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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 2

"Gluten Sensitivity" May Be a Misnomer for Distinct Illnesses to Various Wheat Proteins

Gluten may not be the only wheat protein that can make people sick

A final group of potential culprits belongs to a diverse family of carbohydrates such as fructans that are notorious for being difficult to digest. A failure to absorb these compounds into the blood may draw excess water into the digestive tract and agitate its resident bacteria. Because these resilient carbohydrates occur in all kinds of food—not just grains—a gluten-free or wheat-free diet will not necessarily solve anything if these molecules truly are to blame.

No Piece of Cake
Despite the recent evidence that wheat sensitivities are more numerous and varied than previously realized, research has also revealed that many people who think they have such reactions do not. In a 2010 study, only 12 of 32 individuals who said they felt better on a diet that excluded gluten or other wheat proteins actually had an adverse reaction to those molecules. “Thus, about 60 percent of the patients underwent an elimination diet without any real reason,” notes study author Antonio Carroccio of the University of Palermo in Italy.

Nevertheless, uncovering nongluten agitators of illness will give doctors a more precise way to diagnose grain sensitivities and help people avoid certain foods. Researchers could, for example, design blood tests to look for antibodies that bind to various short chains of amino acids or proteins such as wheat germ agglutinin, explains Umberto Volta, a gastroenterologist at the University of Bologna in Italy. And some scientists think ongoing research will eventually yield new therapies. “If we know what triggers the immune system, we hope we can switch the system off and cure the disease,” says Roberto Chignola of the University of Verona in Italy.

Personally, I suspect that something besides gluten might trigger my own symptoms. On occasion, I have tried gluten-free grain-based products such as beer made from barley from which the gluten has been extracted. Every time my headaches came roaring back with a vengeance (far sooner than any hangover might have struck), making me all the more suspicious that gluten is not the root of my troubles.

If that is true, and there is even the remote possibility of safely reinstating gluten in my diet, I would really like to know. As a New Yorker, it is hard for me to forgo pizza. If gluten was vindicated in my case, perhaps I could add it to nongrain flours or otherwise cook up experimental pizza at home and get those gooey, stretchy slices out of my dreams and onto my plate.

This article was originally published with the title "The Trouble with Gluten."

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