Genetically modified gluten – delicious and tasty irony

Gluten free diets, for about 99% of the population, are a pseudoscientific food fad that has captured the guts of those who consume any food quackery that makes the rounds. However, for those who have a medically diagnosed gluten sensitivity, there is good news – some new strains of wheat will produce a genetically modified gluten that may not trigger a gluten sensitivity.

Let’s wrap our mind around that – genetically modified gluten. I’m sure that won’t be problematic for those who have medically diagnosed issues with gluten. They’re going to be thrilled that they can eat real bread, pizza or pasta. I’m sure they’re not going to be concerned with any label that says “GMO foods here.”

Of course, the real scientific consensus about GMOs is that they are safe for humans, animals and the environment. And provide humans with more and healthier food. Like genetically modified gluten in wheat.

On the other hand, I’m certain (but I have no scientific evidence) that the Venn diagrams of those who buy into the nonsense about GMOs also buy into the pseudoscience of gluten. Those people might fall over from confusion.

Let’s take a look at gluten, the real medical issues of gluten sensitivity, and then what is this new genetically modified gluten in wheat. 

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, along with similar proteins found in common grains such as barley and rye. Generally, we like gluten, because it gives elasticity to dough, allowing bread or pizza crust to have that chewy texture, which is one of the important considerations for a pleasurable food experience.

Biochemically, gliadins are the class of proteins that make up parts of gluten. These proteins are essential for causing bread to rise during baking. Furthermore, the three main types of gliadin (α, γ, and ω) generally cause the the symptoms of celiac disease (discussed below).

Without trying to be a Food Network Star, gluten is critical in baking everything from bagels to cakes. Generally, kneading the dough forms long chain gluten protein molecules. And gluten makes up around 75-85% of the total protein in bread.

Additionally, pastas, pizza crusts, and many other foods use high gluten flour that is worked hard to create longer chain proteins. Believe it or not, good cooking involves intense knowledge of chemistry.

Gluten can be removed from the milled flour, or it can be added back for high gluten flour. In another bit of irony, purified gluten, because of its texture, is actually used to create fake meat products, so beloved (or not) by vegans.

So what is real gluten sensitivity?

There are generally two diagnosed medical conditions that cause people to be sensitive to gluten. The first condition is celiac disease (also known as coeliac disease in British English), which is an autoimmune disorder that afflicts the small intestine of certain  individuals who are genetically predisposed to gluten sensitivity. The disease afflicts between 1 in 1,750 and 1 in 105 people in the United States (or about 0.05 to 1%), a tiny number.

Celiac disease usually presents, but not always, with chronic diarrhea, low pediatric weight gain, and fatigue in response to gluten. In general, someone with celiac disease has a binary relationship with gluten – even a tiny amount causes the harsh symptoms. Unlike the fake gluten sensitive people, who will often say that they can survive with a little gluten or can take a day off from their gluten free diet, people with real celiac disease have to be obsessive about what’s in their food.

Although celiac disease is not completely understood, it appears that the immune system causes an inflammatory reaction of the lining the small intestine in response to gluten. This interferes with the absorption of nutrients. The only known effective treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.

Ironically, with this popular gluten-free food fad, a lot of packaged foods are marked “gluten-free” which benefits those with real celiac disease. That’s a good thing.

The second scientifically based related condition is a medically diagnosed wheat allergy, which is also caused by a reaction to wheat proteins, which generally do not include gluten. However, there are over 20 different wheat proteins, only rarely gluten, that have identified as causing wheat allergies. Finally, wheat allergies are extremely rare, and the gluten form of wheat allergies is so rare that it would take a huge population to detect it.

Outside of celiac disease and wheat allergies, both of which can be diagnosed objectively through comprehensive medical tests, there is a large group (by some reports, over 100 million Americans) who claim that they have some mysterious gluten sensitivity, which has a real name, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Like chronic Lyme disease, which is completely rejected by real medical science, there seems to be more non-medical advocacy for NCGS than found in the medical community.

