As many as 2-3 million people in the United States have celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the villi of the small intestine and prevents the absorption of nutrients from food. The only treatment is to avoid eating gluten, the protein in wheat that gives baked goods their texture; gluten is also found in rye, barley, malt, oatmeal and many other foods that you might not expect. 1 out of 100 people may have celiac disease but only 1 out 10 of those with the disease are aware that they have it.
In the past decade, awareness about celiac disease has grown to the point that no company less than General Mills, maker of Betty Crocker products and Cheerios, has launched an all-out effort to produce gluten-free products as well as a website, GlutenFreely.com. Ater making Rice Chex gluten-freen, the company saw its sales of that cereal increase 29 percent in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012; it is seeking to offer greater transparency about what is in its products via detailed ingredient lists. General Mills even plans to offer a gluten-free version of Bisquick pancake and baking mix.
This is all well for the consumer as far as one’s diet. But gluten — as I learned in the 1990s, when we put our son Charlie on a gluten-free casein-free diet, which was being widely touted as a treatment for autism — lurks everywhere. It’s in the glue of some envelopes and it could be in a number of cosmetics, including products for the lips, face and body. A recent study of cosmetic products from the top ten companies in the US found that determining whether lipstick, lotion and the like contain gluten is a huge challenge.
Dr. [Marie L. Borum, MD, EdD, MPH, of George Washington University] said this study was prompted in part by one of her patient cases, “Body Lotion Causing A Celiac Exacerbation and Dermatitis Herpetiformis: Natural is Not Always Healthy,” where a 28-year old woman experienced exacerbation of her celiac symptoms, including gastrointestinal complications and a recurring skin rash after using a body lotion advertised as “natural.”
“It was difficult to determine whether gluten was contained in the product she was using,” said Dr. [Pia] Prakash [also of George Washington University]. “But once she stopped using the body lotion her symptoms resolved.
Noting this patient’s experience, Dr. Borum and Dr. Prakash reviewed the websites for the ten major cosmetic companies in the US and searched for their used of the terms “gluten” and “gluten-free.” They also researched individual products’ ingredients, as listed on the company website.
Only two of the top ten cosmetic companies in the United States offered detailed ingredient information, however no gluten sources were identified, according to the study. The independent websites offered ingredients from five companies — but no gluten sources were identified. Ingredient information was unavailable for four companies and none of the cosmetic companies specifically offered gluten-free cosmetic options, according to the study findings.
“The findings are alarming because gluten-containing cosmetics can be inadvertently obtained by the consumer and use of these products can result in an exacerbation of celiac disease,” said Dr. Prakash. “This study revealed that information about the ingredients, including the potential gluten content, in cosmetics is not readily available.”
With women being diagnosed with celiac disease two to three times more often than men, hidden gluten in cosmetics — especially products that one applies directly to one’s skin — could be causing symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas and diarrhea in people who are being otherwise careful to avoid gluten in their diet. With gluten-free products readily available in the aisles of the local supermarket, cosmetics companies should be at the least encouraged — and ultimately required — to reveal potential sources of gluten in their products.
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