Scientists Working on Non-Toxic Wheat

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?

15 thoughts on “Scientists Working on Non-Toxic Wheat”

  1. I think this goes under the heading of interesting, but absurd. If we believe we got ourselves into the pickle of “toxic wheat” through genetic engineering, why do we believe we can engineer ourselves out of it? There’s absolutely no guarantee there will not be other toxic side effects to the miracle gluten-free wheat.

    Instead, I think it’s time for the wheat-eating population to go back to more ancient (and digestible) versions of wheat, like einkhorn. The argument that we need the high-yield varieties is a fallacy, since there’s a glut of grains on the market, and they never actually get to the third-world countries agribusiness claims to be feeding with genetically engineering and intensive agriculture.

    And for those of us who can’t eat wheat, why do we need to have gluten-free wheat? Personally, I wouldn’t be willing to take the risk on it.

  2. I am free of traditional symptoms, but at 53 have gone through many iron infusions, have osteoporosis and my spleen was removed at 6. I can eat wheat and not know what the damage is…. Nothing about this “solution” appeals to me!

  3. This is a dangerously bad idea. I agree with Pamela–if we got into this mess through genetic engineering, then the solution has to be less engineered foods, not more of them. I would never eat this wheat and would never allow my celiac son anywhere near it.

    Socially, it is very disturbing as well. I think it reinforces to everyone, gluten-avoiding or not, the idea that food without wheat is inferior or somehow not “real” food, kind of like all that fake vegetarian “meat.” If you’re not going to eat the real thing, for whatever reason, why eat a fake version of it? Why not focus on all the amazing foods that naturally don’t contain wheat? Around here, there aren’t enough days in the week to eat the incredible variety of non-wheat foods we have.

    The only way this could possibly be of any benefit would be if every single pizza place, bakery, and restaurant in the world would switch to this wheat, so that those with celiac could eat out with less fear of cross-contamination. I still wouldn’t eat it directly.

  4. It’s certainly worth pursuing. However, it would only be really useful if it replaced all wheat. After all, eating gluten-free at home is easier than ever. It’s restaurants and prepared foods that will remain dangerous until wheat is reformed.

    And if we can’t even get Asian restaurants to serve wheat-free soy sauce — which is widely-available — than how likely would it be get restaurants to serve gluten-free wheat, if and when it becomes available?

  5. I think Pamela is smoking some einkorn. Today’s wheat is no more “toxic” than it was decades ago. The discovery of diseases like Celiac doesn’t mean they are new from some wicked treatment of our crops. It means we have developed the clinical technology to define and detect these diseases.

    It is a nice thought to go back to ancient grains but it is not going to happen. Although I am not sure I would eat gluten free wheat without some long term studies, really long.

    Like with other autoimmune diseases we need a multi-platform approach to treatment and cure. Pushing research will bring both edible grains and medicines for those of us with Celiac.

  6. I would not try it. I believe that autoimmune sensitivities are more complex than these scientists think. Genetically modified plants have their own issues. It’s much more healthful for me to just avoid what is toxic to me and simply eat good, wholesome foods.

  7. You’d bet I’d give it try, if the product tasted pretty much the same as the currently unmodified wheat. I do miss having a bowl of granola in the morning, or a warm dish of oatmeal. So it would be nice to be able to resume that relationship once again. I am skeptical that this new strain of wheat will work, as mentioned in the article regarding elasticity of wheat dough. But if does, I agree it will likely take many years to develop and get it marketed. I do not necessarily share all the fears of those who see genetically modified food as a health hazard, though I do agree that as much research to establish the safety of modified food should occur, as is currently spent in research to develop genetically modified grains in the first place.

  8. Our family avoids GMOs like the plague in all of our gluten free alternatives, why would we justify this toxicity just to have “wheat” again? It’s like the diabetic eating artificial sweeteners because they can’t have sugar – NOT worth the risks!
    Monsanto can keep their “frankenseeds”; we won’t touch them.

  9. Because of wheat allergy and other food allergies, my family makes a point to avoid genetically modified foods as much as possible. (We try to avoid ingredients that are most commonly GM, such as corn, soy, cottonseed, canola, sugar beets, papaya, etc.) I think genetically engineering foods has led to the increase in food allergies — and it’s not good for the environment. So we would still avoid this wheat.

  10. Why don’t they just go back to the wheat that God made instead of the wheat we have today which has change into something else.

  11. Aretaeus, the Roman physician, first described the Coeliac condition long before we could effectively even look at our own cuticles, much less before we were genetically engineering anything. Perhaps, people of old bred strains of wheat that made more gluten and thus, better bread, to feed their starving bellies, created a wheat that folk from another geographic region, could not digest properly. So many people leap to paranoid conclussions… somene must have harmed them with their avarice, thru greedy genetic engineering. Any genetic effort will take a century to perfect and convert the current system of horticulture to mainstream a non-toxic product. People want to jump on and beat the crap out of any effort to help us enjoy a normal, mainstream diet… because they don’t ‘feel’ it is wholesome…. please proselytize elsewhere. If they can develop a wheat that won’t make me poop all over myselfl and get it to me in a product uncontaminated and tasty I’ll open my wallet gladly, like the 99% who do today.

  12. This isn’t GOOD news!!! It’s ridiculous! It’s just feeding fuel to what’s already wrong with this country. Modify, modify, modify should be our national slogan. The things we eat are already so genetically modified, which is why SO many people have issues with the food we eat. It’s disturbing and disgusting that they are even wasting time and taxpayer dollars for such foolishness. I would NEVER eat anything of this sort.

  13. I have to laugh at this—we are very busy making sure we do not have GMO in our food—But, we can hardly wait until they GMO wheat so we can eat it—-NO<NO<NO.

  14. Doug, I just enjoyed that bowl of warm, oatmeal that you long for. It is Glutenfreeda Instant Oatmeal, 3 flavor pack. Unbelievably good. They are based out of Washington.

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