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Kansas Farmers Up Ante on Gluten-free Wheat Research

Celiac.com 12/22/2015 - Kansas wheat farmers are funding genetic research to figure out exactly why some people struggle to digest wheat, and to try to produce an wheat-friendly alternative.

Photo: CC--USDAThe Kansas Wheat Commission has put $200,000 toward the first two years of the project, which intends to identify anything in wheat DNA that can trigger an auto-immune reaction in people with celiac disease.

Ultimately, the project seeks to promote the development new wheat varieties that might be tolerated by celiac sufferers, and meet other gluten-free needs. This, at a time when the market for gluten-free goods has skyrocketed, driven partly by non-celiac sufferers who see such products as a healthier alternative, and is now worth nearly a billion dollars a year in just the US alone.

People with celiac disease need to eat a gluten-free diet, avoiding anything containing wheat, rye, or barley. So far, researchers have identified about 20 protein fragments in wheat that trigger celiac reactions, but no one has identified all of them, or bred a variety of wheat that is safe for celiac sufferers to eat.

Kansas researchers are hoping to be the first to establish a full screening of celiac-promoting proteins in wheat, then to develop a gluten-free wheat using traditional breeding methods.

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"If you know you are producing a crop that is not tolerated well by people, then it's the right thing to do," said the project's lead researcher, Chris Miller, senior director of research for Engrain, a Kansas company that makes products to enhance the nutrition and appearance of products made by the milling and cereal industry.

Their plan however, has some skeptics. After reviewing the Kansas plan online, expert celiac researcher, Armin Alaedini, assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University and a researcher at the New York-based school's Celiac Disease Centre, said the plan may be "too simplistic," and ultimately fail to isolate all the toxic protein sequences that can trigger a celiac reaction.

Alaedini added that the project may result in a less toxic wheat product that isn't completely safe for all celiac disease patients, and may be no better in terms of nutritional value or baking properties and taste than current gluten-free alternatives.

So, what do you think about gluten-free wheat for celiac sufferers? Would you try it? Trust it? 

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