific evidence. Strong evidence, however, links gluten to digestive problems, but only in very specific areas.
For years, Brian Whalen suffered from severe stomach cramps, achiness and lethargy. He was diagnosed with celiac disease and told to get rid of the gluten in his diet.
“Oh, my God, I can't have beer and pizza anymore. At first, it was a difficult change. So now I have to stop, think, read labels and do research,” he said.
Consumer Reports said avoiding gluten is warranted in cases such as Whalen’s, but it’s not for the vast majority of people who are not allergic to gluten but still avoid it.
“Less than 7 percent of Americans have celiac disease or another condition that causes gluten sensitivity, which can lead to severe digestive issues,” said Catherine Roberts, Consumer Reports’ health editor.
For the rest of the population, unnecessarily eliminating whole grains that contain gluten can eliminate important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that may protect against cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
“Another downside: Gluten-free foods often have added sugar, fat and sodium to make them more palatable,” Roberts said.
If gluten-free foods are made with rice flour, as many are, research shows people consuming them may ingest worrisome amounts of arsenic and mercury.
People who need to be on gluten-free diets can still get the health benefits of whole grains from foods such as quinoa and buckwheat.