An article in Jezebel's Kitchenette blog last week covered a new study supposedly finding that this whole "gluten sensitivity" epidemic we've been hearing about is actually a load of crap. And the study is apparently even more remarkable because it was done by the same guy who "discovered" gluten sensitivity in a different study, showing that "Yay! Science works!" And all that jazz.

Or, showing that you've just confused the hell out of people who already don't understand why coffee, chocolate and red wine are going to kill you one day and save your life the next. It's articles like this that lead people to lose faith in "Science" because they don't understand how the messy, bumpy road through scientific progress works. First, I'm pretty sure there is not just one lone scientist dude out there looking into this. And he did not find out "Gluten sensitivity is a Thing!" and then find out a few years later, "Gluten sensitivity is NOT a Thing!" Science doesn't actually work that way: no one makes broad declarations about a particular medical issue or research question based on a single study. (Well, at least no one who wants to be taken seriously in his field.)


Of course, in this case, the author of the Kitchenette piece didn't appear to even look at the study they're writing about anyway. Right off the bat, the author links to a Business Insider story, not the study itself. That tells me they didn't read the study and are writing the story based on another reporter's story on the study. Honestly, that's the point where I normally would stop reading altogether.

But I went and read the Business Insider piece. (Go to the source.) They say the researcher went to a "scientifically rigorous extreme for his next experiment, a level not usually expected in nutrition studies." Um, no he didn't. That reporter hasn't read many (any?) nutrition studies. They're often pretty complex. Nutrition itself is maddeningly complex. Oh, I see! As I keep reading, I discover that the Business Insider reporter hasn't read the study either — she writes, "According to Real Clear Science's Newton Blog, here's how the experiment went..."

So, at this point, we have a Jezebel story about a Business Insider story about a Real Clear Science story about a study of 37 people. The RCS story headline is "Non celiac gluten sensitivity may not exist" (emphasis mine). The Jezebel headline is "Gluten sensitivity is apparently bullshit." I think it's safe to say we're losing some nuance in this game of journalism telephone.


In the Business Insider story, they cite this study as "confirming" the new one's findings:…

Again, the author could not possibly have read (or at least understood) that study. All I did was read the abstract, and it does not confirm any findings of an absence of gluten sensitivity. It finds that just over a quarter of those who said they have gluten insensitivity actually have symptoms of it. That just means three quarters of people self-diagnosing it are wrong. No surprises there, but it sounds like it might exist for the other quarter. (I say "may" because, to be fair, they also may not have it since the symptoms could be those of another food allergy or another condition. We don't know one way or another based on the information learned through the study, but the study definitely does not completely exclude the possibility that gluten sensitivity exists, as the Business Insider story implies by saying it was "confirmation.")*

Besides, if celiac disease exists, and indeed it certainly does, then the idea that gluten sensitivity does NOT exist makes little sense. Very few biological things in this world are binary; nearly all are on a spectrum, and this author is implying that gluten sensitivity is not on a spectrum of any kind. I'd want to see evidence of that, and a single study of 37 people is insufficient. (To be honest, I'm not sure why any of these authors are writing about a study with such a small population in the first place. I'm a full-time science writer, and I would not cover a study with such a small "n" (participant number) unless it were a truly innovative proof-of-concept study or a randomized-controlled trial involving a very intensive intervention. While the number of participants does allow for reaching statistical significance, it does so only barely, which still limits clinical significance. Barely having enough participants to power your study is big limitation, in my book, and would preclude me from reporting on this study without a heavy dose of context, which the Kitchenette piece lacks.)

And then the last paragraph of the Jezebel piece is a gross oversimplification of the scientific method and the way scientific understanding progresses, but that's getting us a little off track from this study and gluten sensitivity, so I'll stick to the main issue.

So, is gluten sensitivity a fad? Sure it is. Does that mean it doesn't exist? Not at all. When I was in high school, a couple female friends who identified as bisexual were called "trendy" for doing so. Whether they were or weren't following a sexual-preference "trend" had nothing to do with the fact that bisexuality does, in fact, exist. I don't know if gluten sensitivity exists or not. Anecdotal evidence and a small amount of research, taken together, suggest it does. We have a very tiny study that might call that into question, or at least call into question what we know about how gluten sensitivity might be identified or characterized. But really, right now, there's really not enough research to know any definitive answers. We need more research. Because THAT is how science works.

*I added that parenthetical based on a valid critique of the way I myself had characterized that study based on the abstract. I have made a couple other edits based on that critique, received on social media. I also removed my complaint about the anti-GMO-esque mention of the protein study because my complaint was not with what the Jezebel writer said the abstract said, which was accurate, but because I have a problem with bringing in asides that are not adequately explained and therefore perpetuate fear and confusion when something is brought in offhand without context. I removed my sentence because it was similar to that very thing – an aside without sufficient context.