Gluten-free Diet’s Unknown Health Risks
Are you eating a gluten-free diet? While eliminating gluten is associated with certain health improvements, a new study reveals a hidden danger. People who eat a gluten-free diet may be at risk for increased exposure to arsenic and mercury - toxic metals that can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological effects, according to a report in the journal Epidemiology.
Gluten-free diets are currently very popular in the U.S, which is commonly recommended for people with celiac disease. It’s also clinically reduces inflammation. In 2015, one-quarter of Americans reported eating gluten-free, a 67 percent increase from 2013.
Gluten-free products often contain rice flour as a substitute for wheat. Rice is known to accumulate certain toxic metals, including arsenic and mercury derived from fertilizers, soil, or water, but little is known about the health effects of diets high in rice content.
Maria Argos, assistant professor of epidemiology in the UIC School of Public Health, and her colleagues looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey searching for a link between gluten-free diet and biomarkers of heavy metals, in the urine and blood.
The study involved 73 people eating a gluten-free diet among the 7,471 who completed the survey, between 2009 and 2014. The participants were 6 to 80 years old.
In comparison to gluten consumes, the gluten-free dieters urine contained higher concentrations of arsenic in their urine, and mercury in their blood. Also gluten-free dieters had twice as high arsenic levels and mercury levels that were 70 percent higher.
"These results indicate that there could be unintended consequences of eating a gluten-free," Argos said. "But until we perform the studies to determine if there are corresponding health consequences that could be related to higher levels of exposure to arsenic and mercury by eating gluten-free, more research is needed before we can determine whether this diet poses a significant health risk."
"In Europe, there are regulations for food-based arsenic exposure, and perhaps that is something we here in the United States need to consider," Argos said. "We regulate levels of arsenic in water, but if rice flour consumption increases the risk for exposure to arsenic, it would make sense to regulate the metal in foods as well."
Catherine M. Bulka et al, The Unintended Consequences of a Gluten-Free Diet, Epidemiology (2017). DOI: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000640