After eating foods that contain gluten, do you tend to experience itching, irritability, bloating, or general discomfort? If so, you’ve likely assumed you are allergic to the protein found in a variety of grains. But according to a new study, gluten isn’t the actual culprit. Rather, a sugar chain called fructans is to blame.
Approximately 1 percent of the population has celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that makes them react badly after consuming gluten proteins in wheat. An additional 12 percent feel bad after eating wheat-based foods, such as bread and pasta. This occurs, despite them not having celiac disorder. Since “gluten” became a buzzword, researchers have been stumped by the phenomena. But now, new research published in the journal Gastroenterology offers clarity on the topic.
Fructans are a type of sugar chain found in wheat, barley, and rye — in addition to onions, garlic, chickpeas, cabbage, and artichoke. To test if those who have sensitivities to gluten are actually allergic to fructans, researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway and Monash University in Australia recruited 59 non-celiac adults following gluten-free diets to participate in an experiment.
First, they gave the volunteers three types of cereal bars containing gluten, fructans or neither. The participants ate one of these every day for seven days, waiting one week in between trying new bars. Because the bars are identical, the participants have no idea which ones consumed fructans, gluten or neither.
It turns out, the fructan bar triggered 15 percent more bloating and a 13 percent increase gastrointestinal distress compared to the control bar. The gluten bar had no effect. The findings are similar to those of a 2013 study, in which non-celiacs who ate gluten-free to relieve gut issues found no difference in symptoms when they ate identical meals that either lacked gluten or were full of it.
According to Jane Muir of Monash University, fructans are likely why people with irritable bowel syndrome don’t experience improvements when adopting a gluten-free diet. By cutting out wheat, says Muir, they eliminate a large portion of fructans. However, they still run into trouble when eating foods like garlic and onions. Some gluten-free products like chickpea crisps also contain fructans. The researchers concluded that fructans are also the reason placebo-controlled studies have managed to find that gluten has any effect, and why it has been so difficult to figure out how gluten causes so many problems for non-celiacs.
“Gluten was originally assumed to be the culprit because of coeliac disease, and the fact that people felt better when they stopped eating wheat,” said Muir. “Now it seems like that initial assumption was wrong.”
The team’s findings pair well with the results of six recent trials which confirm approximately 70 percent of people with irritable bowel syndrome notice improved symptoms when they cut out fructans and other nutrients from a food group known as FODMAPS. As New Scientist reports, FODMAPS stands for: fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. The short sugar chains are difficult to digest. They draw in water and are fermented in the large intestine by gas-producing bacteria. This causes the gut to stretch slightly; it is particularly noticeable by those who have IBS or have hypersensitive nerve endings in their guts.
According to Katie Ellard, a gastroenterologist at Mater Hospital in Sydney, Australia, many physicians are now prescribing low-FODMAP diets to people with stomach ailments. She said, “Once coeliac disease has been ruled out, I still recommend knocking off wheat to see if that helps, but I explain that it’s to eliminate fructans not gluten from their diet.”
Though more research is needed, it seems clear fructans are a culprit more people need to be aware of. Particularly for those who experience food sensitivities, the implications of this study are bound to be huge.
h/t New Scientist