Myth vs. Reality:
5 Gluten-Free Misconceptions
Our experts set the record straight on five gluten-related tall tales.
[Updated Sept. 11, 2015]
If you’ve been immersed in gluten-free diets for any length of time, you’ve absorbed all kinds of hearsay. Here, our experts set the record straight, at least in five cases.
MYTH: Hot water will kill gluten.
REALITY: Gluten is a protein, not a bacteria. It has to be removed, not killed. Imagine that gluten is like cocoa powder, which coats everything with a fine film when it’s spilled. You would use soap and water to remove that cocoa film, cleaning and wiping it away so it doesn’t get in your food or on plates, bowls or utensils. That’s the level of cleaning that’s necessary with gluten. Thorough scrubbing with soap and water should do the trick. (Beth Hillson, "In the Kitchen," GF&M, Aug/Sept 2014)
MYTH:A gluten-free diet is a sure way to lose weight.
REALITY: “No magic bullet; sorry,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, a culinary nutritionist and expert in the gluten-free lifestyle. “There’s a myth going around that if a product says gluten-free, it’s better than its regular counterpart. That’s not really the case. Just because a food makes the claim that it’s gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthier for you or it’s lower in calories or it’s a diet-friendly food. In fact, many gluten-free foods are made mostly from empty calories, refined grains, starches and added sugars. A diet with too many of these foods is really a recipe for weight gain rather than weight loss.”
Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, nutritionist, dietitian and writer, adds, “There are a lot of people who firmly believe that going gluten-free will make them lose weight because Oprah or Miley Cyrus said so. But the numbers show, at least for people with celiac disease, many gain weight on a gluten-free diet,” especially if they suffered from malabsorption issues before going gluten-free. (Eve Becker, "Watching Your Weight," GF&M Feb/Mar 2015)
MYTH: Smoking may protect you from the development of celiac disease.
REALITY: Sorry, smokers. No dice. A few very controversial scientific papers suggest smoking may be protective against the development of celiac disease, says Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. The mechanisms are unknown. Celiac experts strongly caution that smoking is not healthy and that any connection between smoking, nicotine and the onset of celiac disease is of interest to researchers solely for the purpose of better understanding the disease. (GF&M, Aug/Sept 2010)
MYTH: Those with celiac disease should avoid oats at all costs—even gluten-free oats.
REALITY: In a study of adults with celiac disease, long-term consumption of pure, uncontaminated gluten-free oats had no harmful effects, say researchers from Tampere University in Finland. They studied a group of celiac adults who had been eating oats on a daily basis for up to eight years. This daily intake didn’t result in small-bowel mucosal damage, inflammation or gastrointestinal symptoms. In fact, the small-bowel mucosa looked better in those who had consumed oats in larger amounts or over a longer time period than in those who avoided oats altogether.
In Finland, gluten-free oats weren’t considered safe for those with celiac disease until 1997, after a study showed no difference in clinical, laboratory or tissue outcomes after 12 months of oat consumption. Although some data has suggested that a small fraction of celiacs may, in fact, react to oats—oats have some wheat-like sequences in their protein structure—researchers found no evidence of this in their study. They did note that the high fiber content in oats can cause temporary bloating and flatulence, symptoms also seen in those without celiac disease. The study was published in Nutrients.
In a separate study published in Nutrients, Italian researchers reported preliminary results on the safety of gluten-free oats in celiac children. Because pure, uncontaminated gluten-free oats aren’t widely available in Italy (oats aren’t a Mediterranean staple), researchers were able to look at the effect of adding these oats to the diets of celiac children who’d never eaten them previously. Six months of daily consumption of a “considerable” amount of oats did not lead to any relevant change in intestinal permeability or gastrointestinal symptoms. This study is a rigorous double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial which is ongoing. (Christine Boyd, "Research Roundup," GFM, Apr/May 2014)
* Editor’s note: Many commercially available oat products are contaminated with wheat and barley during harvesting and processing. Look for certified gluten-free oats.
MYTH: It’s okay to “eyeball” such ingredients as flour when cooking gluten-free dishes.
REALITY: Actually, you need to be precise. If a recipe calls for, say, ¾ of a cup of water plus 1 teaspoon of a particular flour, do it right. The delicate balance of wet to dry ingredients is important to successful gluten-free baking. Even a smidge more or less of liquid or dry ingredients can throw off the ratio and transform a light and airy baked good into something gummy and dense or dry and crumbly. The old adage “cooking is an art, baking is a science” is certainly the case in gluten-free baking. If you’re mixing flour to coat chicken or adding flour to the pan to thicken gravy, it’s not necessary to be this precise. (Beth Hillson, "In the Kitchen, GF&M, Aug/Sept 2014)