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Gluten-Free Grains in Relation to Celiac Disease - by Donald D. Kasarda, Former Research Chemist for the United States Department of Agriculture

Preface: The following information was supplied originally in 1991 in the form of a letter to Phyllis Brogden, Chairperson of the Greater Philadelphia Celiac Sprue Support Group, by Donald D. Kasarda, who was a Research Chemist with the US Department of Agriculture at that time. Copies were sent to four other major celiac patient groups in the US. Dr. Kasarda retired from the USDA in 1999, but updated the information in February of 2000. Dr. Kasarda wishes to add the following disclaimer to the information: These are my opinions based on quite a few years of research in the area of proteins as they relate to celiac disease. They do not necessarily represent those of the Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture. If you have any questions or comments regarding the piece, you can address them to Don at: kasarda@pw.usda.gov

The only plants demonstrated to have proteins that damage the small intestines of people with celiac disease are those from wheat, rye, and barley (and the man-made wheat-rye cross called triticale). Although oats had generally been considered harmful until 1996, several high quality studies published since then indicate that oats are not harmful either in celiac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis. Some physicians choose not to accept these findings or else point out that there is some potential problem of contamination of oats by wheat. The contamination question has not yet been adequately researched, but may be overemphasized. The three harmful species are members of the grass family and are quite closely related to one another according to various schemes of plant classification (taxonomy). However, not all members of the grass family damage the intestines of celiac patients. Rice and corn, for example, are apparently harmless.

Many other grains have not been subjected to controlled testing or to the same scrutiny as wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, and corn in relation to celiac disease. In fact, only wheat and oats have been extensively studied in controlled experiments with the most up-to-date methods. If we accept corn and rice as safe, however, and this seems reasonable to me, then members of the grass family that are more closely related to these species (on the basis of taxonomy) than to wheat are likely to be safe. Such grasses include sorghum, millet, teff, ragi, and Jobs tears, which appear to be reasonably closely related to corn. In some cases, there are protein studies in support of this conclusion, although the studies are not sufficiently complete to provide more than guidance. Scientifically controlled feeding studies with celiac patients would provide a better answer. However, such studies are not likely to be carried out in the next few years because of high costs and the difficulty of obtaining patient participation (such studies would likely involve intestinal biopsy). In lieu of feeding studies, further studies of protein (and DNA) would provide the next best way to evaluate my suggestion that millet, sorghum, teff, ragi, and Jobs tears are not likely to be toxic in celiac disease, although even such studies are hampered at present by a lack of knowledge of which sequences in the wheat gluten proteins are harmful. There is evidence that a few sequences are harmful, but not all possibilities have yet been tested.

The scientific name for bread wheat is Triticum aestivum var. aestivum--the first part of the name defines the genus (Triticum) and the second part, the species (aestivum). Species falling in the genus Triticum are almost certain to be harmful to celiac patients. Grain proteins of these species include the various types characteristic of the gluten proteins found in bread wheats (including the alpha-gliadins) that cause damage to the small intestine in celiac disease. Durum wheats (Triticum turgidum var. durum) used for pasta are also harmful to celiac patients. Some Triticum species of current concern include Triticum aestivum var. spelta (common names include spelt or spelta), Triticum turgidum var. polonicum (common names include Polish wheat, and, recently, Kamut), and Triticum monococcum var. monococcum (common names include einkorn and small spelt). I recommend that celiac patients avoid grain from these species. Also, given their very close relationship to bread and durum wheats, I think it is unlikely that these grains would be safe for those with classical allergic responses to wheat.

Rye (Secale cereale) and barley (Hordeum vulgare) are toxic in celiac disease even though these two species are less closely related to bread wheat than spelta and Kamut. They belong to different genera, Secale and Hordeum, respectively, and lack alpha-gliadins, which may be an especially toxic fraction.

There have been anecdotal reports suggesting a lack of toxicity in celiac disease for spelta and Kamut, along with anecdotal reports of the opposite, at least in the case of spelt-celiac patients who have been harmed by eating it. Controlled tests would be necessary to draw a firm conclusion, although they hardly seem necessary insofar as spelt and Kamut should be considered forms of wheat.

The diagnosis, sometimes self-diagnosis, of celiac disease is occasionally made without benefit of reasonably rigorous medical or clinical tests, especially intestinal biopsy. Individuals who are diagnosed in this way without rigorous testing may not actually have celiac disease. Claims that particular foods cause this latter group no problems in relation to their celiac disease could cause confusion.

