From pizza and pasta to pies and pastries, gluten has long been present in some of our favourite foods, but many Australians now shun the ingredient.
A staggering one in four Australians actively avoid gluten in their diets, but a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday showed that most reap no benefits.
The number of Australians “choosing to avoid wheat or gluten” has increased in recent years, with around three in 20 Australians now believing they are wheat sensitive and almost a quarter avoiding gluten, the paper said.
This is despite the fact that only around 1 per cent of Australians actually have coeliac disease.
The study of more than 1000 people found that many of those avoiding gluten had symptoms of other gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, and were unnecessarily subjecting themselves to a gluten-free diet.
“Many Australians not diagnosed with coeliac disease also avoid gluten, having reported physiological symptoms they relate to gluten ingestion,” the researchers led by University of Newcastle lecturer and gastroenterologist Michael Potter wrote.
Others avoid gluten because of its presumed general health benefits, despite evidence to the contrary.’’
Dr Potter and colleagues said their study suggests that a large proportion of people in Australia avoid gluten or wheat for reasons of weight control or general health without convincing evidence to back this up.
The safety of a gluten-free diet for people with coeliac disease does not indicate that it has health benefits for those who do not.’’
The gluten-free fad
Gluten-free eating has gained popularity in recent years, with cafes and restaurants around the nation routinely offering gluten-free menu items.
A true sign of the times, last year Vegemite released a gluten-free version of its iconic Australian savoury spread.
The millions of Australians choosing to eat gluten-free haven’t been deterred by the lack of evidence, with a growing number of studies unable to detect health benefits.
In 2017, a study from Oslo University Hospital added weight to the long-held doubts of nutritionists and food scientists about self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity.
Homing in on another culprit, the study found that people with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity were more likely to develop digestive issues after eating specially formulated muesli bars containing a fermentable sugar called fructan, not gluten.
Professor Gibson and colleagues tested 59 people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity for their reaction to gluten, fructan and a placebo (hidden in muesli bars).
While gluten and placebo produced symptoms, fructan induced symptoms the most.
The study “gave evidence that gluten is not a cause in the vast majority of self-reported, non-coeliac gluten intolerance”, Professor Gibson said.
“The fructans in the wheat are.”
Gluten-free labelling issues
Consumers’ hunger for gluten-free products has also highlighted a major issue with the incorrect labelling of foods.
A number of manufacturers have been caught out selling ‘gluten-free’ foods with traces of gluten, raising concerns for people with coeliac disease whose health depends on a strict gluten-free diet.
In 2018, tests found that one in 40 products labelled gluten-free – including fruit and muesli bars, noodles, crackers, rice snacks and dry pasta – failed the gluten-free detection tests.
The incorrect labelling of foods is a hidden danger, and not only for those with coeliac disease.
In December, a study from James Cook University found that ingredients in incorrectly labelled imported foods were putting allergy sufferers at risk, with potentially deadly allergens found in nearly one in two of the imported food products tested.
Food allergies are increasingly common around the world, and Australia has one of the highest incidences of food allergy among children.
Between 2005 and 2012, hospital admission for food-induced acute allergic reactions spiked by 150 per cent.
Meanwhile, the number of food products recalled due to unlabelled allergens has been steadily increasing over the past decade.