Gluten-Free Wheat: Farmers Are Trying to Make an Oxymoron a Reality

Can a complicated breeding project be finished in time to capitalize on a diet trend?

(Photo: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)

Mar 24, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What if there was no gluten in wheat? For those who suffer from celiac disease—and the millions more who claim to suffer from gluten sensitivity—that would seem to be a dream come true. It’s a tempting fantasy for wheat farmers too, one they’re now trying to turn into a reality.

The Kansas Wheat Commission has committed $200,000 to fund the first two years of a genetic research project to construct a comprehensive list of everything in wheat’s DNA that can trigger a reaction in celiac patients, according to The Associated Press. While an increasing number of consumers—not just celiac sufferers—say they’re keen to avoid gluten in their diets, most seem to have only a hazy notion of what gluten is: a host of complex proteins that make dough sticky and elastic and give baked products like bread their distinct texture.

It’s no surprise the research is coming out of Kansas—the state consistently vies with North Dakota as the largest wheat producer in the country. When you’re growing upwards of 300 million bushels of a crop that contains one of the highest concentrations of a component that has become a dirty word among legions of consumers, you might do well to eliminate it.

“If you know you are producing a crop that is not tolerated well by people, then it’s the right thing to do,” Chris Miller, senior director of research as Kansas-based Engrain, tells the AP. Even as the lead researcher behind the project casts the effort toward gluten-free wheat as a kind of public service, it seems unlikely that the wheat industry would go to so much trouble just to try to develop a crop for the 1 percent of the population that’s estimated to have celiac disease.

Instead, they likely have their eye on the blockbuster growth over the past decade of the gluten-free market. Depending on how you measure it, that market is worth something like a billion dollars or possibly $10 billion (or more) in the U.S. alone, and even though market research firms define it different ways, most continue to predict double-digit growth.

Given that “gluten-free” has become hazily synonymous with feel-good (but largely meaningless) labels such as “all natural” and “healthy,” it seems a smart move that the Kansas project aims to produce its gluten-free wheat the old-fashioned way—through selective breeding of wheat strains identified as naturally low in whatever gluten proteins might trigger celiac symptoms rather than genetically modifying the wheat.

But that just signals how confused the whole issue of gluten has become, wherein a natural substance that happens to cause a serious autoimmune reaction in a very small portion of the population now is being tarred as a nutritional bugaboo for the masses.

In other words: What if just about everything we think we know about gluten is wrong?

Writing for New York University’s ScienceLine this week, Nicole Lou reminds us that the research behind so-called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the catchall diagnosis for those who seem gluten-intolerant but don’t have celiac disease, is far from settled. Many consumers who eat gluten-free foods have never been diagnosed with any celiac-related disorder—or any medical condition at all. That would be 82 percent of gluten-free consumers surveyed by the market research firm Mintel. Some 65 percent of consumers who eat gluten-free foods say they do so because those foods are healthier, while more than a quarter say they do it to lose weight, despite no scientific evidence to that effect, according to Mintel.

As it turns out, those who think they might be sensitive to gluten may not be sensitive to gluten at all. Rather, their bodies may be reacting instead to an entirely different set of compounds found in wheat and tons of other foods. The suspected culprits are not gluten proteins but carbohydrates known as—get ready for it—“fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols,” or FODMAPs. Fructose and lactose are FODMAPs, as are fructans (found in wheat as well as garlic and onions), galactans (in beans and legumes), and polyols (in stone fruits).

In 2011, a study out of Australia appeared to offer the first scientific support for the notion that there could be such a thing as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But two years later, Peter Gibson, the scientist who had led the research team, conducted a different study, and this one pointed to FODMAPs—not gluten—as the culprit behind the sort of digestive complaints often associated with gluten insensitivity.

“When you decrease FODMAPs, 75 percent of people with bowel symptoms are better,” Gibson tells ScienceLine. That’s compared with only 8 percent of participants who showed gluten-specific effects.

Already, “low-FODMAP” diets have begun to appear on the radar. But rather than jump on the low-FODMAP bandwagon, as so many consumers have done when it comes to forswearing gluten, we might do better to wait for the science to catch up to our suspicions. Experts say that within the next decade, we could see advanced diagnostic techniques that could analyze a patient’s intestinal bacteria to determine whether gluten or FODMAPs are causing gastrointestinal symptoms—though it might be harder to convince consumers they are merely suffering from an overabundance of food-marketing hype.

In the meantime, wheat farmers will try to get rid of the wheat in gluten altogether—and if FODMAPs prove to be as trendy of a dietary nemesis, we may soon be covering a new program to breed them out of the grain too.