Not all wheat is created equal, according to researchers in The Netherlands. The current treatment for celiac disease is strict avoidance of all products containing gluten, which is the protein that gives bread its characteristic texture. Without the stability provided by gluten, carbon dioxide generated by yeast in bread dough would bubble out, and the dough would fail to rise. It is technically difficult to produce gluten-free products with the same texture as bread and cakes, so these alternative products tend to be either dense or expensive or both.
However, it should be possible to modify the gluten protein to make it safe. Hetty C. van den Broeck and collaborators reported that celiac patients have trouble with only small parts of the gluten molecules, called epitopes. These authors hypothesized that selective breeding of wheat over the last 100 years has increased the levels of celiac-toxic epitopes in commercial wheat, leading to an increase in the rates of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
“In general, the toxicity of modern wheat varieties has increased,” van den Broeck and coworkers explained. They tested 36 modern wheat varieties and 50 traditional, minimally altered wheat varieties known as landraces. The results confirmed that modern varieties have more of the celiac-toxic epitope Glia-alpha-9 relative to the non-toxic epitope Glia-alpha-20. Selective breeding could, in principle, produce wheat varieties much safer for human consumption.
Dr. Jennifer May-Ling Tjon and coauthors reported that the total amount of gluten in the diet is a key factor in the development of celiac disease. Approximately 25 percent of the Caucasian population has a genetic susceptibility, but only 1 percent is currently diagnosed. A cell-mediated immune response to specific peptides from gluten in the small intestines produces the inflammatory condition.
Prevention of celiac disease can be life-saving for some individuals. Approximately 3 percent of those diagnosed with celiac disease fail to recover even with a strict gluten-free diet, and are at risk of developing lymphoma.
At the other end of the spectrum, many individuals have some degree of gluten sensitivity. Celiac-safe wheat could offer health benefits for a large number of consumers. Watch your grocery store for new products.
van den Broeck HC et al, “Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern
and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed
to increased presence of celiac disease”, Theor Appl Genet. 2010; 121:
1527-39. Pubmed 20664999
Tjon JML et al, “Celiac disease: how complicated can it get?”
Immunogenetics 2010; 62: 641-51. Pubmed 2066173http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20661732
Reviewed May 24, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton
Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D.
in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her
background includes academic and industrial research in materials
science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.