Gluten-Free Diets May Lead to Elevated Mercury and Arsenic Levels

For people with celiac disease, the boom of gluten-free foods has been a boon. But for those who eliminate gluten for other reasons, the health risks may outweigh the perceived benefits.

Epidemiologists found elevated levels of mercury and arsenic in 73 people who said they were following a gluten-free diet. All were participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which was performed between 2009–2014.

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Rice flour, a common wheat flour substitute, often contains higher levels of toxic heavy metals.

Both toxic metals are found in rice, and rice flour is a common substitute for wheat flour in gluten-free foods. Here’s Beth Mole, writing for Ars Technica:

Rice is known to be an efficient accumulator of arsenic and mercury, pulling the naturally occurring toxic substances up from soil and storing them. Researchers have estimated that rice plants are at least ten times better at sucking up arsenic than other grain plants.

The survey participants were nationally representative—meaning they didn’t focus on one demographic more than another—and covered people ages 6–80 years old. Among the 7,471 participants in the survey, 73 self-reported as following a gluten-free diet, and all of them had higher than normal levels of arsenic, mercury, and, to a lesser extent, cadmium, and dimethylarsinic acid, a compound used in herbicides.

Since this is the first study to report such a finding, the authors aren’t sure whether such exposure will lead to significant health problems, but there is cause for concern. Long-term exposure to arsenic, mercury, and cadmium can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, and kidney and brain damage.