Gluten: How Much Is Too Much?

If you have a gluten-related disease, know someone with gluten sensitivity or just wonder about how someone could ever give up croissants for life, you might be interested in a nice article in MedScape that asks the question, how much gluten is too much? gluten is present in tons of food – everything made of wheat, barley or rye. Yes, that includes the big three – bread, beer, and brownies. What’s more, now that so many foods are processed, little dustings of gluten show up all over the place. Sometimes gluten is in food that uses a gluten-containing substance (like soy sauce) and sometimes the gluten comes just from sharing the same conveyor belt. So, scientists asked, if gluten is drifting around all the time in tiny amounts, how much is sneaking under the food-radar, and is it affecting gluten-sensitive people? Good question, huh? This review article looked at all the studies ever attempted, everywhere, to look at this question and found (brace yourself) a whole 13, and of them, three trials (where studies exposed people to things and then tested them). Given the patheticly small number, could anything useful be found from these “pooled” results? The answer was yes. All together (weighing results based on the quality of the study and the likelihood of biases, and using only the strictest definitions) the reviewers concluded that as little as 200 mg of gluten can cause visible changes in the lining of the intestine. So, for all us non-metric thinkers, keep in mind that if you froze your liter bottle of water, the weight of it would be roughly one kilogram. One thousandth of that frozen bottle would be a gram (imagine the world’s tiniest ice fleck) and then one-fifth of that tiny ice fleck would be 200 milligrams. Sheesh! Keep in mind, however teeny this amount seems, some of the people in these studies had biopsy-documented damage from as little as 10 mg of total gluten a day (one-twentieth of our teensy-weensy ice splinter).

Other gluten-related news-crumbs from the article:

  1. Prevalence is estimated at 1 in 100 people – with a strong genetic link. That’s a shockingly common disease.

  2. Women outnumber men 3:1, and the average number of years to diagnosis is 11. If you think you might have gluten sensitivity, the article also gives good info on how to evaluate the problem.

  3. Studies show gluten is hiding in such innocent-seeming foods as dried fruit, pie fillings, cold cuts, sandwich spreads, canned meats, many salad dressings and condiments, prepared soups, flavored yogurt, and even flavored instant coffees and herbal teas.

  4. The WHO has a standard measure (thank goodness someone does!) for gluten amounts in foods. The standard is that an artificially rendered gluten-free food should have less than 200 parts per million (PPM) of gluten. The authors of this review conclude that this WHO standard probably won’t cut it – and instead recommend a standard of 20 parts per million, which would translate into roughly a daily consumption of 6 mg of gluten.

Bottom line: If you have gluten sensitivity, know the enemy! (including those items labeled gluten-free). Channel your inner foodie in the nicest possible sense – only the purest ingredients for you.

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