Some Updates on Wheat Varieties and Gluten
Jun 10, 2018
Anyone familiar with consumer and food trends is no stranger to the range of 'gluten-free' foods being labeled on the market. Everything from oatmeal to bottled water. While only 1% or less of the US population has the most extreme form of gluten sensitivity, (celiac disease) many consumers have a negative view of gluten. I would say 'wheat' products since gluten is a wheat protein, but many consumers and food marketers disregard the facts about what gluten is or where it comes from. I remember a few years ago at my daughter's gymnastics class overhearing a parent comment that their kid's soccer game was terrible earlier because they had previously eaten french fries that were not gluten free! Potatoes of course don't have gluten. (A generous view would consider maybe they were some kind of beer battered fries that used flour...or they were worried about the same fryer being used to fry something else like battered fish etc...)
One thing for sure, a lot of products containing wheat have gotten a bad rap because of the gluten free trend, and manufactures have taken the opportunity to slap a gluten free label on about anything to sell it. Another common theme is that it's modern wheat varieties that are to blame. (I've even heard claims that it's GMO wheat....despite no GMO wheat has ever been on the market). In a recent Talking Biotech podcast Kevin Folta interviews Dr. Senay Simsek about her work in the Journal Food Chemistry related to modern wheat varieties and gluten. When looking across a wide range of wheat varieties used in the past and into the present day, they find no evidence that modern era wheat (starting in the 1960's) is more likely to contain the proteins related to the most extreme forms of gluten sensitivity. So this gives some evidence to push back against some of the false hype around gluten.
In part of the discussion, they talked about the fact that combining improved knowledge of gluten sensitivity, wheat genetics, and tools like gene editing could potentially open the door for developing wheat products that were 'gluten free' or at least free of the particular sub-classes of proteins that were problematic.
However, with less than 1% of consumers actually having Celiac disease is this a profitable thing to pursue? You might think so for a few reasons. 1) Those with celiac disease could eat pizza again 2) Even those with other types of gluten sensitivities could enjoy a wider range of products. 3) Food marketers have demonstrated that they believe there is value in the 'gluten free' appeal based on proliferation of gluten free labels on the shelf. But I think here is the rub. Many many probably avoid gluten, not because they have celiac disease, or even necessarily even because they have sensitivities to gluten. I wonder how much of the hype is based on following the crowd and making political fashion statements about 'big ag' and the Green Revolution and our addiction to industrial chemicals and fertilizers? A modern technological breakthrough that actually could lead to bread and pasta Celiacs could eat might be rejected by the larger block of consumers that would be most likely to buy the watermelons at the farmers market if they are advertised as 'gluten free.'
Sad. True. Ironic. At least this research pushes back a little agains some of the hype driving this craze.