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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Can Enzyme Supplements Really Break Down Gluten?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 11/02/2011 - With the rise in celiac disease diagnoses, increasing awareness of gluten-free issues, and an explosion of gluten-free related products, it is no surprise that supplements claiming to break down gluten would find their way onto the market.

    In fact, a number of supplements currently on the market claim to do just that: to break down gluten after it has been consumed.

    Photo: CC--ITA Image LibraryAre these claims accurate? Are these products in any way helpful for people following a gluten-free diet? Finally, do these supplements offer a safe alternative to a gluten-free diet for people who suffer from celiac disease and/or gluten-sensitivity?

    For example, GlutenEase, made by Enzymedica Inc., contains a blend of enzymes, including amylase, glucoamylase and dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DDP-IV) — that are intended to "digest both gluten and casein, a protein found in milk," according to the company.

    The website for GlutenEase says that the supplement can "support" people who have trouble digesting gluten. However, and most importantly, the site says that GlutenEase is "not formulated" for people with celiac disease.

    Gluten Defense, made by Enzymatic Therapy Inc., contains a similar blend of enzymes that includes DDP-IV, lactase and amylase.

    The site for Gluten Defense says the product is "specifically formulated to defend against hidden gluten" that can cause gas, bloating and indigestion.

    But what does that mean? Does that mean that taking the supplement might offer people with celiac disease some extra protection against accidental gluten contamination? That seems doubtful, and unproven from a scientific standpoint.

    Unlike GlutenEase, Gluten Defense offers no specific disclaimer for people with celiac disease. There is also no claim that the product is safe, or in any way formulated for people with celiac disease.

    Dave Barton, whose title is "Director of Education" for Enzymedica, claims that many people who say they have celiac disease see improvement when taking product, and that some even manage to begin eating wheat again.

    However, Barton is quick to warn consumers that there's "no way to guarantee that it would break down 100% of gluten proteins."

    But that's the problem isn't it? It would need to break down nearly all of the gluten proteins in order for those proteins to not cause damage to the person with celiac disease.

    The fact is that these enzyme supplements may break down a few molecules of gluten protein, but no supplement exists that will make it safe for people with celiac disease to eat gluten again.

    According to Dr. Stefano Guandalini, professor of pediatrics and director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, "[t]he amount of gluten that these would be able to digest is ridiculously low. For people with celiac disease, these are something to completely avoid."

    Dr. Peter Green, director of the Columbia University's Celiac Disease Center, agrees that current enzyme supplements would digest only a small percentage of gluten molecules.

    However, Green adds, the basic concept is sound. Pharmaceutical companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to create an enzyme-based drug that would permit people with celiac disease to consume gluten. However, Green points out, the companies wouldn't be spending that money if a successful over-the-counter alternative already existed.

    Bottom line: Enzymes currently claiming to help break down gluten protein will not permit people with celiac disease to safely consume products made with wheat, rye or barley. Any benefit these enzymes may provide for people with celiac disease is strictly theoretical, and likely minimal at best.

    A completely gluten-free diet is currently the only proven treatment for celiac disease. Talk with your doctor before making any changes to your gluten-free diet for celiac disease treatment.

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    I don't know if these products work, though they may be helpful for people with mild non-celiac gluten intolerance or for anyone with gluten intolerance who gets an accidental exposure. But I wanted to respond to your comment:

     

    "Pharmaceutical companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to create an enzyme-based drug that would permit people with celiac disease to consume gluten. However...the companies wouldn't be spending that money if a successful over-the-counter alternative already existed."

     

    Unfortunately, this is completely untrue. Pharmaceutical companies have the goal of making money and they can't make money off of supplements because they can't patent them. So not only do they spend countless dollars creating drugs to do things that supplements may already do, they also spend money to create versions of supplements that they can call drugs and patent. Then they spend countless more dollars convincing doctors and medical organizations that supplements don't work, unless it's their version, and that only prescription products are appropriate.

     

    So I wouldn't make assumptions about the credibility of an OTC product based on what pharmaceutical companies choose to do. What I would like to see are some studies testing the enzyme products in a variety of real world situations, as well as in more controlled ways.

     

    Though at this point I'd be happy to see even a solid collection of anecdotes, since those don't seem to be out there (I don't count what's on the companies' websites). I was hoping your article would start this process, but it seems to be mostly guesswork.

