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Gluten-free diet is great--if you actually need it

April 13, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey
  • People with celiac disease and a gluten sensitivity avoid wheat products such as pasta--everyone else can have a second helping.
People with celiac disease and a gluten sensitivity avoid wheat products… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

The gluten-free crowd is growing cranky. So-called prominent members of the “gluten-free community” are gathering next month in Washington, D.C., to clamor for attention. They want the FDA to get cracking on setting label standards for gluten-free products. 

Small wonder. Their condition, in which proteins in grain called “glutens” damage the small intestines, is a hard one.

Known as celiac disease, the condition causes stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Over time, the lining of the small intestines is unable to absorb nutrients properly, leaving its sufferers malnourished. About 1 in 133 people in the U.S. have celiac disease, according to a study published in Archives of Internal Medicine and reported by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. There’s no cure, except for a lifelong diet of gluten-free foods—a headache that would be made easier if food labels clearly stated whether gluten is an ingredient, say organizers of the first Gluten Free Food Labeling Summit.

We understand the desire for more reliable labeling. But that’s not to say that “gluten free” products are somehow better or more healthful on their own. The only difference is the absence of gluten, which is commonly found in pasta and bread —anything made of wheat, rye or barley. Some people may be sensitive to gluten, but don't have celiac disease—the symptoms are similar to irritable bowel syndrome and some research indicates 6% of the U.S. falls into this category. But there's no evidence that eating a gluten-free diet is healthful for people without gluten sensitivities.  

Still, some dieters with a healthy gut seem to have jumped onto the bandwagon...the gluten-free market has ballooned to $2.6 billion in the last year. 

So here’s the bottom line: If you are lucky enough to digest gluten without a problem, sit back and enjoy the pasta.

For the record, 12:07 p.m., April 14: A previous version of this post said that gluten is commonly found in rice. It also said that rice is made of wheat, rye or barley. Rice is gluten-free, and it too is a grain, like wheat, rye and barley.

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