Higher Arsenic and Mercury Levels
Gluten-free eater beware. According to a May report, “The Unintended Consequences of a Gluten-Free Diet,” new research indicates that gluten-free dieters may be at greater risk of exposure to two highly-toxic metals, arsenic and mercury. Both metals tend to bio-accumulate in rice, a popular gluten-free substitute grain.
A team of researchers led by Maria Argos, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, studied survey data for 73 gluten-free individuals ranging in age from 6 to 80. Compared to data from for about 7,000 people on a regular diet, arsenic levels for the gluten-free group were nearly 50 percent higher, and mercury levels were 70 percent higher.
DANGERS OF HEAVY METALS
Mercury is a neurotoxin, a nervous system poison that poses particular risks for developing fetuses. There’s also some evidence that mercury causes cancer in humans. In terms of arsenic, long-term ingestion from food and water, according to the World Health Organization, cause skin lesions and cancer, and may be associated with birth defects, negative impacts on child health and cognitive development, infant mortality, lung and heart disease, neurotoxicity, and diabetes.
GLUTEN-FREE DIETS STILL POPULAR
People with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder with a genetic component, are medically-required to adhere to strict gluten-free regimens. When celiac individuals consume even small amounts of gluten, a naturally-occurring protein found in wheat, rye and barley, they experience an immune reaction leading to intestinal damage. The disease affects an estimated one percent of the global population.
In recent years, however, increasing numbers of non-celiac Americans are going gluten-free. The number of gluten-free dieters in the U.S. has tripled since 2009, while the incidence of celiac disease hasn’t changed. A poll by the market-research company NDP Group found that 30 percent of Americans are intending to be gluten-free or to reduce their gluten intake. Lowering cholesterol, increasing energy levels, promoting digestive health and reducing inflammation are common reasons cited by non-celiac individuals for avoiding gluten.
Argos expressed a need for further research to determine if there are health consequences from increased arsenic and mercury exposure for gluten-free eaters.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
In the meantime, if you’re a concerned, check out our post, “The Lowdown on Arsenic in Rice”, which offers guidance on reducing arsenic (not mercury) exposure through proper preparation and cooking methods, as well as by choosing particular types of rice and rice grown in particular regions that tend to be naturally lower in arsenic.
You can lower both arsenic and mercury exposure by simply decreasing your overall rice consumption. Consider some of the many other gluten-free substitutes, such as corn, millet, quinoa, amaranth, teff, buckwheat (unrelated to wheat) and sorghum. Oats are gluten-free but can be subject to cross-contamination from wheat either in the field or in processing, so be sure to look for certified gluten-free oats.
Nut flours, such as almond and hazelnut, are great options for baking and cooking, but they tend to be costly. Pulse flours such as chickpea and lentil are available at Indian groceries, online, and at some natural foods stores, but some people find they have a “beany” taste.