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    I don't know if it is true that "companies would not be spending that money if a successful over the counter product existed." Over the counter plant based enzymes can't be patented so often they have to isolate the components to make a drug that can make money. There are ton of prescription and over the counter medications that are based on the active ingredient is a herb or supplement that is isolated. For instance Deplin, a drug for depression, is just a form of folate you can buy as a supplement. The supplement existed before Deplin made it a pharmaceutical. The company that makes deplin just did the research studies to prove it worked. So, just to reiterated, companies do take products that already exist and make them drugs to bring to mainstream markets. Great article. Thanks.

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    Anecdotally, Gluten Defense has helped our family suffer less from contamination issues when eating out. Of course it doesn't let you go and knowingly eat gluten, it's not claiming to do that and anyone who does that is just silly. We know the only treatment is a life-long gluten free diet. But in terms of minimizing discomfort when you want to go out for a meal with friends or something, I think it's helpful.

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    Good article, Jeff. I actually take the digestive enzymes from Enzymedica currently for regular meals, but I too find the idea of digesting the gluten enzymes to be a BAD thing to market. Not only does this give those of us with celiac the false impression that it is safe to consume some wheat again, but at best this product would help ease symptoms of "accidental" glutening through cross contamination and what not.

     

    I wish America in general would get off of the "wheat, corn, and soy or bust" mentality that leads to these kinds of product developments for Celiac's. Sure, I'm sure most of us are crying on the inside with the loss of wheat (2 years gluten free myself), but after all we're forced to learn when trying to heal we know how unhealthy wheat can be.

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    I keep some of the supplements in my purse and take some if I think there might be a chance I was exposed to gluten accidentally. I figure, what the heck, it might help, who knows? I would never purposefully eat gluten and then try to counter it with these products, though.

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    All I can say is that my husband has not had his biopsy yet, so unsure if celiac, but he DEFINITELY has a gluten intolerance. He has used Gluten-ese when he has consumed accidental gluten (a contaminated food), and if he takes it at the first sign of problems - as soon as he realizes there is an issue - the symptoms quickly subside. I am not saying that damage wasn't done, but he believes that it helps minimize it. He now also takes it if we go out to eat. He will still order gluten free foods, but this helps him in case of cross-contamination, which seems to happen more often than not in restaurants....

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    After breaking out in dermatitis herpetiformis and the usual bowel distress the last 2 times I tried to eat in restaurants that assured me my food was gluten free I've learned I simply can never eat in restaurants. This makes life difficult to say the least as it limits any traveling. If this would help to neutralize that unsuspected crumb in my food because of cross contamination in a restaurant kitchen it would be worth using. I would like to know if used for that purpose if it is effective. I might risk supposedly gluten free restaurant food again if it is.

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    After breaking out in dermatitis herpetiformis and the usual bowel distress the last 2 times I tried to eat in restaurants that assured me my food was gluten free I've learned I simply can never eat in restaurants. This makes life difficult to say the least as it limits any traveling. If this would help to neutralize that unsuspected crumb in my food because of cross contamination in a restaurant kitchen it would be worth using. I would like to know if used for that purpose if it is effective. I might risk supposedly gluten free restaurant food again if it is.

    I am in the same situation. The DH makes us much more aware of what we are consuming, but it makes it impossible to eat in anything except a gluten free establishment. I also would love to have something that would keep minute amounts from getting into my system and causing my DH to react.

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    The emphasis on safety is extremely well placed in this article and those thinking otherwise are only kidding themselves. Of course, Stanford University has been working on two types of enzymes for years. And even though I agree the basic concept is sound--in practice this may not be the best and most likely--if and when it can get to market--the larezotide acetate(ie, zonulin blocker) will do the trick, but there again, only if taken properly to cover mealtimes. We all need to keep on Teva Pharm. to keep the ball rolling for AT1001!!(Alba->Cephalon->Teva: company rights purchase history).

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    Maybe the people in the celiac community should conduct our own trials using these enzymes, since no one wants to commit to anything working except a gluten-free diet! It makes me so mad every time I read that line... Like we don't know that we can't eat bread! We just want to be able to eat gluten free meals without added fear of cross-contamination! I have read many positive reviews of these enzyme products from people using them as that "safety-net." My husband is a university student who eats at the dining hall. He hasn't been able to go a week at school without cross-contamination! He verifies every item with the chef, who has been so kind as to start labeling things gluten-free, but still can't go a week without the migraines, narcolepsy, and GI symptoms. I bought [an enzyme brand] for him two weeks ago and he hasn't had an issue since.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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