However, there is some research into this potentially real or mythical condition, and there might be some small (smaller than the numbers for celiac disease or wheat allergy) number of people with a previously unknown type of gluten sensitivity, though a lot of scientists dispute it. The authors of the study into NCGS wrote that:

One of the most controversial and highly debated discussions concerns the role of gluten in causing NCGS. Recent reports have indicated that gluten might not be the cause of NCGS, and some investigators still question whether NCGS as a real clinical entity. (…) Cereals such as wheat and rye, when consumed in normal quantities, are only minor sources of FODMAPs (short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols) in the daily diet. Therefore, gluten-containing grains are not likely to induce IBS exclusively via FODMAPs. In contrast, there is growing evidence that other proteins that are unique to gluten-containing cereals can elicit an innate immune response that leads to NCGS, raising a nomenclature issue. For this reason, wheat sensitivity, rather than gluten sensitivity, seems to be a more appropriate term, keeping in mind that other gluten-containing grains such as barley and rye also can trigger the symptoms.

Think about this – humans have evolved with cereal grains for 20-30 thousand years, so in modern human evolution, those who couldn’t consume wheat would have had lower fitness, and natural selection would have preferred those without genes for gluten sensitivity. Thus, it is extraordinary rare.

A belief that a huge number of Americans have some genetic mutation that causes some unknown gluten sensitivity boggles the mind – it’s just not biologically plausible. There are large clinical studies that are examining the issue, but it may take years to complete and read about the results. At that time, we may learn of another gluten sensitivity that is supported by real science based medicine, but it will still be incredibly rare. Right now, all we have is anecdotes, which are never real scientific data.

There are dozens of myths about gluten. For example, some people believe that gluten causes autism, a slight improvement over the belief that vaccines cause autism. But real scientific evidence says there is no evidence of a link. In fact, there is significant evidence that reducing gluten in the diet may actually be unhealthy. So there’s that.

Now, genetically modified gluten

In a new article by S Sánchez-León et al., published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the authors describe a genetic modification technique to remove 90% of the gliadins (which cause the symptoms in celiac disease) in wheat. They did this by adding genes that induce a process called RNA interference, a biological process in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression or translation. This stops specific proteins, such as gliadins, from being made. As such, this will create a genetically modified form of gluten (lacking gliadins) which should not trigger celiac disease symptoms.

Unfortunately, the researchers were concerned that because some of the gliadin genes remained intact, it was possible that wheat could start making these proteins again. And as we mentioned above, gluten sensitivity for celiac disease patients is mostly binary, even a little gluten could cause the symptoms to explode.

The research team decided that it would be best to remove the genes entirely. They used a technique called CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing, a method to cut genes out of the genome. In this case, there are at least 45 copies of the gene for gliadin proteins – this is a huge task for gene editing. The paper reports that they have managed to delete 35 of the 45 genes.

Once again, this is great, but in the case of celiac disease, all 45 genes will have to be removed. So the CRISPR strain of wheat still requires more work before it’s available for broad clinical testing in real gluten-sensitive individuals. But the good news, after deleting 35 gliadin genes in the wheat, it still makes an acceptable bread. It can’t be used for making large sliced loafs of bread, but it can make baguettes and rolls. The reason for this is that the removal of most of gliadins impact the ability of larger loaves to rise appropriately.

There are small trials involving 10 and 20 people with celiac disease in Mexico and Spain who are consuming the genetically modified gluten bread. The study authors said that the results are very encouraging, although nothing has been published yet.

Conclusions about genetically modified gluten

Let me make some caveats. This biotechnology technique is only targeting gliadins, which are strongly implicated in celiac disease. It probably will have no effect on the tiny number of people with wheat allergies (where gluten is generally not implicated). It is unknown whether it would be helpful to the tiny number of individuals with non celiac gluten sensitivity.

Of course, some people with real gluten sensitivity will reject genetically modified gluten right out of hand. And of course, since I believe those that jump on the gluten-free fad, without any medical justification, will reject GMOs, because they accept nearly every woo-based food fad.

But for those who have a real gluten-sensitivity, this could be a huge godsend. Right now, there are gluten free breads, but they lack the texture and taste of real bread. This genetically modified gluten wheat can be used to make many foods that need gluten for proper texture and taste. Pasta, breads, bagels, cakes and many other flour based foods could benefit from this genetically modified gluten.

With this genetically modified gluten wheat strain, those with celiac disease will have access to better tasting foods. And that helps them maintain their diet. This is a boon for every individual with a real, diagnosed gluten sensitivity.


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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!