In August 2013 a college professor named Peter Gibson conducted a fascinating study into the issues surrounding gluten. Just two years prior to that, he’d helmed another project that appeared to prove that the aforementioned protein could leave non-celiac sufferers in discomfort. However, those results were brought into question in the later paper.
For those who aren’t aware, gluten is found in grains such as rye, wheat and barley. Furthermore, certain types of bread can be loaded with it, with gluten giving the loaves their “chewy” consistency. But there are many people out there who can’t handle the protein.
In some of those instances, the individual in question could be suffering from a condition known as celiac disease. In other cases, however, the person might be displaying symptoms of something called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. So back in 2011 Gibson looked to learn more about the latter issue.
Following that study, Gibson concluded that non-celiac gluten sensitivity was a real ailment that plagued certain people. But despite the results, the professor still didn’t know why gluten was causing a problem in their stomachs. He then produced another paper in 2013 aiming to address this – and it left the scientific community stunned.
Food is of course one of life’s pleasures, and there are few things better than tucking into our favorite dish at dinner time. Whether it’s pasta or a roast, these meals find a way of hitting the spot when hunger strikes. Yet while we can eat virtually anything we want today, not everyone is that fortunate.
There are countless individuals out there who suffer from certain intolerances, meaning they have to adapt their respective diets. For example, those who are diagnosed as lactose intolerant struggle to break down products like cheese and milk; so they need to avoid dairy items that contain the sugar going forward.
Celiac disease is another problem that certain people face in their everyday lives. Much like lactose intolerance, these sufferers need to avoid a particular ingredient when picking out their food in the supermarket or in a restaurant. In this instance, they can’t eat anything that contains the gluten protein.
On that note, the medical website WebMD provided a thorough breakdown of the disorder via an in depth post. It read, “About three million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that’s triggered when they eat gluten. When someone with [the condition] eats something with gluten, their body overreacts to the protein.”
The post continued, “[The gluten] damages their villi, which are very small finger-like projections found along the wall of the small intestine. When the villi are injured, the small intestine can’t properly absorb nutrients from food. Eventually, this can lead to malnourishment, as well as loss of bone density, miscarriages [and] infertility.”
At that stage, the medical website then made a very important point about the condition. For you see, there are some who can’t eat wheat altogether due to allergies. So when it comes to differentiating the symptoms between an allergic reaction to the grain and celiac disease, there are things to look out for.
The WebMD post explained, “If you’re allergic to wheat, you may have itchy or watery eyes or a hard time breathing if you eat something that has wheat in it. But if you have celiac disease and accidentally eat something with gluten in it, you may have intestinal problems like diarrhea, gas [or] constipation.”
Alongside those symptoms, other signs might include heartburn, a skin rash, stomach pains and a loss of weight. However, as the post went on to reveal, these problems really do vary for sufferers of celiac disease, and there are several cases where the individual doesn’t display any of the aforementioned issues.
The post added, “Most people with celiac disease never know they have it. Researchers think as few as 20 percent of people with the disease ever get a proper diagnosis. The damage to the intestine is very slow, and symptoms are so varied that it can be years before someone gets a diagnosis.”
But while celiac disease is a fairly well-known condition, not everyone with a sensitivity to gluten has it. Instead, they might have NCGS, which we mentioned earlier. According to The New York Times in 2014, 18 million people in the U.S. suffered from it at that time.
As many of us know, more people appear to be buying gluten-free products outside of that group. The newspaper reported, furthermore, that sales of those items had reached around $10.5 billion back in 2013. Keeping that number in mind, the vice president of NPD Group, a market research business, tried to explain why the figures were so high.
Harry Balzer said, “I see this as part of the current American concern with digestive health, which is also responsible for the yogurt boom. About 30 percent of the public says it would like to cut back on the amount of gluten it’s eating. And if you find 30 percent of the public doing anything, you’ll find a lot of marketers right there, too.”
To back up Balzer’s point, vice president of Daymon Worldwide Virginia Morris weighed in with their thoughts as well. For her part, she believed that the jaw-dropping sales figures of gluten-free products was a sign of a much larger trend across the world.
Speaking to The New York Times, Morris said, “There are truly people out there who need gluten-free foods for health reasons. But they are not the majority of consumers who are driving this market. The reason I do believe this has legs is that it ties into this whole naked and ‘free from’ trend.”
Morris added, “I think we as a country and as a globe will continue to be concerned about what’s going into our food supply.” Away from that, an employee at General Mills shared their opinion on the subject too. Rebecca Thompson, who plies her trade as a marketing manager, made an interesting observation while talking to the newspaper.
Thompson said, “When you think about the dynamics in a household, where there are likely to be three other people eating at the same time as one person with celiac or gluten sensitivity, it’s much easier to prepare one meal for everyone.” Furthermore, sales of gluten-free products are expected to more than double by 2025, according to the firm Research and Markets.
Prior to that remarkable growth, though, one person in particular took a keen interest in this area. While the likes of Thompson, Balzer and Morris looked at the business side of things, Peter Gibson shed some light on the science behind gluten sensitivity. And few people could’ve predicted what happened next.
