Can a Gluten Free Diet Cause Cancer?

As with most popular diet trends that spill out of celebrity culture and into the mainstream, eventually there is a backlash. 

Most recently the Daily Mail has reported on findings by the science journal Epidemiology, which warns of low-levels of arsenic and metals such as mercury found in some gluten free foods, which have been linked to cancer.

The article states:

“Two major studies from the US reveal that those choosing gluten-free foods have twice as much arsenic in their urine as those who eat gluten.

They also have 70 per cent more mercury in their blood and worryingly high levels of other metals such as lead and cadmium.”

If you think you could be either intolerant or allergic to gluten (celiac disease) I strongly recommend you get tested. 

It’s good to know once and for all what your status is so that you can eat accordingly. 

Only 1% of the population has celiac disease, however there are many people who feel a sensitivity to eating gluten and will share some of the symptoms, this is called ‘non-celiac gluten intolerance’ - and while you will feel uncomfortable when you eat gluten, you won't do any long-term damage by consuming it.

When a person has celiac disease, the body's immune system overreacts in response to gluten, damaging the small intestine and reducing its ability to absorb nutrients. Over time, a range of problems may develop as a result of the body's reaction to gluten — from skin rashes and lactose intolerance to infertility, bone weakness and nerve damage. These can often happen even in the absence of digestive symptoms.

What does this mean for you?

If you are avoiding gluten due to celiac disease, non-celiac gluten intolerance - or just as a diet preference, you can make a conscious effort to mix up your wheat-flour substitutes to get a balance of the starches you are consuming:

Here are some of my favourites:

Buckwheat - besides the misleading name, this is one of the best wheat-free alternative for breads & pastas due to its density and texture.

Teff grain - mainly found in the ‘baking’ aisle of the supermarket, baking with teff will give amazing texture and weight to your breads and muffins.

 Try baking with Teff grain for a weighty tenure with great bite.

Try baking with Teff grain for a weighty tenure with great bite.

Amaranth - previously discussed in my superfood blog post - this south american superfood gives quinoa a run for its money in the protein and fibre stakes.

Corn (maize) starch - not only a saving grace for enjoying Mexican tortillas, but substituting cornflour in baking breads, fritters and pancakes can give a great doughy texture often hard to replicate without gluten.

Chickpea flour - used for centuries in Indian cooking - chickpea flour has a great weight to it and can sub in perfectly for savoury cooking.

Coconut flour - great for baking, however it is highly absorbent so you will need to add a lot of liquid to most recipes where coconut flour is a substitute for wheat flour. It’s also non-binding, so another binding agent like egg is necessary when trying to use for pancakes.

Sweet potato, Soybean and black-bean noodles— there are increasingly more options appearing on the market for gluten free pasta and noodles that are made from legumes or sweet potato. The main thing to beware of is, due to the nature of processed food, they can have a high GI - meaning they may not keep you full for long. For a slow-burning, low GI lunch, you might want to opt for brown rice instead.

 Blackbean pasta makes a great substitute for spaghetti and asian noodles.

Blackbean pasta makes a great substitute for spaghetti and asian noodles.

Here is list of some other gluten free starches that can be a great substitute when ingredient-checking or cooking:                                               

Soy

Potato

Sorghum

Quinoa

Millet

Arrowroot

Flax

Chia

Yucca

Nut flours

Read more at celiac.org

In summary, eating a gluten free diet will not give you cancer. By be consciously aware of what’s going into your food, mixing up the source of your starches from the list above, and opting for ‘unprocessed’ as often as possible - and organic where you can - you should be able to give your body exactly what it needs - and avoid the nasties.