By Emily

If there were such a thing as non-toxic wheat, what would it look (and taste) like? According to a recent article in the LA Times, researchers are trying to find out.

The article covers research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which scientists attempted to breed gluten-free wheat plants. The research was conducted by scientists from the Pacific Northwest, as well as from China and Germany.

Obviously this wheat is years and years from being anywhere near your local supermarket shelves, but much like the vaccines and medications currently in trial for celiac disease patients, it’s an exciting early-stage concept.

There is a lot of theorizing within the gluten-free community about the increasing numbers of people who must avoid gluten for medical reasons (whether celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Many point a finger at the molecular changes wheat has undergone over the past 50 years, supposing that as quantity and structure of gluten changed, our bodies’ ability to process it may have shifted. Given this line of thought, it’s not so far-fetched to think that we could science our way to a solution.

In this particular case, the scientists engineered a strain of wheat without a particular enzyme, which is known to activate many of the genes that are responsible for the most toxic components of gluten. The resulting plants had markedly reduced levels of these toxic components. As the scientists refine their experiment, they may be able to get the level of toxicity down to zero (or “not detectable”), rending wheat that is as safe as any gluten-free grain of today.

On a practical note, will this magical non-toxic wheat hold up in baking? Gluten taken as a whole is responsible for the elasticity of wheat dough; will this wheat lack elasticity? No, the scientists say.

The deeper explanation is that not all of the sub-components of gluten trigger adverse reactions in people with celiac disease. So, this magical wheat would not have to be protein-free, it would just need to be free of the specific peptides and molecules that trigger reactions. The study quotes prior research on baking with modified barleys and wheats, to good effect.

Plenty of obstacles stand in the way, of course, but it’s still fun to think about. If the scientists can develop a strain that seems promising, it will be tested on cells from celiac patients, and then on mice and gluten-sensitive apes and eventually on people with celiac disease to check for adverse reactions. And, yes, gluten-sensitive apes – apparently these exist, which is a separate topic altogether.

What do you think? Would you eat a product made with genetically modified nontoxic wheat?