The gluten-free juggernaut is at a crossroad. The "medical" diet has has been turbo-charged by a marketing phenomenon that is successfully seducing the masses. But doctors warn that pseudo-science may be putting some of those at risk of harm. Meanwhile, new scientific advances challenge the basis of the industry that originally sprung up around a disease that affects only 1 per cent of the population.
For people with that condition – coeliac disease – the stakes are vital. The key battleground is a push to have the definition of what constitutes a gluten-free food relaxed. This comes amid concern that Australia’s strict regulation of the term “gluten free” – defined as no detectable levels of the protein – is being rendered irrelevant by advances in testing methods that allow detection of minute, harmless amounts. Coeliac Australia, the national advocacy body, is backing moves to have that standard eased. It fears meeting the current standard will become so onerous that food manufacturers will abandon the market altogether.
“Our concern is that as the sensitivity of the test improves it will impact the ability of manufacturers to confidently label their products as gluten free. We might lose the term gluten free all together,” says Penny Dellsperger of Coeliac Australia. “We know that 20 parts of gluten per million is safe and by setting it at that level we’d be in line with the international food standard. We’d also ensure the availability of these products in Australia – possibly [making them] more affordable but also higher quality.”
Nutritionist Dr Jaci Barrett says current labelling standards are unsustainable. “Our cut-off of what is gluten-free food has been driven by the improvement in laboratory techniques…we’ve ended up with this very strict cut-off and the possibility is that it ends up cutting it right back and people don’t need it reduced to that extent.”
Dr Barrett says mass-marketed gluten-free foods come with ingredients that make them useless as a health or weight-loss tool. “They can have higher levels of fat and sugar because they’re trying to mask the flavour of the rice flour that’s being used to make them.”
Professor Gibson, in part, blames endorsements by celebrities such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow and tennis player Novak Djokovic for the problem. “A lot of it is not based on science, but on pseudo-science.”
A world-first study by Monash researchers has found that while gluten-free diets may make people feel better, it is not the absence of gluten that gives the benefit. A group of carbohydrates known as FODMAPS are the likely culprit for irritable bowel syndrome and other health issues.
But for gluten-free enthusiasts like Edwina Gleeson and her family, the proof is in the gluten-free pudding. Though neither she nor her husband or son has coeliac disease, all are on a largely gluten-free diet. Ms Gleeson says it has solved behavioural and medical problems in her son Max, 7.
“Everyone has noticed how different he is,” she says “He’s calmer. He knows that the gluten in the food is the problem, he knows he’s intolerant to it.”
But for doctors, this self-diagnosis presents an added problem – you need to be eating gluten to be diagnosed with coeliac disease.
“This is a massive problem,” says Dr Barrett. “There are a lot of people on a gluten-free diet who’ve never had coeliac disease and now they don’t know whether they’ve got it. But they don’t want to bring gluten back in and they’ll never know. We need people to take medical advice before they make major changes to their diet.”