Furthermore, celiac patients who report no problems in the short run with spelt or Kamut might experience relapse later. There is now adequate evidence that when celiac patients on a gluten-free diet (that is, a diet free of any proteins or peptides from wheat, rye, and barley) have wheat reintroduced to their diets, times-to-relapse vary enormously among individuals, ranging from hours to months, or even years. And this is for wheat, presumably the most toxic of all cereal grains to celiac patients.

Additionally, the relapse may not be accompanied by obvious symptoms, but be recognized only by physicians through observation of characteristic changes in the small intestinal tissues obtained by biopsy. The reasons for the enormous variability of response times are not known. It may be speculated that the variability has something to do with the degree of recovery of the lining of the small intestine on a gluten-free diet, the degree of stress that the patient had been experiencing (including infections), and individual genetic differences.

As I have indicated, all known grain species that cause problems for celiac patients are members of the grass family. In plant taxonomy, the grass family belongs to the Plant Kingdom Subclass known as monocotyledonous plants (monocots). The only other grouping at the Subclass level is that of dicotyledonous plants (dicots). Some other species about which celiac patients have questions actually are dicots, which places them in very distant relationship to the grass family. Such species include buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, and rape. The seed of the last plant listed, rape, is not eaten, but an oil is pressed from the seeds that is commonly used in cooking. This oil is being marketed as canola oil. Because of their very distant relationship to the grass family and to wheat, it is highly unlikely that these dicots will contain the same type of protein sequence found in wheat proteins that causes problems for celiac patients. Of course, some quirk of evolution could have given rise in these dicots to proteins with the toxic amino acid sequence found in wheat proteins. But if such concerns were carried to a logical conclusion, celiac patients would have to exclude all plant foods from their diets. For example, buckwheat and rhubarb belong to the same plant family (Polygonaceae). If buckwheat were suspect for celiac patients, should not rhubarb, its close relation, be suspect as well?

It may be in order to caution celiac patients that they may have undesirable reactions to any of these foods--reactions that are not related to celiac disease. Allergic reactions may occur to almost any protein, including proteins found in rice, but there is a great deal of individual variation in allergic reactions. Also, buckwheat, for example, has been claimed to contain a photosensitizing agent that will cause some people who have just eaten it to develop a skin rash when they are exposed to sunlight. Quinoa and amaranth may have high oxalate contents-approaching those of spinach and these oxalate levels may cause problems for some people. Such reactions should be looked for, but for most people, buckwheat, quinoa, or amaranth eaten in moderation apparently do not cause problems. (Buckwheat is sometimes found in mixture with wheat, which of course would cause a problem for celiac patients.) It seems no more necessary for all people with celiac disease to exclude buckwheat from their diets because some celiac patients react to it than it would be for all celiac patients to exclude milk from their diets because some celiac patients have a problem with milk.

In conclusion, scientific knowledge of celiac disease, including knowledge of the proteins that cause the problem, and the grains that contain these proteins, is in a continuing state of development. There is much that remains to be done. Nevertheless, steady progress has been made over the years. As far as I know, the following statements are a valid description of the state of our knowledge:

  • Spelt or spelta and Kamut are wheats. They have proteins toxic to celiac patients and should be avoided just as bread wheat, durum wheat, rye, barley, and triticale should be avoided.
  • Rice and corn (maize) are not toxic to celiac patients.
  • Certain cereal grains, such as various millets, sorghum, teff, ragi, and Jobs tears are close enough in their genetic relationship to corn to make it likely that these grains are safe for celiac patients to eat. However, significant scientific studies have not been carried out for these latter grains.
  • There is no reason for celiac patients to avoid plant foods that are very distantly related to wheat. These include buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, and rapeseed oil (canola). Some celiac patients might suffer allergies or other adverse reactions to these grains or foodstuffs made from them, but there is currently no scientific basis for saying that these allergies or adverse reactions have anything to do with celiac disease. A celiac patient may have an allergy to milk, but that does not mean that all celiac patients will have an adverse reaction to milk. Again, however, scientific studies are absent or minimal for these dicots.

A list of my publications with pertinence to celiac disease follows. Cross-references to the literature for most of the points discussed above can be found in these publications.

