Proteins might be answer to wheat safety problem

Research projects in Manhattan, Kas., and Madrid, Spain, are tackling the same issue, one that might give hope to millions of people who want to eat wheat but can’t. The researchers are examining reactive proteins in wheat varieties, seeking to one day develop varieties that may be incorporated into flour and food that is safe for people with celiac disease to eat.

It could take years.

While hundreds of proteins come together to make up wheat gluten, only a few have the reactive properties that inflict people with celiac disease, says Chris Miller, Ph.D., director of wheat quality research at Manhattan-based Heartland Plant Innovations, which is trying to identify the reactive proteins.

Research at the Technical University of Madrid involves similar work, which was featured in the Dec. 15, 2016, issue of Food Chemistry.

In the United States, about 1% of the U.S. population has celiac disease, according to Beyond Celiac, Ambler, Pa., an organization that seeks to advance understanding of celiac disease and works to secure early diagnosis and effective management. People with celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet, which means they must avoid wheat as well as barley, rye and triticale.

“Avoiding wheat in your diet is incredibly difficult,” Dr. Miller says. “There are just so many foods that contain wheat.”

Gluten is more of a baking term than a scientific term, he says.

“Gluten is really a loose, non-scientific term to define maybe hundreds of wheat endosperm proteins,” Dr. Miller says. “Whenever you add water to flour, you form a dough. That hydrated protein mass that holds the dough together is what we call gluten.”

Researchers at Heartland Plant Innovations are studying modern-day wheat varieties as well as the older wild varieties that are relatives, or parents, of current wheat varieties.

“When the project started, it really was focused on identifying the reactivity of wheat — so, what proteins in wheat cause celiac disease reactivity,” Dr. Miller says. “But then when we got into it, we realized that there are other important end product uses of wheat, not just related to celiac.”

Baking characteristics such as volume loaf might be improved through studying the storage proteins in wheat, he says.

Read more on this story at Food Business News.