Do foods like coffee, grains, dairy and chocolate "act" like gluten in the body and cause problems in those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity? You may have read that they do, but what does science say? There is a theory that certain foods mimic gluten and cause the same or similar symptoms that gluten would if ingested. This theory is called gluten cross reactivity.
Unfortunately as of now there isn't any proof the this exists in such an extensive list of foods. If you have celiac disease it's well known that oats (even the the gluten free ones) can create symptoms. Why is that? It's because there is a protein called avenin in oats that does actually cross react with gluten causing symptoms. So does this mean it's possible that other foods cross react with gluten but we just don't know yet? Perhaps, but for now oats are the only food proven to cross react with gluten.
Why are so many still sick despite a gluten free diet?
The reason gluten cross reactivity is talked about often is because there are many people on a gluten free diet and not experiencing relief of their symptoms. So on the search for answers they eliminate other food groups to trying to find relief. Commonly though they don't find relief of their symptoms because of the fact that they removed foods that cross react with gluten but because they've removed sources of trace gluten from their diets.
Many of the gluten-free-labeled foods we see on grocery store shelves contain a tiny bit of gluten. One landmark study showed that the majority of people with celiac disease did fine when they ate foods with less than 20 parts per million of gluten in them, and that's the standard required in most countries (1). Many manufacturers produce products that are well below 20 parts per million. However, some people still react to much less gluten than that.
It's very common for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to go on a gluten free diet and only feel partial relief of their symptoms. Many adults with celiac disease don't go into full remission, for reasons that are partly unknown. According to Stefano Guandalini, founder and medical director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center it seems that about 30 percent or so of the adults have complete remission, and the remaining 60-70 percent may have partial remission of their symptoms. Why do so few adults go into complete remission? There are two potential reasons 1. being they're still ingesting small amounts of gluten and 2. being they have had the disease for a very long time and the damage to their small in intestine is extensive and it may take a long time for the damage to heal.
What to do if you're still struggling with symptoms?
Many people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity feel much better on a diet that eliminates many of the gluten cross reactive foods probably because they contain small amounts of gluten. Sadly, many grains and many other ingredients common in processed foods can be cross-contaminated with gluten at very low levels. Grain-based products are a particular problem, but there are other sources of trace gluten as well like soy (commonly rotated with wheat crops aka cross contaminated), gluten free processed foods, and beans. Therefore, it's recommend that people who continue to have symptoms try a diet completely free of processed foods and almost all grains, as a way of reducing sources of trace gluten.
So in the future we many find out that cross reactivity with gluten does exist on some level but for now if you're better off eliminating traces of gluten by eliminating most gluten free processed foods, grains and beans and focusing on whole foods to see if you get relief.