Over the past several years, gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular. However, University of Illinois researchers report this trending eating regime may have a hidden danger – toxic metals.
Rice flour, used to replace wheat, rye, and barley in gluten-free foods, is known to accumulate toxic metals like arsenic and mercury from fertilizers, soil, and water. Although they occur naturally in the environment, these metals are believed to increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and neurological illness when taken in high doses. The research report suggests the risks of a gluten-free may outweigh any potential benefits.
“With the increasing popularity of gluten-free diets, these findings may have important health implications, since the health effects of low-level arsenic and mercury exposure from food sources are uncertain but may increase the risk for cancer and other chronic diseases,” said study author Maria Argos, assistant professor of epidemiology in the UIC School of Public Health, per a report from Bustle.
“Although we can only speculate, rice may be contributing to the observed higher concentrations of metal biomarkers among those on a gluten-free diet as the primary substitute grain in gluten-free products.”
The common name for proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye is gluten, which acts like a glue that helps the plant hold its shape. Eating a gluten-free diet typically means avoiding foods like bread, pizza, and pasta.
The researchers studied the eating habits of 7,480 people ranging from ages 6 to 80. Of those, 73 said they adhered to a gluten-free diet. This same group also tested for higher levels of arsenic in their urine and mercury in their blood than other survey participants. Specifically, the gluten-free people had two times as much arsenic and 70 percent higher mercury levels than the gluten eaters.
“In Europe, there are regulations for food-based arsenic exposure, and perhaps that is something we here in the United States need to consider,” noted Argos, as reported by Fox News. “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.”
People suffering from celiac disease, a chronic digestive condition that triggers an abnormal immune response to gluten, find relief by avoiding foods containing wheat, barley, and rye. Symptoms of the disorder include abdominal pain, ulcers, and anemia. Celiac disease is much more common today than it was 50 years ago, according to Dr. Joseph A. Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic.
While only one percent of Americans have the disorder, nearly 25 percent of Americans say they eat gluten-free. Despite the lack of any supporting scientific evidence, many people believe sticking to a gluten-free diet will lower harmful inflammation, according to the researchers.
“If you don’t have celiac disease, then these diets are not going to help you,” Dr. Peter HR Green, the director of the celiac disease center at the Columbia University’s medical school, told the New Yorker.
In the last five years, the gluten-free food market has grown 63 percent as more Americans look to food as medicine to either lose weight or simply feel better. A number of health conditions like bloating, gas, depression, and brain fog have been blamed on eating a gluten-filled diet. Even celebrities Miley Cyrus, Kourtney Kardashian, and Gwyneth Paltrow have touted the diet as a path to a healthier lifestyle.
Published earlier this month in the medical journal Epidemiology, the study suggests a connection between gluten-free diets and toxic metal ingestion. Still, more research is needed before any conclusions can be made about the dangers of gluten-free eating. Some health experts think following a gluten-free diet leads to a higher consumption of sugar, fat, and calories, which poses other potential health risks as well.
[Featured Image by Carole Feldman/AP Images]