  • Kasarda, D. D., and DOvidio, R. 1999. Amino acid sequence of an alpha-gliadin gene from spelt wheat (Spelta) includes sequences active in celiac disease. Cereal Chem. 76:548-551.
  • Kasarda, D. D. 1997. Celiac Disease. In Syllabus of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition, 4th Annual Postgraduate Course, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, pp. 13-21.
  • Kasarda, D. D. 1997. Gluten and gliadin: precipitating factors in coeliac disease. In Coeliac Disease: Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Coeliac Disease (September 5-7, 1996), edited by M. Mäkki, P. Collin, and J. K. Visakorpi, Coeliac Disease Study Group, Institute of Medical Technology, University of Tampere,Tampere, Finland, pp. 195-212.
  • Srinivasan, U., Leonard, N., Jones, E., Kasarda, D. D., Weir, D. G., OFarrelly, C., and Feighery, C. 1996. Absence of oats toxicity in coeliac disease. British Medical Journal 313:1300-1301.
  • Tatham, A. S., Fido, R. J., Moore, C. M., Kasarda, D. D., Kuzmicky, D. D., Keen, J. N., and Shewry, P. R. Characterization of the major prolamins of tef (Eragrostis tef) and finger millet (Eleusine coracana). J. Cereal Sci. 24:65-71. 1996.
  • Kasarda, D. D. 1994. Defining cereals toxicity in coeliac disease. In Gastrointestinal Immunology and Gluten-Sensitive Disease, edited by C. Feighery, and F. OFarrelly, Oak Tree Press, Dublin, pp. 203-220.
  • Shewry, P. R., Tatham, A. S., and Kasarda, D. D. 1992. Cereal proteins and coeliac disease. In Coeliac Disease, edited by M. N. Marsh, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, U. K., pp. 305-348.
  • De Ritis, G., Auricchio, S., Jones, H. W., Lew, E. J.-L., Bernardin, J. E. and Kasarda, D. D. 1988. In vitro (organ culture) studies of the toxicity of specific A-gliadin peptides in celiac disease. Gastroenterology 94:41-49.
  • Kagnoff, M. F., Patterson, Y. J., Kumar, P. J., Kasarda, D. D., Carbone, F. R., Unsworth, D. J. and Austin, R. K. 1987. Evidence for the role of a human intestinal adenovirus in the pathogenesis of celiac disease. Gut 28:995-1001.
  • Levenson, S. D., Austin, R. K., Dietler, M. D., Kasarda, D. D. and Kagnoff, M. F. 1985. Specificity of antigliadin antibody in celiac disease. Gastroenterology 89: 1-5.
  • Kagnoff, M. F., Austin, R. K., Hubert, J. J., Bernardin, J. E. and Kasarda, D. D. 1984. Possible role for a human adenovirus in the pathogenesis of celiac disease. J. Exp. Med. 160: 1544-1557.

Grains in Relation to Celiac (Coeliac) Disease by Donald D. Kasarda.
An annotated copy: http://wheat.pw.usda.gov/topics/

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20 Responses:

 
f.brock
Rating: ratingfullratingfullratingfullratingfullratingfull Unrated
said this on
15 Jan 2008 1:42:59 AM PST
I wanted information about amaranth - this article was the first I found to put the scientific knowledge in a clear, concise way, so I could make up my own mind - thank you!

 
aileen
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said this on
14 Jun 2014 10:33:57 PM PST
AMARANTH ALLERGY! I do not have celiac but an intolerance to wheat. My stomach bloats and I have IBS symptoms. Maybe I have IBS as I have many of those symptoms. However a shocking surprise was an allergy to amaranth. I try different foods to substitute wheat and after having vomiting reactions to prepared food I eventually narrowed it down to the amaranth I was adding. The re-action comes about 2-3 hours after eating amaranth - numb dry mouth followed by upper stomach discomfort and eventually vomiting. Very uncomfortable for quite a few hours. I do not have this re-action to buckwheat or quinoa so if anyone can explain I would be grateful. Thanks.

 
Sita
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said this on
20 Jan 2008 8:31:06 AM PST
Very informative, especially in relation to ragi & rice. Thank you.

 
Rachel
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said this on
27 Feb 2008 7:00:20 AM PST
I was looking for information on Quinoa, because I had assumed there was no way I could eat it. Now, I'm willing to give it a try! I printed a copy of this so I can take it to the grocery store. You feel so restricted when you have Celiac and I feel like a wide window was just opened to me - exciting!

