New study shows that "gluten-free" labels are actually a big fat lie

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Whether you do it out of dietary necessity, or you just fancy making life extra difficult for anyone trying to cook for you, going gluten free has become a big deal. Easy as it undoubtedly is to take the piss out of the gluten averse, intolerance can actually be a whole lot more serious than we often give it credit for. For someone who physically cannot digest the stuff, symptoms can range from diarrhoea to extreme stomach cramps. Not a laughing matter. All of which makes the findings of a recent study even more troubling.

gluten free bread Credit: Pixabay/kamila211

According to Dr. Benjamin Lerner of New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center and his crack team, around one-third of food currently being promoted as safely “gluten-free” actually isn’t gluten-free at all. This could potentially be disastrous for consumers who shouldn’t be eating the substance under any circumstances.

The study, which was presented at the American College of Gastroenterology’s annual scientific meeting on Monday 15th October, compiled data obtained from 804 testers, who had tested a grand total of 5,600 different dishes at restaurants across the country. Using what was described by Munchies as “portable gluten testing devices”, the team were able to work out that 32% of the “safe” food in fact had high gluten levels.

Dr Lerner was unequivocal in his response to the work. Speaking to “Today”, he declared the study “a big deal”, before adding, “Approximately 1 percent of the US population has celiac disease. For those patients, exposure to gluten in their diet can cause various symptoms—nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain. But also it can cause damage to their intestines.”

The results showed that pizza and pasta dishes were the most likely offenders, with nearly half of all “gluten-free” labelled products guilty. Given that there are a range of well known food brands with such items on their menu, the implications for gluten intolerant diners could be dire.

However, despite the apparent danger of the situation, Dr Lerner was quick to point out that he didn’t feel there was any foul play going on in the industry. Instead, he believed that the presence of gluten was likely down to inadvertent cross-contamination. “We think it’s really an issue of contamination, not wilful tricking people (sic),” Lerner said to Today. However, he added a stern warning for the food industry, stating that “Having gluten-free ingredients is not enough to ensure that gluten isn’t making its way into the food.”

There are a couple of lessons to be learned from what, on the face of it, seems like a fairly worrying turn of events. The first is that, for restaurant kitchens, it is crucial that they do all they can to ensure that their gluten and gluten-free ingredients don’t ever cross paths. The second is that diners should be aware that much of the food we eat might not be as innocent as we’d like to think. This should be a wake up call to all of us to take what we read on the menu with a good pinch of salt. You never know what could be hiding where you least expect.