Gluten is a touchy subject. For people with celiac disease, it causes extreme intestinal discomfort that can lead to the brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs being deprived of vital nourishment. But beyond true celiac disease, more and more people now claim to suffer from gluten sensitivity. And now a new study, ironically out from one of the researchers who provided key evidence of the phenomenon of gluten sensitivity in the first place, shows that such sensitivity may not exist.
The researcher is Peter Gibson at Monash University, and in a 2011 study, his research showed that diets containing gluten caused gastrointestinal distress in people without celiac disease. But the study was small, and Gibson decided to follow up with a larger and extremely scientifically rigorous study.
In this study, subjects with self-identified gluten sensitivity were given all their meals for the duration of the study, and potential dietary triggers for gastrointestinal symptoms were removed. Throughout the study, subjects were given high gluten, low gluten, and no gluten meals, without knowing what kinds of meals they were eating.
The result? All of these meals, whether they contained gluten or not, produced “pain, nausea and bloating,” to similar degrees. “In contrast to our first study … we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten,” Gibson said.
This isn't to say that people who believe they have gluten sensitivity are simply making up their condition, or that something isn't causing them gastrointestinal distress. Just that it probably isn't gluten.
A post on the topic on RealClearScience goes into some detail regarding FODMAPs, or fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates, which appear to be much more likely to be the culprit. Many of these FODMAPs are found in gluten-containing products (though not all), which might explain why people tend to feel somewhat better if they cut out gluten. It's not like food at the grocery store declares itself “FODMAP-free,” at least not yet.
For some smart entrepreneur, though, that might not be a bad idea. Sales of gluten-free products are estimated to hit $15 billion by 2016 in the U.S., with only an estimated 1 percent of the population actually suffering from celiac disease.