Gluten-free food choices lacking

The survey results indicate that though most participants described their diet as being strictly gluten-free.

University of Otago researchers say the lack of access to completely gluten-free diets is restricting the travel and social activities of people with coeliac disease.

Coeliac disease – an autoimmune condition in which the body reacts abnormally to the gluten portion of certain grains (including wheat, rye, barley, oats and their hybrids) interfering with the intestine’s absorption of various foods – affects about 1% of New Zealand adults. The only treatment is strict adherence to a gluten-free diet.

Dr Kirsten Coppell, along with fellow Otago researchers Kiri Sharp and Heather Walker, surveyed 936 clinically-diagnosed members of Coeliac New Zealand as part of The New Zealand Coeliac Health Survey. The survey results indicate that though most participants (88%) described their diet as being strictly gluten-free, many had incomplete recovery and continued to experience symptoms ranging from fatigue to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, weight loss, joint pains and skin rashes.

The survey also revealed that many patients, more than one-third (36%), had some degree of difficulty following a gluten-free diet, often due to problems finding good quality gluten-free foods and identifying whether foods were gluten-free or not from the labels. The researchers also noted that more than one-third (36.6%) of those surveyed avoided travelling because of coeliac disease at least some of the time, and one-quarter (25.6%) never or rarely ate at restaurants.

Dr Coppell says the situation has improved with more gluten-free options available in supermarkets and restaurants. But the findings indicate inadequate knowledge and processes for the manufacturing and preparation of gluten-free foods could be contributing to recurrent symptoms among those with coeliac disease.

“Even though 80% of participants were referred to a dietitian upon diagnosis, not all dietitians necessarily have extensive knowledge about gluten-free diets,” Dr Coppell says.

“Better quality control and awareness about gluten-free food production and preparation is needed within the food industry and the hospitality sector. Having up-to-date, good sources of information about adopting a gluten-free diet could make a significant difference for New Zealanders with coeliac disease.”

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