Gluten Free : Study Raises Questions About Gluten-Free Diet

Going gluten-free? There may be some unwanted side effects, finds a new study. In a report published by Epidemiology, researchers found that people who followed a gluten-free diet were exposed to greater levels of arsenic and mercury, toxic metals linked to heart disease, cancer, neurological problems, and more.

"These results indicate that there could be unintended consequences of eating a gluten-free diet," said study author Maria Argos of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Gluten-free products often contain rice flour as a substitute for wheat, rye, and barley. According to Argos, rice is known to accumulate arsenic and mercury from fertilizers, soil, and water.

In the study, the researchers analyzed data from thousands of Americans ages 6 to 80. They identified 73 people who said they ate a gluten-free diet. Compared to other survey participants, those who ate gluten-free diets had nearly twice the levels of arsenic in their urine, and 70 percent higher levels of mercury in their blood.

However, "more research is needed before we can determine whether this diet poses a significant health risk," Argos said in a university news release.

Gluten-free diets are recommended for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine when gluten (the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) is ingested. While just 1 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease, nearly one-quarter of Americans reported eating a gluten-free diet in 2015, a 67 percent increase from 2013.

While the study raises questions about going gluten-free, it doesn't show a direct cause-and-effect relationship between that eating style and higher toxin levels.

Still, "in Europe, there are regulations for food-based arsenic exposure, and perhaps that is something we here in the United States need to consider," Argos said. "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."

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