Probiotic supplements may do more harm than good for those with celiac disease – even when labeled “gluten-free”. This is according to a new study from Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center, which found that among top-selling probiotics, more than half contain trace amounts of gluten.
Probiotics, which contain live bacteria and yeast, have gained popularity as an aid to gastrointestinal health, a common issue among those with celiac disease. However, the Columbia study, which was presented last month at Digestive and Disease Week in Washington D.C., helps to explain why some patients with celiac disease complain of symptoms despite eliminating foods that contain gluten.
The New York researchers tested 22 popular probiotic brands. Using a sensitive measuring procedure called “liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry,” they identified gluten’s toxic epitopes in 55 percent of the products tested, including two that were labeled “gluten-free”.
“Some patients say they get the best probiotic out there, but our study shows that price is no guarantee that it will be gluten-free,” says Dr. Peter Green, the gastroenterologist who heads Columbia’s Celiac Disease Center. “Just as people with celiac disease are preoccupied with and hyper-vigilant about what food they eat, so should they be with anything they put in their mouths.”
Celiac disease, which affects approximately 1 percent of the American population, occurs when the body detects the presence of gluten and reacts by causing damage to the lining of the small intestine. This damage then interferes with the uptake of other key nutrients, leading to a number of disparate symptoms, from bloating to skin rashes and osteoporosis. It is unclear whether the trace amounts of gluten found in the probiotics tested would cause symptoms or harm to celiac patients.
The study was prompted by a survey the center conducted in 2013, which found that celiac patients who used probiotics had more symptoms than those not taking probiotics. Two other research papers also set off alarm bells: one out of Nebraska found that five of eight cereals marketed as gluten-free contained the protein, while the second, by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada, reported that many herbal supplements contain fillers and substitutes such as soy and wheat, often without informing consumers on the packaging.
Given the most recent findings, Green cautions that for celiac patients, probiotics are a “buyer beware” market. Although the FDA now requires that packaged foods and dietary supplements must contain less than 20 parts per million to be labeled gluten-free, the agency doesn’t officially enforce the regulation.
“There are no gluten policemen and therefore, there are no penalties,” Green told Allergic Living. “It’s voluntary. Measuring of gluten in products is done by lay groups.”