It may seem too good to be true, but there may someday be peaceful coexistence between fermented wheat protein and gluten intolerance. For those who are accustomed to avoiding foods that may contain even a trace of wheat, the idea of willingly consuming products that list wheat as a main ingredient may seem like the stuff of nightmares, but it could just be a dream come true.
About Fermented Wheat Protein and Gluten Intolerance
It is not wheat itself that is problematic for celiacs, nor is it even gluten, strictly speaking. The offending protein is actually a small portion of the gluten protein known as gliadin. A specific sequence of amino acids in this protein triggers an immune response in gluten intolerant individuals, and that is the basis of celiac disease and several other forms of gluten sensitivity. The other protein present in the gluten molecule, glutenin, is believed to be relatively harmless to celiacs.
In theory, if these few amino acids could be altered, gluten protein could be rendered harmless to celiacs. Too good to be true? Maybe not. A 2004 study published in the academic journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found long-duration fermentation of sourdough bread resulted in a product significantly more tolerable to celiac patients than untreated bread.
Building on this evidence, A 2007 study published in the same journal used a particular strain of bacteria to degrade the offending proteins. This treatment was able to completely hydrolyze the gliadin; in other words, to break it down into its component amino acids and remove the sequence of amino acids that trigger reactions in celiac patients. Glutenin, the less-harmful molecule in the gluten protein, was reduced by 80 percent. The resulting flour was found to be suitable for baking, and researchers speculated that with further study, this form of fermentation could potentially render wheat protein harmless to the gluten intolerant.
Is Sourdough Bread Safe for Celiacs?
As with many foods, the answer to this question is clearly 'maybe.'
Fermentation by sourdough lactobacilli could represent a promising technology to make wheat bread suitable for celiacs. A 2009 study in the same publication reached a similar conclusion. If this is indeed the case, why has there not been a stampede of hungry celiacs racing to the local specialty baker?
So far, the Celiac Disease Foundation, the Celiac Sprue Association and the Canadian Celiac Association have remained curiously silent on the subject, with none of the advocacy groups offering official statements on fermented wheat protein and gluten intolerance. Similarly, neither the American Dietetic Association or the Dieticians of Canada have voiced any opinion on the subject. Even though the science appears to be solid, with no authoritative bodies backing up the claims and no large-scale studies in place, few celiacs are willing to place their health in jeopardy based on preliminary studies.
If you have mild gluten sensitivity and are considering trying fermented wheat products, consult your physician before you make any decisions. While early evidence looks promising, most of the studies involved have been on a small scale or have used laboratory analysis, but not human subjects. Wheat fermentation may be the answer gluten intolerant consumers have been looking for, but more research appears to be needed before any official safety recommendations can be made.