Is gluten intolerance on the increase?

According to Professor Markku Mäki, head of a research project in the Academy of Finland’s Research Programme on Nutrition, Food and Health (ELVIRA), the occurrence of gluten intolerance in the Finnish population has doubled in the past 20 years (1).  Although this study took place in Finland it is relevant to look at since many individuals in the UK are becoming increasingly concerned by food intolerance issues.  In the early 1980’s, about 1% of adults in Finland had gluten intolerance, but the figure has since gone up to 2% by the 2000’s.  In a press release (1) the professor stated “We’ve already seen a similar trend emerge earlier on where allergies and certain autoimmune disorders are concerned. Screening has shown that gluten intolerance occurs in 1.5 per cent of Finnish children and 2.7 per cent of the elderly. The higher figure for older people is explained by the fact that the condition becomes more frequent with age

In January I wrote about Food Allergy and Intolerance week and mentioned the charity Allergy UKAllergy UK is a national medical charity established to represent the views and needs of people with allergy, food intolerance and chemical sensitivity” 

Allergy UK say that “ Every patient with allergy or ‘intolerance’ should be able to get an adequate and appropriate allergy assessment through the NHS, with the right advice about avoidance of their triggers and management of their symptoms. Unfortunately NHS primary care allergy services are patchy and many people do not get the help they need.  Allergy UK continues to campaign for better provision of NHS allergy services but has also developed partnerships with others to provide paid-for allergy screening services for allergy sufferers who need them. Allergy UK ensures that the training for staff in these services is adequate and sensible, carries out audits and clinical governance and provides follow-up information and support for every person who uses these services”.  The charity also has a helpline 01322 619898 which can be called for information on your closest relevant NHS clinic or accredited screening services.  The website is full of information and certainly worth a visit


Although the information from Finland has not been duplicated in the UK it may well be relevant since it seems that increasing numbers of people are reporting experiencing symptoms of food intolerance.  According to Professor Mäki, gluten intolerance may often be symptom-free, and people may be unaware that they have the condition if their symptoms are mild or atypical. Three out of four people with gluten intolerance have not been diagnosed, which also means that they are as yet going without treatment (1).

Unfortunately diagnosis and screening methods are still not readily employed in the UK and there seems to be little consensus about which methods are best.  Professor Mäki’s research team has concluded that the criteria for diagnosing gluten intolerance must be rewritten. The current criteria for diagnosis tends to focus on damage to the intestines, established in a tissue sample from the small intestine. However, early stages of gluten intolerance are not identifiable from tissue samples.  People may suffer from gluten intolerance, yet have no intestinal symptoms. They may, however, have symptoms unrelated to the intestinal tract. Serious problems with nutrient absorption have become rare; instead, sufferers generally have anaemia due to iron deficiency or folic acid deficiency as their main symptom. If researchers manage to develop sensitive, accurate antibody tests, it will become possible to identify people with early stages of gluten intolerance, who are in need of further treatment. At present, there is no single test to reliably identify early stages of gluten intolerance (1).

A Food Intolerance fact sheet is available from Allergy UK and also mention a new food intolerance home testing kit, Food Detective™ which has been launched by Cambridge Nutritional Sciences Ltd.  If you think you may be suffering with a food allergy it would be worth using the website and calling the helpline for more information.  If you do purchase and use the home testing kit I would urge you to discuss the results with your GP, or call the Allergy UK helpline mentioned above.  It is never a good idea to simply cut out whole food groups as this can lead to nutritional deficiencies and other problems.


(1)Press release.  Academy of Finland Communications.

Written by Ani Kowal