A new study proposes that a gluten-free diet could be unhealthy for people who don't have coeliac disease, exposing them to harmful by-products like mercury and arsenic.
Coeliac (pronounces seel-ee-ak) disease affects 1 in 70 people in Australia. If you have the disease, your immune system has an abnormal reaction to gluten in food. This causes intestinal damage. And the only way to treat coeliac disease is to avoid gluten altogether.
Thankfully, there are many more gluten-free products stocked on supermarket shelves than ever before. But that means many people who don't have coeliac disease are avoiding gluten because they believe it's healthier.
This new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), published in Epidemiology journal, found that a gluten-free diet could increase the risk of exposure to arsenic and mercury.
Because people who ditch gluten often replace it with substitutes like rice flour. The research team found that rice can accumulate harmful toxic metals from the environment. And being exposed to these are linked with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
"Despite such a dramatic shift in diet, little is known about how gluten-free diets might affect exposure to toxic metals found in certain foods," the study authors said.
"With the increasing popularity of gluten-free diets, these findings may have important health implications since the health effects of low-level arsenic and mercury exposure from food sources are uncertain but may increase the risk for cancer and other chronic diseases," they noted.
"Although we can only speculate, rice may be contributing to the observed higher concentrations of metal biomarkers among those on a gluten-free diet as the primary substitute grain in gluten-free products."
Interestingly, the United States doesn't regulate arsenic levels in food products, although it's commonplace in Europe and Australia.
Australia's Food Standards said, "There are arsenic limits in the Code for cereals such as rice. These limits, which are set at levels consistent with protecting public health and safety and which are reasonably achievable, cover the major foods that are likely to contribute to arsenic exposure."
Long exposure to arsenic can cause lung and skin cancer, as well as other types of cancer. In Australia, there are 138,321 new cancer cases diagnosed in 2018, while 48,586 deaths were recorded. Lung cancer is one of the ten most common cancers in both men and women in Australia, with 7,212 men and 5,529 women diagnosed in 2018 alone. While skin cancer accounts for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers in the country.