Gluten May Not Be the Ingredient in Wheat That's Making You Sick

iStock / iStock

Celiac disease affects only an estimated 1 percent of Americans, but more people than ever before are eschewing wheat and other grains that contain the protein gluten due to stomach discomfort. But it may not be the gluten that’s the problem, according to a new study in the journal Gastroenterologyhighlighted by New Scientist.

Previously, doctors maintained that celiac disease was the only cause of wheat sensitivity, leading experts to wonder if gluten-free diets were just the latest diet trend, not the solution to a real, widespread dietary issue. But recent research is starting to bolster the idea that there may be other causes of reactions to wheat, lending credence to the large number of people who report adverse reactions to eating it. A 2016 study pointed to a group of proteins in wheat called amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATIs) as a trigger of inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body.

This latest study, conducted by gastroenterologists at Oslo University Hospital in Norway and Monash University in Australia, points to a group of carbohydrates called fructans, a kind of short-chain carbohydrate made up of fructose molecules. Fructans are found in high quantities not just in wheat, but in onions, garlic, asparagus, and certain other vegetables.

Researchers gave 59 people who had already independently put themselves on a gluten-free diet (but weren’t celiac) cereal bars that either contained gluten, fructans, or a placebo. They found that the participants who ate the bars containing fructans experienced more symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. There was no difference between those who experienced symptoms on the placebo bars and those who ate the gluten bars—in other words, the fructans were the problem.

If it’s fructans rather than wheat that causes gastrointestinal distress for people who diagnose themselves with wheat sensitivity, that explains why cutting out gluten may not make them feel totally better. They’re probably still eating onions and Brussels sprouts. When you go to a gastroenterologist complaining of gluten issues these days, they may instead prescribe a low-FODMAP diet—which targets certain hard-to-digest carbohydrates like fructans—rather than a gluten-free one. The low-FODMAP diet involves not just avoiding bread products, but sources of fructans, too.

Unfortunately, that means that if you aren’t celiac, new gene-editing research geared toward producing gluten-less wheat probably isn’t going to help you much. Cutting out your artichoke obsession might. On the bright side, it does mean that traditional sourdough bread is back on the table.