Nearly one-third of Canadians seek out gluten-free products, but is it necessary?
While one per cent of Canadians (350,000) have celiac disease — an immune response to eating gluten — and six per cent (2.1 million) gluten sensitivity, upwards of 20 per cent (more than 7 million) steer clear of the proteins as a lifestyle choice.
The findings of a U.K. study published in the September issue of the journal Gastroenterology may give some of these “lifestylers” pause: For most people, eating a gluten-free diet is unnecessary.
In the double-blind randomized placebo trial, subjects over the age of 18 — who had never been diagnosed with a gluten-related condition — were free from gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue after eating gluten daily (in the form of flour containing 14 g of gluten).
“Our results support the view that gluten does not appear to cause symptoms in individuals who do not have a physiological susceptibility to it (i.e., most of the population),” the researchers, led by Iain Croall of the University of Sheffield, write.
“As the (gluten-free diet) is not only thought to be no healthier than a ‘normal’ diet, but has been suggested as overall suboptimal, there is possibly clinical justification in actively discouraging people from starting it if they have no diagnosable sensitivity.”
Nearly one-third of Canadians (10 million) seek out gluten-free products, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada , and the global market is projected to be worth more than $42 billion by 2025. Previous studies have shown these items to be more expensive — gluten-free products are 242 per cent pricier, on average — and less nutritious.
“Gluten-free packaged foods contain twice as much fat, particularly saturated fat, more sodium and less fibre,” Emma Halmos of Monash Univiersity and Peter Gibson of the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia write in an editorial accompanying the study.
Underlying this growing interest in gluten-free foods is the perception that they’re more healthful than their standard counterparts (a.k.a. the health halo effect). According to a Harvard Health Publishing article, however, “There is no compelling evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve health if you don’t have celiac disease.” And as suggested by the findings of this study, healthy people suffer no ill effects due to eating gluten.
“Scientifically valid findings have to date had little influence on beliefs about gluten,” write Halmos and Gibson. “The psychology around a contested health phenomenon such as gluten avoidance involves active disenchantment with science and conventional medicine.”
For many “lifestylers,” celebrity and influencer endorsements appear to provide sufficient proof that a gluten-free diet is worth adopting. Despite a mounting body of evidence, personal beliefs about this family of proteins have proven difficult to sway.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019