Gibson worked at both The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, and Monash University, plying his trade as a professor for the latter. His area of expertize was gastroenterology, which more than likely played a role in his decision to study NCGS. The paper was subsequently published in 2011, and it revealed some fascinating information.
By the end of the project, Gibson concluded that gluten can cause problems in certain people’s stomachs, even if they don’t have celiac disease. Due to those results, another step was taken toward NCGS being classed as a “genuine condition.” However, some two years later this story took an unexpected twist.
Gibson had some doubts regarding the study’s findings because he couldn’t figure out why gluten would have that effect. The professor also believed that other factors might have influenced the final results; so he decided to try the experiment again, before sharing his findings in August 2013.
Working alongside five other scientists on this report, Gibson’s second project began with a clear goal. The paper read, “Patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) do not have celiac disease, but their symptoms improve when they are placed on gluten-free diets.” From there, it outlined what happened over the course of the experiment.
The paper continued, “We investigated the specific effects of gluten after [a] dietary reduction of fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates [FODMAPs] in subjects believed to have NCGS. We performed a double-blind cross-over trial of 37 subjects with NCGS and irritable bowel syndrome, but not celiac disease.”
The group was then split up into different categories, and for the next two weeks the 37 patients were assigned diets that consisted of “reduced FODMAPs.” At the end of that period, they were then given one of three regimens for the following week. The first was known as a “high-gluten” diet, while the other two were referred to as “low-gluten” and “control.”
For those who ended up in the high-gluten category, they consumed around 16 grams of the protein each day. As for the low-gluten diet, that involved a mixture of both gluten and whey, which is another protein. Lastly, the control regimen consisted of whey on its own. Off the back of that, Gibson and his team moved ahead to the next stage.
A couple of weeks later, 22 of the 37 patients were split up into groups again, consisting of three more different diets. In this instance, though, the regimens were referred to as “gluten,” “whey” and “control,” with each one lasting for three days. Of the trio, only control didn’t contain any proteins.
By the end of the project, Gibson and his colleagues had some intriguing results. The research paper explained, “In all participants, gastrointestinal symptoms consistently and significantly improved during [the] reduced FODMAP intake. But [they] significantly worsened to a similar degree when their diets included gluten or whey protein.”
The paper added, “Gluten specific effects were observed in only eight percent of participants. There were no diet specific changes in any biomarker. [Then] during the three day rechallenge, participants’ symptoms increased by similar levels among [the three] groups. Gluten specific gastrointestinal effects were not reproduced.” With that in mind, a breakthrough was seemingly made.
As the results show, it was only a small number of patients that reacted badly to the gluten. But in the other instances, the flair up of symptoms came when they took on the three different diets at the end. Two of those regimens didn’t contain the protein at all, and this led Gibson to a significant conclusion.
Gibson admitted, “In contrast to our first study, we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.” In fact, it’s believed that FODMAPs may be the real problem, with many confusing that with gluten intolerance. However, it’s easy to understand why that might happen when you take a closer look at the situation.
For you see, FODMAPs can be found in items such as bread, just like gluten is. And in another twist, the former is also dropped from gluten-free products. Due to that, one of Gibson’s colleagues on the paper questioned the validity of NCGS as a real condition in May 2014.
Jessica Biesiekierski told Reuters Health in an email, “There is a great deal of hype and misinformation surrounding gluten and wheat allergies and sensitivities. The group of so-called ‘non-celiac gluten sensitivity’ remains undefined and largely ambiguous, because of the minimal scientific evidence. This non-celiac gluten sensitivity entity has become a quandary.”
Biesiekierski’s concerns were backed up by an additional project, which was shared in April 2014 by the Nutrition in Clinical Practice journal. In that study, close to 150 people who claimed to suffer from NCGS answered a questionnaire about their condition. And incredibly, 72 percent of them didn’t fit the “description” of the issue.
The report went on to reveal that 62 percent of those individuals hadn’t been tested for celiac disease before. In addition to that, just under half of the participants also admitted that they self-diagnosed themselves with NCGS. Biesiekierski, for her part, then offered some important advice.
If you haven’t been checked for celiac disease but still have NCGS fears, Biesiekierski insisted that you don’t cut the protein from your regimen – especially before seeing a doctor. She added, “Testing for celiac disease becomes less accurate and can take longer if gluten is already removed from the diet.”
Another breakthrough was also made regarding the gluten mystery by Gibson and his colleagues. As we previously mentioned, FODMAPs were deemed as the real culprit, but the scientists narrowed that down even further. In the end, they believed that the fructan sugar chain was the true cause of the stomach issues.
This particular carbohydrate features in a number of different food products, like cabbage, garlic and onions. As for Gibson, he had one last thing to say on the matter, adding, “Gluten was originally assumed to be the culprit because of celiac disease. And the fact that people felt better when they stopped eating wheat. Now it seems like that initial assumption was wrong.”