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Low-Gluten Wheat Is Possible, Research Shows

Wheat-based bread
Wheat-based bread.

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Key Takeaways

  • People with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies must follow a wheat- and gluten-free diet.
  • Researchers are trying to create new breeds of low-gluten wheat, which one day will be safe for gluten-free diets.
  • One lab was able to create wheat with a 75% reduction in gluten, which still is not safe for people with celiac disease.

Celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies are all different medical conditions, but they have one common trait: people who are diagnosed with these conditions follow a gluten-free diet.

Gluten is a protein that’s found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid), and any foods made with these ingredients, including bread, pasta, crackers, and baked goods.

The market is flooded with alternatives made from gluten-free ingredients. Shoppers can easily find bread made from rice and tapioca; corn or bean-based pasta; and an assortment of quinoa crackers.

The gluten-free market is estimated to be worth $7.59 billion, and many gluten-free grains and flours are available.

But what if there was a way to make a new breed of wheat that didn’t contain the offending form of gluten proteins? Can science create such as thing, and would people with a wheat allergy or celiac disease be interested in trying it?

Allergy vs. Intolerance

First, it’s important to define and differentiate between these terms:

  • Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition, and the only solution is to follow a gluten-free diet for life. About 1% of the population has celiac disease, or about 3 million Americans.
  • Wheat allergy is an immune system reaction to the presence to certain wheat proteins, and affects less than 1% of Americans.??
  • Gluten intolerance, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is a food intolerance and digestive condition shared by about six percent of the population.??

Getting the right diagnosis is crucial. So is learning how to handle each condition.

“Learning to manage food allergies or intolerances is challenging and requires a huge amount of education in order to avoid accidentally eating the food that causes a reaction,” says Sherry Coleman Collins, a registered dietitian and president of Southern Fried Nutrition in Marietta, Georgia.

Dietitians work with clients to help them spot their allergen on food labels and restaurant menus, and find nutritious substitutions.

Low-Gluten Wheat

Researchers have been working on developing low-gluten wheat for several years, with some success.?????

Verywell Fit spoke with Dr. Sachin Rustgi, assistant professor of molecular breeding at Clemson University. He recently presented his wheat genome research at the virtual 2020 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

Rustgi and colleagues are looking at how that can change the gluten fractions of the wheat genome so it may one day be tolerated by people with celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten intolerance.

Wheat Is Complex

“The wheat genome is 6.4 times larger than the human genome. It’s a hexaploid, which means it consists of three sub-genomes,” says Rustgi.

To break that down, Rustgi explains that humans are diploids, meaning we get one set of genomes from each parent.

Wheat has six sets of genes, so it’s like having three copies from the mother and three copies from the father—a complex structure, for sure.

Gluten, the protein that causes reactions, isn't actually a single protein—it's a group of different proteins.

Gluten, scientifically known as prolamins, is composed of two types of proteins: gliadin and glutenin. They bind to each other to form the network that gives bread its telltale texture.

Dr. Sachin Rustgi

If you remove gluten, would it even be wheat? You can’t remove all gluten—it’s necessary for elasticity and extensibility of baked goods.

— Dr. Sachin Rustgi

Some prolamins are more immunogenic than others—that means they have a greater ability to produce an immune response. Rustgi explains the difference in these prolamins:

  • Gliadins are highly immunogenic.
  • High molecular weight glutenins are less immunogenic and essential for baking properties.
  • Low molecular weight glutenins are highly immunogenic.

Rustgi’s job is to breed wheat to remove the immunogenic gliadins and glutenin, while ensuring that it still retains some gluten so it can be useful for baking.

“If you remove gluten, would it even be wheat?” asks Rustgi “You can’t remove all gluten—it’s necessary for elasticity and extensibility of baked goods.”

After testing, Rustgi’s lab was able to achieve a 75% reduction in gliadin and low molecular weight glutenin, while retaining the high molecular weight glutenin, which is necessary for baking.

What’s Next for the New Wheat?

We’re a long way from having this type of wheat available on store shelves, since there are a few hurdles to overcome.

“The hope is to create a low gluten wheat plus a built-in enzyme that can shield us from any leftover gluten,” says Rustgi. “That was the idea, but no transgenics are yet allowed or approved.” That’s the first hurdle.

Of course, any new breed of wheat needs to be tested in the field and farm to see how it grows, and if it can be used to make bread with the right texture.

Another big hurdle is that patients may react to a particular prolamin of wheat, but don’t know which one. That’s not currently part of a diagnosis.

“Not all patients are sensitive to all proteins,” says Rustgi. “We need some changes in diagnostics—it’s not transparent enough to say, 'you are sensitive to gluten;' it would be more helpful to test for and tell patients WHICH gluten protein they are sensitive to.”

But that would create yet another hurdle: food labeling. Wheat would have to be labelled based on exactly which protein is lagging, and there are no FDA rules for that. So, there’s a long way to go.

“Labeling these products appropriately could be an issue,” says Collins. “Even if the plants were developed to have less of the allergens, changing current labeling laws would require a literal act of Congress,” says Collins.

What About Consumer Acceptance?

Rustgi says he has spoken with celiac patients who are interested in the idea and would be willing to try a new breed of wheat.

While this current wheat would not be appropriate for the celiac community, Rustgi explains, “We are working towards the goal of eliminating the immunogenic gluten proteins.”

Dietitian Shelley Case is a world-renowned celiac expert and author of Gluten Free: The Definitive Resource Guide. She says the people she’s spoken to in the celiac community are not as eager.

“With 75% reduced gliadin, this type of wheat would still not be safe for the celiac community,” says Case. “You’d have to remove 100% of the offending toxic gluten prolamins for wheat to be safe to eat.”

Rutgi agrees that the current wheat is not ready for people with celiac to try.

It’s much the same for food allergies. “In my conversations with people in the food allergy community over the years, they generally say they would not eat these foods, even if they were told they were safe,” says Collins.

“In the food allergy community, I don't think that there is an interest in a product like this. They do not trust that these foods would be 100% safe and would not cause a reaction.”

Shelley Case, RD

Instead of trying to create a low-gluten wheat, I would encourage researchers and food companies to work with gluten-free grains and pulses to create better gluten-free breads and other products.

— Shelley Case, RD

What’s Next?

Scientists around the globe continue to work on the wheat genome to see what’s possible, and try to create products for people on gluten-free diets.

“I’ve very optimistic,” says Rustgi. “Last October, Argentina approved the first transgenic wheat. It’s a good start and maybe other countries will catch up.”

He also sees wheat as an affordable crop, and a grain that’s familiar globally.

“People in resource-deprived parts of the world eat what they cultivate and see gluten-free diets as a luxury beyond their reach. Therefore, having another wheat strain as a replacement might need fewer adjustments,” says Rustgi.

Case remains skeptical, and points to a different path. “Instead of trying to create a low-gluten wheat, I would encourage researchers and food companies to work with gluten-free grains and pulses to create better gluten-free breads and other products,” says Case.

And Collins has another concern. “There are challenges that go beyond the farm, with the biggest one being how to segregate these lower-allergen crops from others once they leave the farm," she says.

She explains that preventing cross-contact everywhere along the path from farm to plate could be extraordinarily difficult.

There are many obstacles to figure out before gluten-free or low-allergen wheat is a real possibility. In the meantime, researchers in this exciting area of science will continue to explore what’s possible. 

What This Means For You

If you follow a gluten-free diet and you miss foods made from wheat, they may be on the horizon. Researchers are actively trying to create an affordable gluten-free breed of wheat that is great for baking. While not market-ready yet, it is plausible that there will gluten-free wheat in the future.

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Article Sources
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