Listen up, gluten-intolerants: It’s not the gluten

Listen up, gluten-intolerants: It’s not the gluten

A few years back, a tiny “gluten free” grocery with a cranky owner opened up a few blocks from my home in Manhattan. At the time, I worked for a quinoa company. Some friends were strictly wheat- and flour-free. Others wouldn’t even touch soy sauce. Menus touted meals untainted by the dreaded G.

“Gluten” had become a naughty word.

The gluten-free food industry has broken $5 billion per year, but recent news may bust that. New research shows that self-reported gluten-intolerants may be reacting to something totally different.

Gluten “allergies” are not caused by an allergic reaction like a nut allergy might be, involving an allergen-specific immunoglobulin. Rather, gluten-intolerance is a self-diagnosed relationship between eating and illness.

“I had a bad reaction to eating just the filling in an apple pie. The tiny amount of flour from that made me sick for days,” my friend Tracy told me.

How does Tracy know that it was the gluten and not some other ingredient–even one she ate earlier that day–that day that made her ill?

Between 2009 and 2014, the number of people following a gluten-free diet tripled from 0.5% of the population to nearly 2%. According to a Gallup poll, by 2015, one in 5 people in America were reducing or eliminating gluten, with up to 13 percent of non-celiac people claiming gluten intolerance.

We rarely deconstruct our meals ingredient by ingredient to find the culprit, except in experimental situations. Exactly which item in the Big Mac causes the bloat? The beef? Special sauce? Cheese? Lettuce? Onion? Sesame seed bun?

My G-free friends might say the bun, but it may be the onion after all.

A study released last week on non-celiac self-proclaimed gluten-intolerants, suggests that it may in fact be fructan, not gluten, that is triggering their abdominal upset.

Fructan is a type of carbohydrate. It is found in wheat but also in onions, garlic, asparagus, cabbage and artichokes and plenty of other gluten-free and “healthy” foods like agave nectar and yogurt.

In the study, published in the journal Gastroenterology, 59 G-frees tracked their GI symptoms as they ate muesli bars containing either gluten, fructan or neither for seven days with a week to clear their systems between each challenge.

Turns out, the fructan muesli bar induced the most symptoms overall and, on average, the study also found no difference in reported symptoms between the gluten and placebo groups.

Earlier studies have found a link between fructans and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, for which a low-fructan or low-FODMAP diet has been recommended. That may give some clues to the gluten-free woes.

“Fructan-Free” everything may be on the way.