Gluten Sensitivity is Apparently Bullshit

In an interesting twist, one of the key researchers in establishing the idea of gluten sensitivity has published new papers that say exactly the opposite.

Peter Gibson of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia published a study in 2011 that found that gluten could cause gastrointestinal distress even in those not suffering from Celiac Disease. This led to the rise of the term "gluten sensitivity," and an international wave of gluten-free menus was born.

Gibson, however, wasn't entirely convinced of his own findings; after all, gluten is part of any normal diet, so why would we be reacting so strangely to it en masse? So he led a follow-up study involving 37 self-identified gluten-sensitive subjects to determine whether it really was the gluten causing them to feel icky. The particulars of the study were as follows:

Subjects would be provided with every single meal for the duration of the trial. Any and all potential dietary triggers for gastrointestinal symptoms would be removed, including lactose (from milk products), certain preservatives like benzoates, propionate, sulfites, and nitrites, and fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates, also known as FODMAPs. And last, but not least, nine days worth of urine and fecal matter would be collected.

What the study found is that ALL of the diets — including even the placebo diet — caused all the negative symptoms usually associated with gluten sensitivity to a roughly equal degree. "We could find absolutely no response to gluten," writes Gibson. A lot of this relates to the so-called "nocebo" effect: because people expected the food to make them feel worse, it frequently did.

It's important to note that this does NOT mean that those who claim to have Celiac are lying about it — that's a real, diagnosable condition, and a potentially deadly one. Further, it ALSO does not mean that those who claim to have a non-life threatening version of Celiac aren't telling the truth — I have a friend who has a lower-severity version of it where gluten doesn't kill her or make her immediately violently ill, but does sap all of her energy and dramatically reduce her quality of life (she wasn't tested for Celiac until she was in her 20's as a result, at which point the tests came back positive). Celiac is still a thing — gluten sensitivity is not.

Further, there's a lot of evidence that "gluten sensitivity" has actually been a misnomer for various illnesses related to disparate wheat proteins (or occasionally even carbohydrates). So even if someone does not have an adverse reaction to gluten, it's still possible their body is reacting badly to something in wheat, even if we're not 100% sure what it is yet. The current single most significant culprit is a protein with anti-pest properties that we've selectively bred for increased prevalence — the downside of which could potentially be that it doesn't just screw with bugs, it screws with a lot of us, too.

One of the biggest reasons why this is important is that it shows first-hand the impartiality of science rather than the school of common sense. Scientists who discover new data that contradicts their earlier findings will frequently, as Gibson did here, publish follow-up papers that basically amount to "my bad, that was wrong." That's actually what the scientific method is designed to do: to keep human beings from their evolutionary tendency to psychologically entrench themselves in ideas. There's thus a certain argument to be made that science is the antithesis of politics (or at least of the modern American conservative movement). There is no degree from the University of It Stands to Reason, after all.

Image via Ari N/Shutterstock.