Background: It is expected that in patients with coeliac disease the small-bowel mucosal mucosa will return to normal if they adhere to a gluten-free diet (GFD). However, in many this is not the case. This study aims to determine whether this persistent villous atrophy (VA) could be due to continued ingestion of the trace amounts of gluten in 'gluten-free' foods, as defined by the WHO/FAO Codex Alimentarius.
Methods: Duodenal biopsy specimens from 89 adults with long-standing coeliac disease were examined, and the findings correlated with their form of gluten-free diet.
Results: In 51 subjects the duodenal specimen was normal, whereas in 38 there was villous atrophy (partial, 28; subtotal, 8; total, 2). There was no relationship between the presence or absence of VA and ingestion of either a GFD as defined by the Codex Alimentarius (Codex-GFD; 39 patients) or a GFD that contained no detectable gluten (NDG diet: 50 patients). Intraepithelial lymphocyte counts were higher, and lactase levels lower, in subjects with an abnormal biopsy specimen than in those in whom it was normal. However, within each of these biopsy groups there was no difference in these variables between patients on a Codex-GFD and those on an NDG-GFD. IgA antigliadin antibody was detected in 4 of 29 patients on a Codex-GFD and in 3 of 13 on a NDG-GFD (NS).
Conclusion: The persistent mucosal abnormalities seen in patients with coeliac disease on a GFD are not due to the ingestion of trace amounts of gluten. The consequences of these abnormalities have yet to be determined.