Many people have become obsessed with avoiding gluten, despite the scientific evidence proving this protein (found in wheat, rye, and barley) actually makes people who haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease, or wheat allergy sick.
So how do we explain the symptoms of people with so called non-celiac gluten sensitivity: bloating, stomach pain, and fatigue they say are alleviated with a gluten-free diet?
For the past several years, scientists began to suspect that maybe other elements in grains are causing these digestive issues. And they’ve zeroed in on a group of carbohydrates called FODMAPs, or “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols,” which humans lack the digestive enzymes to break down.
FODMAPs include the fructose in fruits and vegetables, the lactose in dairy products, the galactans in legumes, and the fructans in wheat and rye (as well as in other foods like artichokes, asparagus, leeks, garlic, and onions).
Since fructan is found in many foods that also contain gluten — like pasta and white bread — researchers have had to design studies to try to separate out their effects. A new study published in the journal Gastroenterology shows that fructan caused more stomach upset than gluten did in a group of people who thought they were gluten-sensitive.
This finding has researchers warning: If you think gluten is upsetting your stomach, it might be fructan instead.
Why researchers started to suspect it’s not gluten making people sick
To understand where this fructan hypothesis came from, let’s step back for a second and go deeper into the science of gluten. There are definitely real gluten-related disorders that people have to cope with, but these are vanishingly rare. Celiac disease causes people's immune systems to violently attack their small intestine whenever they eat gluten. About 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Even more rare are genuine wheat allergies, which affect an estimated 0.1 percent of people in Westernized countries.
As for the other people sensitive to gluten, a recent review of the double-blind, placebo-controlled trials performed so far found that only 16 percent of people who respond to a gluten-free diet had real non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The rest have other food sensitivities or a nocebo response to gluten, meaning they experience symptoms even when they’re not actually eating gluten.
FODMAPs like fructan reach the large intestine undigested, where they’re fermented by bacteria in the gut. That process produces gas and can lead to discomfort for some people — particularly in those with the chronic gut disorder irritable bowel syndrome or just IBS-like symptoms after eating, such as gas, diarrhea, and bloating.
In the 2013 Gastroenterology study, researchers from Monash University in Australia took 37 people who thought they were sensitive to gluten and followed a gluten-free diet. They challenged the study participants to a double-blind crossover trial where participants ate different levels of gluten or, in the control arm, whey protein.
Before they started the study, participants had to follow a low-FODMAP diet for two weeks.
In all participants, the significant improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms occurred during the two-week low-FODMAP run-in period. Meanwhile, whether they ate gluten didn’t seem to have an impact on most of the volunteers.
The researchers then set up a lab to test various FODMAPs in food. They found that wheat and other gluten-containing grains (like rye, barley, wheat) also contained high levels of fructans. It appears that fructans and gluten tend to co-exist in foods, and gluten-free grains tend to be low FODMAP.
So then the researchers decided to zero in on fructans to see if they are what’s actually causing the symptoms in people with gluten sensitivity.
Why researchers are now blaming fructans for people’s symptoms
Researchers found more than 70 percent of IBS patients improved their symptoms by reducing their FODMAP intake which is why doctors are now prescribing the low-FODMAP diet for some patients.
Switching from a gluten-free to a low-FODMAP diet would mean you’d still have to avoid gluten-containing wheat, rye, and barley — which are also high-FODMAP foods. But you could eat sourdough bread (which is low-FODMAP) or even some types of pasta.
You don’t have to cut out all your FODMAPs. Feeding the bacteria in the gut and producing some gas is not a bad thing. We now know that the gut microbiome may be very important with wide-ranging effects on our health.
Fructans and other FODMAPs have a “prebiotic effect” on the gut, meaning these carbohydrates stimulate healthy bacteria in the intestines. So if the low-FODMAP diet takes off the way “gluten-free” did, let’s not vilify fructan. Even in those with sensitive stomachs, a little fructan is probably a good thing :)
Fructans in Herbal Tea
You may be really surprised to hear that the main culprit in probably one of your favourite teas is again Fructan. Tea blends such as strong chai, strong dandelion, fennel, herbal tea containing chicory root and oolong all contain Fructans.
We get many emails asking if a certain herb is FODMAP Friendly. There are many herbs yet to be tested so our advice is to always start with a weak steep to test your tolerance to it. When asked of buying tea off the shelf at the supermarket we suggest that often the amounts of each herb, even if similar to one of our blends might have a different ratio therefore making it high FODMAP.
The FODMAP Friendly Tea Co. blends are tested and certified by The FODMAP Friendly Program to guarantee no discomfort. If one of our blends does not hold the FODMAP Friendly logo it will state which FODMAP is present on the label.
We are the only tea company worldwide to be tested for FODMAPs!