Study: Gluten-free diet could be risky
MANDAN, N.D. -- Erica Olson and the rest of the U.S. wheat industry now have another tool with which to defend its product against the gluten-free movement.
MANDAN, N.D. - Erica Olson and the rest of the U.S. wheat industry now have another tool with which to defend its product against the gluten-free movement.
A new study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that gluten-free diets could increase the risk of heart attack for people who don't have celiac disease.
"Any time a study like this comes out, that's great," says Olson, marketing specialist with the North Dakota Wheat Commission and immediate past chairwoman of the national Wheat Foods Council.
The study's conclusion:
"Long-term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease. However, the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk. The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged."
The study examined more than 100,000 people without a history of heart disease. It began in 1986 and was updated every four years until 2010.
The size and length of the study make it particularly meaningful, Olson says.
Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, prevents people from digesting gluten normally. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. The condition damages the surface of the small intestines and blocks the ability to absorb certain nutrients.
The disease also is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, which is reduced with a gluten-free diet, the study notes.
Estimates of the number of Americans with celiac disease vary, with some as high as 3 million and others much lower. Some people - the number is unclear - also have a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, in which gluten causes some symptoms even though celiac disease isn't present.
Whatever the actual number of people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, they're exceeded by the number of Americans who are wary of eating gluten. Twenty-one percent of people surveyed say they "actively try to include gluten-free foods in their diet," according to a 2015 Gallup Poll.
Other surveys estimate that roughly one in three Americans are trying to cut back or eliminate gluten from their diet.
That's bad for farmers who raise wheat - especially in North Dakota, which typically leads the nation in production of hard red spring wheat, prized by millers for its gluten strength.
When consumers avoid gluten, "It damages markets and market share. It's just one more thing our dedicated producers have to worry about," says Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
The new study and other studies released previously show that, "Unless you have celiac disease, you shouldn't avoid wheat foods or gluten. In fact, it's quite beneficial to most people's health," Fisher says.
He emphasizes that the wheat industry understands celiac disease is serious and sympathizes with people who have it.
In the crosshairs before
The push against wheat in popular culture is nothing new, Olson says.
"This isn't the first time there have been attacks on wheat, if you can call it that. Back in the 70s, there was the low-carb trend. And you had the Atkins Diet in the 90s. And more recently, it's been gluten-free or anti-wheat, anti-gluten. There's even an anti-grain movement out there," Olson says.
Much of the information spread publicly about gluten, wheat and grains is inaccurate, she says.
"It's hard to see misinformation out there. Some is just blatant misinformation," she says.
The Wheat Foods Council's mission includes correcting what it sees as scientific inaccuracy. The organization consists of groups and businesses that raise, mill, bake and sell wheat or wheat products. It bills itself "as a leading source of science-based information" on wheat and wheat foods nutrition.
"Our main goal is promoting the health benefits of wheat. But obviously the past eight years or so, we've been on a little bit more on the defensive about the gluten fad," Olson says.
The new study, which already is circulating in the wheat industry, will help.
Public confusion about gluten-free diets already "is starting to fade. There's more and more research that shows a gluten-free diet really isn't beneficial," she says.
The study was led by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, and it analyzed diet and coronary heart disease data on 65,000 women and 45,000 men. It excluded anyone diagnosed with celiac disease.
To see the study: press.psprings.co.uk/bmj/may/gluten.pdf.