For people with celiac disease, avoiding gluten — a protein complex found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale — is a medical necessity. Even small amounts of the protein can trigger bloating, gas and diarrhea, and can lead to eventual weight-loss and fatigue. Yet diagnosed celiac disease accounts for only roughly 1% of the population.
Another 6% of people have been diagnosed to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), where blood tests are negative for celiac disease, but similar symptoms exists. Gluten’s role in NCGS, however, has long been under debate in the scientific community and new research suggests it may just be in our heads.
Peter Gibson, director of gastroenterology at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, decided to re-assess his 2011 research findings which suggested gluten could be to blame for gastrointestianl symptoms in non-celiac patients. With a double-blind cross-over trial of 37 subjects with NCGS and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Gibson found a drastic reduction of symptoms by limiting intake of fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) and “no evidence of specific or dose-dependent effects of gluten in patients with NCGS placed diets.” In fact, gluten appeared to produce a “nocebo” effect in the patients, as they reported symptoms even when fed diets merely believed to include gluten.
NCGS may be charging the wrong suspect or reacting to a placebo, but many of us delight in the possibilities gluten holds in diversifying our diets. And while those diagnosed with true celiac disease maintain a justifiable stance in its avoidance, for everyone else, the gluten-free fad is nothing more than an expression of status, a demonstration of gullibility and, arguably, the fate of a society suffering with Münchausen syndrome.