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Can Scientists Really Take the Gluten Out of Our Wheat?

In Kansas, researchers are hard at work in attempts to decode wheat's DNA and find a way to make it friendly even to the gluten intolerant and celiac disease sufferers.

by Munchies Staff
Mar 23 2015, 10:00pm

Gluten. Like its predecessor, "carbs," the word has practically become public enemy number one. Between the entire aisle of items emblazoned with "gluten-free" at your local health food store and the growing number of family members at your Thanksgiving feast every year that eschew stuffing, it's clear that the Global Pasta Rejection isn't going to end anytime soon. Nevermind that gluten is what makes our dinner rolls springy and our cinnamon rolls so delightful to pull apart—it could also the culprit in your coworker's epic diarrhea, or your brother's chronic headaches.

Which could be why scientists have a new agenda: instead of focusing on how to help people cope with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and gluten intolerance, why not roll some dough (pun intended) into research on how to make wheat—the villainous overlord of all things grain—gluten-free?

According to CBS News, the Kansas Wheat Commission is pouring $200,000 into a research project with the goal of decoding wheat's DNA and identifying which sequences are what cause the headaches, digestive problems, and other symptoms experienced by celiac disease sufferers. Once these sequences are identified, it could be possible to genetically engineer a variety of wheat that excludes them.

The research—which has been underway at Manhattan, Kansas' Wheat Innovation Center since July—hasn't yet developed a commercial product or been tested in conjunction with human immune system antibodies to see how those with celiac would react, but has progressed as far as the extraction of certain proteins that could help formulate the special gluten-free wheat. The research team is also looking at wheat's closest wild relatives, even exploring an early 20th-century Kansas wheat variety repository, to see if they can find or breed a grain that could offer the preferred texture and flavor of wheat without the icky repercussions for the gluten-sensitive.

The project's lead researcher, Chris Miller, works for Engrain, a company that works to enhance the nutritional value and aesthetics of the "milling and cereal industry"—in other words, those most invested in the success and marketability of grains. So it makes sense that such a company would panic at the fast-rising popularity of gluten-free products—and scramble to find a way to buy in.

But some have doubts as to whether the research will succeed. Armin Alaedini, assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University and researcher at the university's Celiac Disease Center, tells CBS News that he finds it unlikely that the project will result in anything that is either appropriate for those with serious celiac or preferential over existing gluten-free products. Though plentiful, many people complain that gluten-free breads, pizza crusts, and pastries have undesirable aftertastes or creepy textures.

According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, about one out of 133—or just under 1 percent—of the population suffers from celiac disease, a four-fold increase in the past 50 years. (Eighty percent or more don't know that they have it.) An additional 1.6 million Americans, and possibly more, are on a gluten-free diet despite lack of diagnosis. The market is massive, but the question is whether those in it would rather roll the dice for the sake of eating bread again or simply continue forgoing baguettes in the name of self-care.

But it does make you wonder if in a few years, your diner waitress might ask—when taking your toast order—might start by asking, "Gluten, or no gluten?"