Gluten-Free Diets May Increase Exposure to Heavy Metals

Learning curves can be steep sometimes. When clinicians were observing the improvements in patient health after taking gluten out of the diet, it was great to have gluten-free options and substitutes available. Now, we know that just substituting gluten-free for gluten products may not be a healthy decision. Gluten-free foods are not really “healthy,” and gluten-free diets are not for everyone. These gluten-free products are made with highly refined potato starch, rice flour, and tapioca starch, which can have negative effects on blood sugar regulation, weight gain, and more.   

About 25% of Americans now admit to being on a gluten-free diet — that’s a 67% increase between 2013 and 2015. And the food manufacturing industry has responded in kind. There are now hundreds of gluten-free products available. Interestingly enough, only approximately 1% of Americans have Celiac disease and actually must pursue a gluten-free diet. However, a large majority of people feel that many of their symptoms improve or completely resolve on a gluten-free diet.

This year in the journal of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, a study was published that revealed that people on a gluten-free diet had higher concentrations of metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, and cobalt. Distressing news for those who think they are doing a good thing by providing gluten-free options for their family and also distressing for those who now have to find alternatives, as eating gluten is not an option for them.

Additionally, researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago found in a similar study that compared to the non-gluten-free controls, those eating gluten-free diets had twice as high levels of arsenic in their urine, and the gluten-free subjects had 70% more mercury in their blood. We already know that there is no safe level of exposure to mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic, and when they are present together, they are even more dangerous than being elevated alone. So, this finding is significant.

Studies have also shown that rice in particular accumulates toxic heavy metals from fertilizers, pesticides, the soil, the rocks, and the water from which it is grown. Rice tends to absorb arsenic more readily than many other plants and that goes for organic rice as well. Arsenic is naturally part of the minerals in the earth’s crust. Arsenic has also been released into the environment through the use of pesticides and poultry fertilizer. It’s found in soil and water.  

Brown rice has 80% more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type because arsenic accumulates in the grain’s outer layers, which are removed to make white rice. Brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan is the best choice. It has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rices.

In light of all this evidence, it’s no wonder we are now seeing the backlash of making such a big dietary shift to gluten-free diets.

Here is a quick guide that you can use to select “safer” rices:

  • Basmati rice from California is lowest in arsenic.
  • Rice from Texas is highest in arsenic.
  • Brown rice has 30-80% more arsenic than white rice.
  • Quinoa is a low arsenic grain that is a great alternative to rice.
  • Millet cooks up fluffy like rice but is lower in arsenic.

Frankly, some of the best ways of avoiding the exposure to arsenic and other heavy metals, like mercury, is to use alternative grains, such as, quinoa, amaranth, corn (non-GMO), buckwheat, or millet, or simply not use grains at all and focus on eating lean proteins, good fats, and fruits and vegetables. Try to make it a daily practice to focus on eating foods that come “in their own packages” (e.g. fruits and veggies) rather than store bought and highly processed foods, even if they are gluten-free. This will take out a lot of the stress and guess work when grocery shopping because you won’t have to spend so much time trying to figure out if your rice is from California or not. Plus, it will automatically start you on a path of eating healthy and nutritious foods at every meal. 

Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. Accumulation of Heavy Metals in People on a Gluten-Free Diet2017 Feb 20. pii: S1542-3565(17)30186-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2017.01.034. 

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