Gluten free (GF) is the food fad that just won’t die. Perhaps more studies like this one printed in the publication Epidemiology, which shows people on a GF diet have higher levels of mercury and arsenic in their bodies, will finally help put the final nail in the coffin of this misguided phenomenon.
First, let me begin with a few important disclaimers. There is a significant number of people who have Celiac disease – approximately one to two million Americans – for whom GF isn’t a dietary preference but, rather, a life-saving necessity. Less clear is the number of people who have clinical gluten sensitivity, defined by acute gastrointestinal discomfort that appears to be linked to the ingestion of gluten, the protein found in wheat, bulgur, barley and rye. Part of the reason the numbers of the gluten sensitive are difficult to define is because people often self-diagnose or avoid ingesting gluten for long periods of time before being tested. (The gluten sensitivity test results are known to be inconclusive after gluten has already been eliminated from the diet.) For those who have been clinically diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, GF is the best way to avoid uncomfortable symptoms and have a better quality of life. An even smaller number of individuals are allergic to gluten. Most of these people have the allergy as children and grow out of it in adulthood. But the small number doesn’t make this allergy any less serious. So, for those suffering from Celiac and clinical gluten allergy or sensitivity, a GF diet is no fad.
But it’s estimated that a million people follow a GF diet despite not having been diagnosed with Celiac or a sensitivity. The reasons run the gamut. Some believe they’re sensitive to gluten but haven’t been to a doctor to diagnose it, others believe gluten is unhealthy, and some follow GF as a weight loss strategy.
Dieticians and nutritionists have been working hard to get the word out to the general population that avoiding gluten if you don’t have to provides no benefits and may actually be detrimental. GF doesn’t facilitate weight loss. In fact, people who avoid gluten after diagnosis of Celiac or a sensitivity tend to gain weight as their gastrointestinal systems begin to function normally. And, contrary to the belief that gluten is unhealthy, there are vital nutrients in wheat products – B vitamins, in particular – that are difficult to get any other way.
But now, a new study is showing that those on a GF diet have higher levels of arsenic (twice as much) and mercury (70% more) in their urine and blood, respectively, compared to those who consume gluten in their diets. Scientists believe that the toxic metals are found in higher amounts in GF products because rice flour – a cheap and abundant flour – is a common substitute for wheat flour. Rice grains are more absorbent than other grains and will extract higher amounts of chemical substances from soil, water and fertilizers.
This is bothersome news for those dealing with Celiac and gluten allergy or sensitivity. The best way to avoid additional exposure to these toxins is to use non-rice flours at home and avoid purchasing GF products that use rice flour as a substitute for wheat.
For everyone else who’s GF, even though the study acknowledges that the higher levels of arsenic and mercury aren’t yet at the point of causing harm, one should be asking herself, would she rather trade gluten for arsenic and mercury?