Dr Oz mixed up on gluten-free myths

Dr. Oz is doing a series on myths about gluten on his network television show. I watched the three parts online yesterday after being alerted to them by Sandra Robins, who blogs as the Gluten-Free Optimist.

At one point, Mehmet Oz, MD, says it makes him angry, infuriates him, that people are being encouraged to eat gluten-free products as a way to lose weight when they cost twice as much as regular food and are really just junk.

While I whole heartily agree that the gluten-free diet is not and has never been a sensible weight-loss plan, I was equally infuriated by some of the insinuations and outright misinformation spread on the show.

First, Oz  gave the impression that gluten-free food companies exist mainly for the purpose of trolling for people who mistakenly believe that they can lose weight by filling up on gluten-free cookies, pretzels, waffles and other goodies. I think that is an inaccurate portrayal. In my experience, many gluten-free companies were created – often by people who have celiac disease themselves or who have a family member who does – to provide options for those who medically need a gluten-free diet.

It’s true those options have grown ten fold as a result of increased awareness of celiac disease. The consequent jump in diagnosis has created a customer base large enough that these companies can now realistically expect to survive. And new research shows the real need for gluten-free alternatives is only going to expand as gluten sensitivity gets recognition from the medical community and many more are accurately diagnosed with this condition.

Legitimate celiac research centers, doctors, dietitians and other experts have never advocated the gluten-free diet as a weight loss plan, though there are some television personalities who have.

I could only shake my head when Oz said we are being bombarded in the supermarket by gluten-free products, as though those who need these foods don’t have a right to shop for them easily and conveniently. I know how much simpler life is for my daughter, who has had celiac disease since she was two, now that she does not have to make a trip to across town to the health food store just to buy a loaf of bread.

And I clearly remember when even the health food stores had few choices, and we sent away to Canada on a regular schedule to get bread that was palatable. So while it’s easy to say most people don’t really need these products, it would be a little more generous and understanding to realize that a growing number of people really do. And it’s not for weight loss. Gluten-free breads, flours, soups, and pasta are the very medicine that keeps those who have celiac disease alive.

I don’t think the fact that General Mills replaced the gluten-containing malt flavoring in some Chex cereals with gluten-free molasses poses any health threat to the general public. But it does make it possible for someone on the gluten-free diet to eat a bowl for breakfast.

It’s true that someone following the gluten-free diet can over indulge in gluten-free products that are not really that good for you. But I see aisle after aisle of junk food that does contain gluten, some of it labeled reduced fat or low in sugar. And I would venture to guess that many more people are getting fat on those products than by buying gluten-free brands.

The show also ignored the fact that gluten-free food makers are now trying to produce healthier products for the benefit of people who have no alternative but to eat them. Some are using whole grains and relying less on nutritionally devoid rice flour.

And I did agree with the statement by Dr. Oz guest Mark Hyman, MD, medical director of the Ultra Wellness Center, that a gluten-free diet built on healthy whole foods is best. That’s also true in the gluten-containing world. Still an occasional treat should be allowed in both cases.

Hyman did disappoint me in other ways though. The two-week gluten elimination plan he advocated on the show would not make sense for someone trying to find out if they have celiac disease. In fact, if diagnostic blood tests were to be run during or too soon after, the results could be skewed. Accepted medical advice for diagnosis cautions against starting the gluten-free diet before tests are run. And I think someone who thinks they have a problem with gluten should rule out celiac disease first.

The other problem is that once someone starts a gluten-free diet it’s hard to go back to eating gluten if they do feel better. If you are not eating gluten, a celiac diagnosis is nearly impossible.

I also take issue with some of the things Hyman offhandedly said about products that contain gluten. When describing a lunch option, he said the turkey in a wrap, not the flour tortilla, can be the real problem. We just did a story on deli meats in the last issue of Gluten-Free Living in which we found that many, if not most, brands of turkey are gluten free. I know you can run across a brand that contains gluten, but its easy to come away from a show like this with the mistaken impression that all turkey cold cuts are a problem on the gluten-free diet. That’s not true.

I found it odd that potato chips, a product that can pretty easily be found in a gluten-free version, would be given as an example of a gluten-containing snack food. And I was confused by Oz’s statement that most people think popcorn contains gluten because it is a junk food.

Lipstick was cited as product with “hidden” gluten. Again, Gluten-Free Living recently did a story that showed it is difficult to find any significant amount of gluten in lipstick. In fact even in the highly unlikely worst case scenario, the most gluten you could put on your lips daily is less than 5 parts per million. That’s one fourth the amount proposed by the Food and Drug administration to be allowed in foods labeled gluten free. Based on our analysis of the ingredients in lipstick, it’s much more likely the amount would be closer to 1.4 ppm.

And I was really infuriated to hear that envelopes and stamps have gluten in them to make them stick. All of our research over many years has found that these are two real myths about gluten.

Envelope glue does not contain gluten, according to the association that represents envelope makers. In fact there are only a few envelope glue makers in the US and the largest one makes its adhesive from corn. More than 98 percent of all stamps sold by the US Postal Service are self adhesive and do not require licking. The other 2 percent do not contain gluten in the glue.

You can find more information about these and other topics on our website.

Aside from the factual departures, I found the bottom line message in these shows confusing and contradictory. On the one hand, the two doctors told viewers not to get swept up in the gluten-free frenzy while on the other they kept saying that 99 percent of those who have problems with gluten don’t know it. They encouraged a two-week elimination plan that runs counter to sound medical advice for those who have celiac disease. If I was somone wondering if gluten was a problem, I am not sure what I would conclude.

Oz said he was infuriated by gluten-free food being so readily available in the supermarket but then advised people to stay away from products that they can safely include in a gluten-free diet. And he passed on misinformation about products that either do not contain gluten or have miniscule amounts that are not the problem for those legitimately trying to get gluten out of their diets.

Which caused me to make this sad comment to Sandra. It made me wish, just for a moment, for the days when we couldn’t get anyone on national television to mention the gluten-free diet. At least then we didn’t have to worry that bad information would be spread so widely.

That moment passed quickly though. I applaud the gluten-free community’s efforts to spread awareness and to increase the availability and quality of safe foods. Even if it makes Dr. Oz angry.