Gluten Sensitivity May Actually be from Another Component in Wheat

gluten sensitivity

Should you avoid gluten, a protein found in certain grains? Many people do, even if they’re not officially suffering from a gluten sensitivity or from celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease that affects about one percent of the population. Gluten has become a pariah—blamed for a number of health issues that may not be attributable to gluten after all (such as weight gain, skin conditions and decreased cognitive function).

The fact is, many scientists are still struggling to understand what exactly our issues are with gluten. According to NPR’s The Salt, gastroenterologists say they’re sure about two things: “One is that the number of people who are truly non-celiac gluten sensitive is probably very small. Second, they say that the people who say they feel better on a gluten-free diet are more likely sensitive to a specific kind of carbohydrate in the wheat — not the gluten protein.”

That’s right, for most people, it might not be gluten after all that’s causing sensitivities. The carbohydrate in question is fructan, “a member of a group of carbs that gastroenterologists say is irritating the guts of a lot of people, causing gas, diarrhea, distention and other uncomfortable symptoms,” reports The Salt. “Altogether, these carbs are called fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols, or the cumbersome acronym FODMAPs.”

These FODMAPs aren’t strictly found in wheat either. They’re in garlic and artichokes, and some fruits, as well as dairy and certain legumes.

“While most people can digest FODMAPs with no problem, for many with chronic gut disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, they’re poorly absorbed by the small intestine and then fermented by bacteria to produce gas, which leads to those unpleasant symptoms,” explains The Salt.

In 1999, a team of scientists out of Monash University in Australia made the connection between IBS, which affects about 20 percent of Americans, and FODMAPs. They even designed a special diet to help relieve symptoms, reports The Salt, “the diet was swiftly embraced by doctors and dieticians as a treatment for IBS because it’s as effective as the drugs on the market. (In most trials, 70 percent of patients see improvement in their IBS symptoms when they go on the low-FODMAP diet.)”

But additional research out of Monash also showed gluten as a culprit for IBS symptoms, which may have led to the gluten-free craze among people who technically have no gluten allergies or sensitivity.

Jessica Biesiekierski, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Translational Research Center for Gastrointestinal Disorders in Belgium found that some people who eliminated gluten still had some symptoms, suggesting they may actually have FODMAP sensitivities. Since FODMAPs occur in foods besides wheat, it could explain the issue.

“We believe non-celiac gluten sensitivity probably does exist, but it’s not very common and we have a lot more to do until we fully understand [gluten],” she said.

Bread image via Shutterstock

  1. Dr Rodney Ford

    I am a pediatric gastroenterologist ans allergy specialist.
    This is an ongoing misconception. These authors did not show the nonexistence of gluten sensitivity. They took a small group of adults (less than 30) who had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) who they then proved did not have gluten-sensitivity. However, their symptoms did improve when they went gluten-free. Also they improved when they avoided the poorly absorbable carbohydrates “fructans” (these hard-to-digest-carbs are sometimes referred to as FODMAPs “fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols.” If you cannot absorb these fructans, then you will only get bowel symptoms: bottom gas, diarrhea, tummy distention/ bloating and abdominal discomfort/pain.

    Some of these IBS sufferers are gluten-sensitive, but most maybe are not. Gluten-sensitivity is a more complex illness, it has a wide spectrum of symptoms (including gut symptoms that can also be caused by FODMAPs), and it responds to gluten elimination and challenge. I am a pediatrican. I do not see children with IBS. Gluten syndrome children have eczema, behavior problems, sore tummies, constipation, fatigue, and/or gastric reflux.

    Yes, there are lots of proteins in wheat that are harmful. This does not mean that gluten is safe!

  2. Truth59

    I’ve read that it could be FODMAPs not necessarily the gluten. However, if you remove all of the FODMAPS as well as the gluten, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to eat. I’m hesitant to do that.

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