Does Your Body Think Coffee, Rice & Cheese Are Gluten? What The Experts Say About Cross Reactivity
You’ve eliminated wheat, rye, barley, and pretty much any other gluten-containing food or product, but you still have symptoms of gluten intolerance. While you might be diligent about following a gluten-free diet, you may still experience physical reactions after eating certain foods that don’t contain gluten. What gives?
If you’re battling bloating, abdominal pain, headaches, or any other symptoms related to consuming gluten, you may want to consider eliminating cross-reactive foods.
What is gluten cross-reactivity, and how does it happen?
Some foods (like corn, rice, and dairy, to name a few) have proteins so similar to gluten, that your body might confuse them with gluten even though they are absent of the specific protein, in a process called cross-reactivity.
When this happens, your immune system can view the two as the same. In other words, if you add cheese to your gluten-free bread, but you still experience bloating, gas, headaches, and other symptoms of gluten intolerance, the proteins in cheese could be to blame.
"Just in the same way that antibodies can mistake the body’s own tissues for the gluten-related foreign molecules, if there are other foods that have very similar molecular structures to them as well, the antibodies that have already been made to recognize and attack the gluten-related molecules can also recognize and attack these other food molecules too,” says Stephanie Berg, N.D. When this happens, Berg says the immune system can go into overdrive, resulting in inflammation-induced pain.
Gluten is just one protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, but there are other proteins that share a very similar molecular structure to gluten. “As such, in a person whose immune system is activated to react to the gluten protein, the immune system may also attack and react to these other proteins which mimic gluten,” explains cardiologist Steven Gundry M.D.
In a paper he presented at the American Heart Association Lifestyle and Epidemiology Annual Conference and published in the journal Circulation, he reported that 70% of gluten-sensitive patients react to several proteins in corn. Rice, he found, also has a protein that mimics gluten.
Lyla Blake-Gumbs, M.D., a board-certified family and functional medicine physician at SteadyMD, says food proteins with amino acid (protein subunits) similar enough to be "confused" with the proteins in gluten can cause this type of cross-reactivity.
According to a 2013 study published in Food and Nutrition Sciences, close to 30 percent of patients with gluten sensitivity have a poor response and continue to experience symptoms on a gluten-free diet. The lack of improvement in symptoms after following a gluten-free diet, they say, may be associated with dietary non-adherence or cross-reactive epitopes triggering a state of heightened immunological reactivity in gluten-sensitive individuals. In other words, other foods they’re eating can cause a similar gluten-induced reaction.
What are some common gluten cross-reaction foods?
That same study in Food and Nutrition Sciences found that attention should be given to dairy and other cross-reactive foods, such as yeast, corn, oats, millet, and rice in patients who do not show improvement on a gluten-free diet.
Berg agrees: She says in gluten-sensitive individuals, the foods that potentially cross-react with gluten include dairy products such as milk and cheese (and all their smaller protein molecules, such as various forms of casein, casomorphin, butyrophilin, and whey protein), corn, yeast, oats, rice, millet, and instant coffee (yes, really!). “The same antibodies that attack the gluten-related protein gliadin can also attack these foods,” she says.
That said, Berg does point out that depending on the part of the gluten-related protein you are sensitive to (glutenin or gliadin) and it’s specific molecular structure, those antibodies may or may not mistake certain other foods.
“So, while not all people with gluten-related sensitivity will necessarily be sensitive to all of these foods, there is a risk that they could stimulate the immune system,” she adds.
How can you manage cross reactivity?
Similar to the process you followed when removing gluten-containing foods from your diet, eliminating all cross-reactive foods from your diet is a beneficial first step.
The only way to circumvent these reactions, according to Blake-Gumbs, is to do a complete elimination diet that removes many of these foods for a period of no less than three to four weeks. “This allows the body to rid itself of these preformed antibodies,” she says.
Essentially, you may need to follow a gluten-free diet that also eliminates cross-reactive foods such as corn, rice, oats, millet, dairy, and food that contains yeast.
After a minimum of four weeks, you can begin the process of reintroducing these cross-reactive foods into your diet to see if any of the preexisting symptoms are triggered. If you can add dairy back and not experience bloating, abdominal pain, or any other symptoms of gluten sensitivity, then you may be able to add dairy products like cheese and yogurt to the list of foods you can eat. However, if you begin to experience those same symptoms within 24 to 48 hours of eating one of these foods, you may want to consider eliminating it from your diet permanently.
The bottom line.
If you’ve been eating a gluten-free diet, but are still experiencing symptoms related to gluten, you may want to try an elimination diet to see which cross-reactive foods are causing you problems. While you can experiment with this process on your own, it’s always best to consult your doctor, a nutritionist, or a registered dietician to help you find out what diet is best for you.
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., B.S., is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for mindbodygreen. She received her Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science from Central Washington University, and her Master's of Education in Counseling from City University of Seattle. Sara is both a mental health and fitness expert with over 20 years of experience in both fields, having written for Healthline, Insider, Verywell, LIVESTRONG, Men's Health, Bicycling Magazine, Runner's World, SheKnows, Yahoo Health, Greatist, and Headspace. She currently lives in Seattle, WA.