More and more people are being diagnosed – or diagnosing themselves – with gluten intolerance. But a new study out of Italy suggests that more research needs to be done before non-celiacs cut this protein from their diet.  



A report published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine questions the widely accepted statistic that 17 million Americans may be gluten intolerant, saying that the condition must be defined more concretely before people are told to eliminate gluten. 

Unlike Celiac Disease – a known condition in which damage to the stomach lining by gluten prevents patients  from absorbing food’s nutrients – gluten intolerance does not have one common medical explanation. When eating less gluten alleviates a person’s gastrointestinal problems, he or she is diagnosed with gluten intolerance.  A sensitivity to gluten, notes the commentary, is likely the sign of another underlying disorder – such as Celiac Disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome – rather than a disease in and of itself.  

Eliminating gluten could even be detrimental to pinpointing the root cause of a patient’s digestive issues, say the authors, as it could mask the symptoms of Celiac disease, leading to a misdiagnosis. 

“We must prevent a possible health problem from becoming a social health problem,” says the report. “Self-prescription of gluten withdrawal by a growing number of patients inevitable leads to a series of problems: subsequent inability to diagnose or exclude celiac disease, deleterious health effects from the probably suboptimal adherence to a gluten-free diet in the case of patients with undiscovered celiac disease, and the high economic burden related to an unjustified gluten-free diet,” the authors note, according to Food Navigator USA

Past research has suggested that gluten intolerance falls on a spectrum, ranging from Celiac Disease at its worst to the ability to eat all breads, pastas and cereals with no concerns. According to this theory, promoted last year by a University of Maryland study, gluten sensitivity is a specific condition that falls in the middle of this spectrum and is marked by its own set of immune responses to gluten.

Sales of gluten-free products have been rising rapidly, increasing by 16 percent in 2010 alone.  That year, the market for these foods was estimated to be worth $2.64 billion. This trend is expected to continue, reaching approximately $5.5 billion by 2015.