Up to a third of restaurant dishes are contaminated with gluten, but should anyone really care?
A couple of weeks ago, a group of scientists from Columbia University's Celiac Disease Center revealed that one-third of the supposedly gluten-free foods prepared in U.S. restaurants actually contained gluten, or at least traces of it.
Their findings were based on more than 5600 tests of gluten-free meals over 18 months. They found that 27% of "gluten-free" breakfasts were contaminated with the wheat and grain protein, as well as 34% of "gluten-free" dinners. Some types of food were riskier than others. Half of all pastas and pizzas, for instance, turned out to contain gluten.
Upon hearing the news, a collective rumbling was heard throughout the land as the digestive tracts of the anti-gluten people cramped up in unison. But this news wasn't surprising to the tiny percentage of people who actually have celiac disease, or the slightly larger percentage who really are gluten sensitive, because they've long been accustomed to gluten contamination in foods advertised as safe.
Nope, the truly afflicted just yawned and shook their heads with mixed feelings of bemusement and pity at all those "Wheat Belly" devotees who pray at the sham altar of supposedly enlightened eating.
The Prosecution Will Now Question the Witness
People with true celiac disease are so sensitive to the effects of gluten that the slightest trace of it in their food can cause cramping, nausea, a particularly malodorous diarrhea, headaches, intestinal bleeding, and an all-round malaise sometimes called a "full-body flu."
And people who don't actually have celiac disease but have been diagnosed as being "gluten sensitive" manifest many of the same symptoms, albeit not to the same degree.
People from either group, however, are hyper-aware of the potential digestive pitfalls of eating out. They interrogate their waiters with the skill and brutal directness of a big city prosecutor. They want to know if there are artificial bacon bits on the salad, because artificial bits are made with soy and are housed in the same facilities as wheat. They want to know if the baked potatoes are dusted with flour, as many chefs do this to make them crispy.
They ask question after question: Is the seafood in the salad imitation crabmeat (because almost all the fake stuff has gluten in it)? What about the salad dressing? The omelets? Any secret ingredients in there, as there often are? Was the oil used to make the French fries also used to make anything that contained wheat? Did you happen to place my gluten-free bun on a cutting board that just had a regular bun on it?
So it's no freakin' surprise to celiac sufferers that up to a third of allegedly gluten-free foods are contaminated with gluten. Besides, they know almost immediately if they've been lied to, because their guts are the ultimate lie detector. Nope, the only people who were surprised were the multitudes who mysteriously acquired gluten sensitivity in the last few years after reading or hearing that gluten is "bad."
Too bad those people are either brainwashed, have fallen prey to the "nocebo" effect, or are actually sensitive to another dietary component altogether.
The Real Criminal
Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash U. in Australia, shoulders much of the blame for this epidemic fear of gluten. He's the one who "discovered" non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), but to his credit he's currently working at debunking his own findings.
Gibson kept thinking about how his previous findings didn't add up – too many unexplained variables – so he went back and repeated his experiments. He found that, yeah, people who thought themselves to be gluten sensitive really did feel better when they followed a gluten-free diet, but it wasn't because they were avoiding gluten – it was because they were reducing the amount of FODMAPS in their diets.
FODMAPS are fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosachharides, and polyols. They're short-chain carbohydrates that human beings in general have trouble digesting. These troublesome carbs traipse through the digestive tract – largely unmolested by digestive juices – and then kick back in the large intestine where they're fermented by bacteria, causing problems that are similar to those experienced by people with true gluten sensitivity.
You know what contains a lot of FODMAPS? Bread and bread products. So when Gibson eliminated these products in his study, he automatically removed the largest dietary source of FODMAPS. Presto, all those people who thought they were gluten sensitive felt better.
His conclusion was that the vast majority of people who are avoiding gluten because they think it's addictive and causing weight gain are wrong; that many of them are actually having FODMAP problems. And others might be suffering from a mild psychological condition called the "nocebo" effect where people take a harmless substance but often, because of propaganda, experience harmful effects.
Not So Gluten-Free After All
The vast majority of anti-gluten people should probably ignore the Columbia University findings about gluten in restaurant food. Despite claiming amazing health benefits from their gluten-free diet, they've clearly been eating scads of gluten all along. Their true affliction is likely the nocebo effect.
The people who really do feel crummy after eating wheat products should probably do some research and experimentation with FODMAP-free diets. Lastly, those with true celiac disease should carry on bravely, as they've always done, and continue to hope for an effective treatment.