Consumer Reports recently published its investigation weighing in on whether going gluten-free is really a healthy choice for everybody. For those suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it is a necessity, but what about those of us just looking to lose weight and gain more energy? The report, which mainly focuses on the risks of such a diet, has stirred a lot of debate, with some perceiving the findings as a pro-grain advertisement while others finding a balanced coverage of the facts.
According to Consumer Reports, 63 percent of more than 1,000 Americans surveyed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center "thought that following a gluten-free diet would improve physical or mental health. About a third said they buy gluten-free products or try avoid gluten. Among the top benefits they cited were better digestion and gastrointestinal function, healthy weight loss, increased energy, lower cholesterol, and a stronger immune system."
However, despite the strong belief in the benefits of cutting gluten out of one's diet, Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told Consumer Reports that there is not enough research to back these claims.
Here are some of the concerns that Consumer Reports found in its investigation:
You could be eating extra sugar and fat
Consumer Reports reviewed 81 products free of gluten across 12 categories and found that many of them added sugar and fat to give their food more taste. "Gluten adds oomph to foods – wheat, rye, and barley all have strong textures and flavors," said Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Dallas and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In its investigation, Consumer Reports compared Walmart's regular blueberry muffin to a gluten-free blueberry muffin from Whole Foods and found the gluten-free version to have 30 more calories and 7 more grams of sugar.
You could be increasing your risk to arsenic
Many gluten-free products are rice-based, which can be a concern considering that rice is known to contain arsenic. A 2014 Spanish study looking at the estimated arsenic intake of adults with celiac disease found that relying on rice and rice-based food as a diet staple meant that they were increasing the amount of arsenic in their system by up to 10 times the recommended weekly amount. Their findings emphasized the importance of building a gluten-free menu that includes a healthy balance of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
You might be eating gluten, anyway
The proper labeling of processed foods has been a concern for years, especially for those suffering from food allergies for whom even small traces of an allergen could be fatal. Many products misleadingly claim to be gluten-free when actually they do not meet FDA requirements. A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 5 percent of the 158 gluten-free products analyzed have more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Cross-contamination is another concern. "[Manufacturers] should be transparent about what tests they use to determine whether a product is gluten-free," said the study's author, Tricia Thompson, a nutrition consultant and founder of Gluten Free Watchdog website. "If they insist that it's proprietary information, that should set off an alarm."
Consumer Reports also noted that some gluten-free chips and energy bars contain malt, malt extract or malt syrup, which are usually made from barley.
Another health concern mentioned was that a gluten-free diet with all the added sugars and fat could cause people to gain weight instead of lose it. The dangers of self-diagnosis were also mentioned. When people, instead of going to see a doctor, self-diagnose a gluten intolerance and change their diet without seeking medical guidance, they run the risk of misdiagnosing their symptoms. What if the root of their health problems was a condition like irritable bowel syndrome instead? Consumer Reports noted as well that gluten-free products tend to be more expensive, which could make staying within a budget more difficult.
Naturally gluten-free foods are better for you
Although mostly focusing on why a person shouldn't go gluten-free, at the end of the report it did recommend that those who find it necessary to do so should focus their diet on naturally gluten-free food like fruits, vegetables, lean meat, fish and whole grains like corn and quinoa, and to read labels carefully to avoid processed foods that are rice-based and those high in sugar, fat and sodium.
The report, also appearing in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports, has already drawn a lot of strong reactions. Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist, wrote on his wheatbellyblog that the article should have emphasized more the difference between processed gluten-free foods and naturally gluten-free foods instead of just villianizing the gluten-free diet completely. In his blog, Davis wrote, "In the Wheat Belly lifestyle, we do NOT replace gluten-containing foods with processed gluten-free foods made with cornstarch, rice flour, tapioca starch, and potato flour." He believes that while the processed products may not be as nutritious as gluten-enriched food and that those made with rice flour may increase our exposure to arsenic, if a person enjoys an organic gluten-free diet, these concerns are not an issue.
Others, like the author at The Savvy Celiac website, found the report to be balanced and accurate but did feel that the media sensationalized the dangers too much, making the report seem more negative than she felt it really was. She agrees with the concerns raised by Consumer Reports and addresses them in her blog.
What do you think of Consumer Reports' findings?