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Two consumers shop in the gluten-free section at the Trader Joe's in River North.

Cutting out gluten is not for everyone

by Kristin Callahan
Feb 7, 2013

What does 'gluten-free' mean?

Right now, anyone can label products gluten-free because there is no definition of what gluten-free means.


As a result, the FDA working on enforcing a standard of what it means for something to be named gluten-free. The proposed definition, which has been eight years in the making, is that a product must be under 20 parts per million per serving. This is the standard almost everywhere in the world except the United States, which currently has no standard.



Giving up gluten ultimately means abandoning many of the staples that make up the American diet: Say goodbye to sandwiches, pizza, pasta and, yes, beer.

Avoiding gluten is most frequently found in people who have celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by the consumption of gluten, including wheat, barley and rye. It is also an effective treatment for those who have gluten sensitivity and an allergy to wheat.

But what about none of the above?

Many people are adopting the gluten-free diet choice because they perceive it to be healthier.

Others have embraced the popularity of gluten-free food as the latest fad. Experts, however, caution that it is not a healthier diet for those who do not medically need it.

“It is absolutely not healthier,” said Carol Shilson, executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. “In most cases, it is a deficiency of nutrients.”

Many gluten-free substitute foods are not fortified. For example, whole grains can be fortified with calcium and vitamins, whereas gluten-free foods cannot. Also, many of the gluten-free substitutes are higher in fat, sugar and calories. Instead of a weight-loss mechanism, people end up with a diet low in iron, zinc and B vitamins, Shilson said.

“There is no scientific proof that a gluten-free diet is healthy for people without medical cause,” Shilson said. “There is actually proof of the opposite.”

For those with celiac, once on a strict gluten-free diet, the disease is dormant. The process is reactivated with consumption of as little as 50mg of gluten in one day – the equivalent of 1/64th of a teaspoon of regular bread.

While there is no daily requirement for the human body to take in gluten, the protein shows up in many whole grain foods rich in an array of significant vitamins and minerals.

“You really need to work with a dietitian or nutritionist to help make sure you are getting nutrients from other sources,” said Judy Manisco, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist. “You need a professional.”

While she recognizes gluten-free is smart for some, Manisco is concerned with the lack of fiber found in the diet and said it must be compensated with supplementation.

“Losing weight is huge,” she said, but people need to consider the health implications of changing their diet. “It’s kind of a fad, it’s kind of cool to be gluten-free right now.”

One group sees Manisco’s point but says going gluten-free is more than a fad.

Managing partner of the Illinois Gastroenterology Group Lawrence Kosinski said there are people on a gluten-free diet for a tangible reason.

“Many people are eliminating gluten because there is something wrong with the way they feel,” Kosinski said.
Although celiac disease often goes undiagnosed, it is found in at least 1 percent of the population, which is higher than autism and Alzheimer’s.