Sadness when people sensitive to gluten pass by a bakery with the scent of cooking without being able to buy a tradition. For 1% of the French population suffering from celiac disease, gluten is banned from the diet. For others, gluten can cause sensitivity with digestive discomfort indicated by bloating and diarrhea associated with abdominal pain. Are there ways to achieve more digestible gluten flours?

Christophe Lavelle, researcher at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) notes that “the proportion of people allergic to gluten is increasing in industrial urban areas”. Contrary to popular belief, the cause of sensitivity is not the increase in gluten content in cereals compared to old seeds. “The quantity of gluten contained in wheat has decreased over time,” recalls Catherine Grand-Ravel, researcher at the National Research Institute for Agriculture and the Environment (INRAE) where she was responsible for 2 projects on gluten. For Christophe Lavelle, “it is undoubtedly more the nature than the quantity of gluten that is to blame”.

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In an article published in the journal of Medicine of Metabolic Diseases in November 2023, Catherine Grand-Ravel explains that the selection of wheat to improve the digestibility of gluten is possible. Some ancient wheats seem to have less allergenic peptides than new wheats, but this is not the only element. Peptides, small molecules produced by the digestion of gluten, can be recognized by the immune system and could cause sensitivity.

For the INRAE ​​researcher, beyond gluten, other proteins could be responsible for sensitivity. His team was able to show the in vitro digestibility of gluten was weakened when the amount of amylase inhibitors/trypsins (ATIs) was high. These molecules are naturally present in wheat, and flours with more IAT would be less digestible. The selection of wheat seeds with low IAT contents could therefore be another avenue for wheat selection.

In Spain, a country advanced in the proposal of gluten-free foods, a team led by Francisco Barro, researcher at the Spanish Institute of Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, is working on genetically modified wheat whose properties make it more digestible. The results were published in May 2023 in the journal Frontiers in plant science and highlight certain less immunogenic wheats leading to fewer allergies. However, the researchers in the study point out the deficit in European legislation to authorize the cultivation of these new wheats.

For Christophe Lavelle, “today research is not only trying to identify the natural mutations involved in gluten sensitivity (in order to cultivate them less, Editor’s note) but also to understand how the bread-making process limits the effects of gluten. “. He specifies in particular that “sourdough bread is better tolerated by people hypersensitive to gluten because the fermentation involves bacteria and yeasts which help to break down gluten, unlike rapid fermentations with baker’s yeast alone”.

A final line of research concerns the growing conditions of cereals. The organization of the gluten network in wheat grains varies depending on the amount of sunshine and soil humidity in June and July. We could therefore imagine changes in irrigation and cultivation methods, but research on the subject remains to be carried out.

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