 
Marcela Rose
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said this on
15 Nov 2011 8:24:33 PM PST
Quinoa is a fantastic grain and we love it. There is so much you can do with it!! Its fast replacing my love of rice.

 
Amanda CCC
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said this on
21 May 2008 3:09:00 AM PST
This article was clear. I enjoyed reading it and understood the material. However, this information appears to be only hope for those who don't have a known allergy to corn. Most of the distant grains are closely related to corn. I think that corn allergies should be mentioned as a caution.

 
Bernice Dalby
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said this on
18 Dec 2008 7:20:38 PM PST
You have covered many grains that have had me wondereing what they are and if they are safe. I thank you.

 
Tracy
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said this on
24 Jan 2009 7:42:55 AM PST
Thank you for this information. I had made the same conclusions about the grass family. However, I did not know that canola oil was actually rapeseed oil and had been concerned about canola's origins.

 
Mark
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said this on
20 Jun 2009 9:29:28 PM PST
It should be noted that canola is a cultivar of rapeseed, and is said to be much less toxic than traditional rapeseed. So, there is a difference, apparently. Also, 80% of the canola acres are said to be genetically modified.

So in essence, canola may be considered rapeseed (by some), but rapeseed is not necessarily canola.

 
Jessa
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said this on
22 Nov 2009 3:07:04 PM PST
My infant son was diagnosed with celiac and I am still nursing him, so by default my diet became gluten free. I had been trying to find good information on all things related to gluten and gluten free diets, this article and entire site has been a God send!! Thank you so much!!

 
Hugh Gross
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said this on
03 Apr 2010 1:13:27 AM PST
Best Information.

 
tina
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said this on
18 Oct 2010 10:12:52 PM PST
Enjoyed reading about all the grains... I had just read the ingredient Buckwheat on a product and wondered if I should eat it. Decided not too, Can't wait until tomorrow to eat it! Thanks for one more product to eat. Also didn't know about Canola oil. Again interesting.

 
Stuart Sherring
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said this on
20 Feb 2011 8:41:38 AM PST
This article is extremely helpful as I am looking to broaden the scope slightly of my excellent Bircher recipes. Many thanks.

 
B Bond
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said this on
18 Jun 2011 4:44:30 AM PST
Clear excellent advice. Someone who has 2 daughters who may both have this disease thanks you.

 
Pamela
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said this on
14 Jul 2011 8:59:53 AM PST
I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I was born with it and doctors did not discover the problem until I was 2 years. I was born in 1987 and one of the first out of 100 to be diagnosed with this rare disease that is now becoming more common.

 
Julia
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said this on
17 Jul 2011 2:33:18 PM PST
I have been experiencing intestinal problems for years and will be tested for celiac disease in August. I have been researching and reading to alter my diet which will most likely remain altered regardless of the diagnosis because my stomach has felt better on the altered diet. This information has been more helpful than most that I have read. Thank you.

 
Resentful in Cali
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said this on
30 Sep 2013 5:21:52 PM PST
I have been suffering for the past 2 weeks with a bad rash on my arms and legs every time I eat. I remember when I was little I had many allergies and had an allergy test done on my back when I was younger and I was allergic to practically everything. I was talking to someone and all the symptoms have been pointing to me being gluten intolerant. All my symptoms such as dry, itchy scalp in which for years I was told by my doctor that I was utilizing the wrong type of shampoo, but my research on this disease indicate otherwise. I have seriously started altering my diet, but I am not too thrilled since I am a true foodie! This sucks...resentful in Cali!

 
Sugarland Girl

said this on
21 Nov 2013 8:19:01 AM PST
It's my understanding that quinoa has a molecule that mimics gluten so eat at your own risk. I react to quinoa by feeling tired, the same as when I eat corn. I have to be grain free. Bummer.

 
admin
( Author)
said this on
26 Nov 2013 3:40:41 PM PST
Quinoa is gluten-free, and it is a myth that there is anything in it that mimics gluten.

 
P Miller
Rating: ratingfullratingemptyratingemptyratingemptyratingempty Unrated
said this on
31 Mar 2014 9:42:30 AM PST
This article is written using old, outdated reference sources. Corn and oats BOTH can and do illicit a response in some celiacs. I can cite several newer reference sources (pubmed) that debunk the theory that corn and oats are safe for all celiacs. I tried to provide proof links but they weren't allowed.




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