Gluten in Probiotics? So What?


The New York Times recently reported on a yet-to-be published study which looked at the amount of gluten in probiotic supplements. The authors of the study purchased twenty-two different probiotics and found that twelve of them contained some level of gluten. Eight of the twelve were labeled gluten-free and two of the gluten-free labeled supplements were found to have levels of gluten greater than the FDA threshold of 20 ppm (parts per million).

The internet, as expected, took hold of the story and spread probiotic fear across social media. But before you go flushing your probiotics down the toilet, let’s take some time to discuss what the findings mean to you.

We are [probably] the 99%

If you are part of the estimated 1% of people in the United States with celiac disease or you have gluten sensitivity, then these findings are very relevant to your interests. Those diagnosed with celiac disease must adhere to a lifelong gluten-free diet to avoid causing intestinal damage and the painful side effects that go along with it. For the rest of us, consider the remainder of this post an educational experience.

Gluten in gluten-free products

The study covered by the New York Times focused on the gluten levels of probiotics, but it’s important to note that many food products labeled gluten-free contain trace levels of gluten. The FDA has set the gluten-free threshold at 20 ppm based on a variety of research that takes into account the individual tolerance of celiacs to gluten. This means that some people with celiac disease can tolerate levels of gluten higher than 20 ppm. One study suggests that gluten can be tolerated at levels as high as 100 ppm. Whatever the level, it is clear that a zero-gluten diet is impossible and unnecessary for those with celiac disease. Even Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl, co-author of the probiotic study, has been quoted as saying, “trace amounts of gluten contamination in a probiotic probably isn’t harmful for most celiacs”.

Are probiotics helpful for celiacs?

Research shows that probiotics are the most popular dietary supplements used by people with celiac disease, but celiacs who take probiotics report more symptoms than those who do not. Interestingly, these findings came from the same doctors who conducted the study assessing gluten levels in probiotics. The researchers developed the probiotic study to try and answer the chicken or the egg question, that is, they wanted to know if celiac patients sought out probiotics because they had symptoms or if the probiotics were causing the symptoms.

Studies have shown that those with celiac disease have a lower amount of beneficial bacterial species and one study showed that a certain probiotic strain caused significant improvement of symptoms in untreated celiac disease. While further research needs to be done, the fear of gluten contamination should not preclude the investigation into the role of probiotics in the treatment of celiac disease.

Advice for celiacs

If you have celiac disease, it’s important to discuss treatment options with your doctor and tell them about any supplements you may be taking. If you decide to take a probiotic, your safest bet is to take one that is labeled gluten-free and made in a certified GMP facility. If you are unsure, you can contact the manufacturer directly. You should also follow the serving size listed on the bottle because while one capsule may be considered gluten-free, five capsules may not.

For athletes and active individuals with celiac disease, straying from a gluten-free diet can cause flare ups and hinder performance. If you are taking or currently considering probiotics to enhance your athletic performance, Sound Probiotics are gluten-free and made in a certified GMP facility.

Final thoughts

The findings on gluten in probiotics bring up many questions about probiotic use in those with celiac disease. The fact that two probiotic brands that were labeled gluten-free exceeded the FDA limit does raise some red flags, but unfortunately the names of the tested brands are not being released by the researchers. If a probiotic brand is violating FDA regulations, consumers deserve to know and the brand needs to be allowed to refute the claims if possible.

by Katelyn Collins

Katelyn Collins, is a future registered dietitian with a passion for probiotics, a knack for nutrition communications, and a love of athletic pursuits on both land and sea