Individuals on a gluten-free diet may be exposing themselves to higher levels of arsenic and mercury, according to new research.
These toxic metals are linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological effects, and are known to bioaccumulate in rice, which is often used as a wheat substitute in gluten-free products.
“These results indicate that there could be unintended consequences of eating a gluten-free diet,” Maria Argos, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a press release. “But until we perform the studies to determine if there are corresponding health consequences that could be related to higher levels of exposure to arsenic and mercury by eating gluten-free, more research is needed before we can determine whether this diet poses a significant health risk.”
Argos and colleagues evaluated blood and urinary biomarkers of exposure to toxic metals in 7,471 individuals aged 6 to 80 years who completed the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2009 and 2014, 73 of whom reported being on a gluten-free diet.
They found that urinary arsenic concentrations were almost doubled in gluten-free respondents (geometric mean ratio = 1.9; 95% CI, 1.3-2.6) and blood mercury levels were 70% higher.
While gluten-free diets are recommended for the fewer than 1% of Americans diagnosed with celiac disease, about 25% of American consumers reported eating a gluten-free diet in 2015, representing a 67% increase from 2013, the researchers wrote. Considering the increasing popularity of gluten-free diets, they concluded that their results may have important health implications.
“In Europe, there are regulations for food-based arsenic exposure, and perhaps that is something we here in the United States need to consider,” Argos said in the press release. “We regulate levels of arsenic in water, but if rice flour consumption increases the risk for exposure to arsenic, it would make sense to regulate the metal in foods as well.” – by Adam Leitenberger
Disclosures: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.