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Being Gluten Free Isn't Dumb, But It Might Be Wrong

By Melissa McEwen in Food on May 19, 2014 3:55PM

It seems people are rather eager to shove bread baskets in the faces of people who they feel are forgoing croissants for all the wrong reasons. The Internet exploded last week when Ross Pomeroy wrote up a study from last year on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). The piece went viral, with typical headlines like “Being gluten free is dumb—and gluten intolerance may not even exist.

Not so fast—while the small study may justify skepticism about gluten-sensitivity in people who don’t have celiac disease, it hardly gives wheat a free pass.

First, gluten-sensitivity was never a disease. It was a proposed disease that some wildly popular diet book authors popularized without mentioning the research was preliminary. When this further research was done, it showed that a more likely cause of many of the symptoms was probably “FODMAPs” (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols), which is a long acronym for types of carbohydrates that some people don’t digest very well. And wheat contains one of these: fructans.

Gluten, to contrast, is not a carbohydrate—it’s a protein, as this handy video explains:

You can use any euphemism you want, but basically these carbohydrates in wheat give some people gas, diarrhea, bloating and other undeniably unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. So unless you actually hate your friends who say gluten disagrees with them, please don’t try to force your pizza on them. Because it may act like an Ex-Lax-fueled prank inside of their digestive system.

Instead, you might want to just tell them it’s probably not the gluten, it’s other carbohydrates in wheat. Which is great news, because once you realize it’s not actually the gluten, you’ll realize some truly fantastic wheat products like most beers and soy sauce lack the offending carbs—though they should be tested carefully since a lot of variation exists.

Fructan intolerance is more similar to the better known lactose intolerance than it is to celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease triggered by gluten. Which makes sense because lactose is a FODMAP too. Unfortunately many other non-wheat foods contain fructans as well such as onions and Jerusalem artichokes (AKA Fartichokes). The researchers have come out with smartphone apps and a book to help sufferers avoid FODMAPs.

And the verdict on gluten sensitivity isn’t out yet. The study only looked at gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue, not at other proposed symptoms that need further research. The researchers recently published a study showing gluten may cause depression in patients without celiac disease. And while people like to make light of the gluten-free craze, celiac disease remains under-diagnosed in the US and it’s important that people rule that out before self-diagnosing with any wheat or gluten related sensitivity.