The latest trend in diets is eating gluten-free. Gluten-free foods are a nearly one billion dollar business in the United States. Now, the Kansas Wheat Commission is funding research to find out why some people cannot digest wheat and to develop new varieties of wheat.
Many people are unable to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat and a few other grains such as barley. The commission is spending money to map everything in the DNA of wheat and determine what parts of the DNA trigger the damaging response in people with celiac disease.
One goal of this research is to understand what causes celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Research has identified about 20 of the protein fragments in wheat that appear to cause the damage to the small intestine in celiac disease, but this is not all of them. Another goal is to breed a variety of wheat that does not contain these proteins.
A Kansas repository of different strains of wheat has many varieties of older forms of wheat that date back to the early 1900s. There are also wile relatives of wheat. These varieties may have lower amounts of the proteins to which celiac sufferers react.
Celiac is an autoimmune disease. People who have it cannot digest gluten. Gluten is a protein composite in wheat that gives dough elasticity and also adds some flavor. Eating even a small amount of gluten causes damage in the small intestine. Symptoms include pain, chronic constipation and diarrhea, anemia, vitamin deficiencies, and fatigue. In children with celiac, exposure to gluten can cause failure to thrive.
Celiac disease is about five times as common now as it was 50 years ago. However, true celiac disease affects only about 1% of people. There are also people who do not have celiac but who have health issues caused by eating gluten. These problems are called gluten-related disorders or gluten intolerance. Because many people are asking for gluten-free foods, manufacturers have created gluten-free breads, pasta, crackers, and other products.