Special edition: Gluten-free

Four gluten-free myths debunked

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

“People don’t decide on their own that they have diabetes and start giving themselves insulin shots; why do they diagnose themselves when it comes to gluten?" said Cynthia Harriman, on one of the four main consumer misconceptions about gluten.
“People don’t decide on their own that they have diabetes and start giving themselves insulin shots; why do they diagnose themselves when it comes to gluten?" said Cynthia Harriman, on one of the four main consumer misconceptions about gluten.

Related tags Gluten-free diet Gluten-free market Coeliac disease Wheat Cynthia harriman

Few topics can spark a more spirited debate these days than gluten, and yet, as the Whole Grains Council/Oldways points out, misconceptions abound when it comes to gluten—especially within the larger scope of whole grains. 

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as part of our special edition on the gluten-free market, Cynthia Harriman, WGC’s director of food and nutrition strategies, outlined four primary consumer misconceptions about gluten and grains and how the industry is working to debunk them through science.

Myth 1: Gluten-free equals grain-free

One of the most common myths is that a gluten-free diet also has to be grain-free, Harriman said. “People think if you’re eating gluten-free you need to avoid all grains, and that’s just not true. Of the 14 grains likely to be found in US food supply, 10 are considered to be gluten-free.”

The only gluten-containing grains are wheat, barley, rye and triticale. The 10 gluten-free whole grains are amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff, oats and wild rice.

Oats, though inherently gluten-free, have drummed up some controversy, as they’re easily contaminated by wheat during production and processing. “Oats are grown in fields near wheat, carried in same rail cars and processed in same facility. If you have a real need for gluten-free, you should look for oats that have been tested. But there are a number of people who supply gluten-free oats," ​she noted.

Myth 2: Modern wheat is higher in gluten (and GMO)

Fueled by claims made in high-profile diet books like Wheat Belly​ and Grain Brain, ​many consumers believe modern wheat is higher in gluten. In reality, USDA research shows gluten levels in wheat have not increased—but that levels of vital gluten in processed foods have increased threefold just since 1997 and are still rising.

“Quantitatively gluten has not increased in wheat. However, we are eating more gluten overall because it is added as an isolated product to so many foods,”​ she said, adding, “but don’t blame wheat itself.”​ Indeed, 20% of the world’s calories come from wheat, according to the United Nations—a larger share than any other single food.

In line with this is the misconception that all wheat is genetically modified by default. “Almost all corn and soy crops are GMO so people figure wheat is too. It’s not a big stretch to believe it. But ironically wheat farmers themselves have been the loudest voices against GMO in wheat because they export half of their wheat overseas.”

Myth 3: You can self-prescribe a gluten-free diet

Paraphrasing a portion of Alessio Fasano’s recent presentation at the International Celiac Symposium, Harriman said, “People don’t decide on their own that they have diabetes and start giving themselves insulin shots; why do they diagnose themselves when it comes to gluten? That concept really put into focus for me this idea of self-diagnosing without medical advice.”

See FoodNavigator-USA’s recent interview with Dr. Fasano.

Myth 4: Gluten-free eating is as simple as having a burger with no bun

One of the most worrying misconceptions when it comes to the gluten-free diet is what it really is and what that means, Harriman said.

“A lot of people say, ‘Miley Cyrus is gluten-free, so I will do it, too, meaning I won’t have a bun with my burger today. They don’t understand how different this is for celiacs—that trace amounts can cause problems, that gluten is in so many foods, the importance of totally separate equipment and using a dedicated production facility, etc.

“Celiacs often say that they like that the diet is getting more attention and that there are more GF specials on the menu, but it makes you wonder if that means some operators say they’ll make a dish with rice instead and put ‘GF’ next to it without going through vetted organizations to see if they are really making it safe. The fad and fantasy side trivializes and endangers the medically necessary side,” ​she added.

Still, the truth eventually reasserts itself, Harriman said, noting that—like other fads before it​the gluten-free trend can have some lasting positive effects as well, such as fostering a better awareness of the different grains and their benefits.

“I always like to hope that we don’t throw baby out with bath water; that instead we drain the water and keep the baby,”​ she said. “One reason whole grains became so popular is actually because of the low-carb phase of the early 2000s. After manufacturers worked so hard to make baked goods and grain foods with no carbs, they found that making them with whole grains was not that difficult. So we did keep baby and threw out the water that time. I’d like to see it this time, too.”


11.30am EST, April 30, 2014.

Find out more about gluten-free market trends and growth opportunities; the science behind celiac disease, gluten intolerance and wheat allergy; the technical challenges of formulating great-tasting gluten-free products; and the latest consumer research.

This LIVE online panel debate moderated by FoodNavigator-USDA editor Elaine Watson brings together world-renowned celiac disease researcher Dr Alessio Fasano​; TJ Mcintyre from leading gluten-free manufacturer Boulder Brands​ (Udis, Glutino);DrDavid Sheluga, director of commercial insights at food and ingredients giant ConAgra Foods​; and Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at Datamonitor​.


Related topics Markets The GM debate Gluten free

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Reply to "Self Prescribed"

Posted by Ken Dunkley,

Wheat is more dangerous than cigarettes??
I agree with Michael Pollan:
"What do you think of gluten-free diets?
They are very important if you have celiac disease or can't tolerate gluten. But it's hard to believe that the number of people suffering from these conditions has grown as fast as this product category. Gluten has become the bad nutrient of the moment, the evil twin of Omega 3 fatty acids. Could it really be that bread, a staple of Western civilization for 6,000 years, is suddenly making millions of us sick? I'm dubious."
And, if "20% of the world's calories come from wheat", evolution would have killed us off long ago.

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You Almost Got It Right

Posted by Lauren,

I too have concerns with the idea that only through medical advice can one decide if going gluten free is the best thing for them. My experience has been that elimination and careful observation is the best way to test for allergies. For myself it was obvious, if I ate anything with wheat in it I got sick. It wasn't pleasant. A few years ago I did have my children tested by a doctor. With one daughter in particular the test came back that she was highly allergic to wheat and dairy. It made sense since she had been suffering from heartburn her whole life and had dark bags under her eyes. However when I took her to a gastric GI for further testing he ran his own "allergy test" and concluded that she had no allergies whatsoever. Yeah, we didn't consult with him any further. Not all doctors have the qualifications and proper testing equipment to diagnose food allergies. The best way to determine a food allergy is by eliminating a specific food for a while and then noticing how you feel when you reintroduce it.

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say it loud

Posted by Suzy Badaracco,

Its about time the grain industry stood up for itself against the misinformation which has propped this trend up. Better late than never - whenever a food or food category gets villainized - there is a serious problem. When consumers mistake a diet associated with a serious disease state as somehow a weight loss or health solution - there is a serious problem. It is ignorance at its best. I love the diabetes analogy - its spot on.

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