If you have gluten intolerance you already know that there seems to be gluten in everything. It is an ingredient in foods like bread, pasta and barbecue sauce. What is it about gluten that makes it so damaging for some people, but also so useful as an ingredient that food companies want to add it to so many products?
Gluten is a complex protein found in wheat; similar proteins are found in barley and rye. The gluten part of wheat is extremely important in getting the taste as well as texture of bread right. Gluten is both sticky and elastic. These two properties are reasons why gluten finds its way into sauces and other foods or condiments that need to be made more sticky or thick. Gluten, as you probably know, is even put in medication because it can help hold ingredients together.
Usually, when food is eaten, it is broken into smaller pieces first by chewing and by enzymes in saliva, then by stomach acid and enzymes that enter the small intestine (from the pancreas) after a meal. Wheat will be broken down so that the gluten protein is separated from the carbohydrate. Gluten itself is made up of many components, called glutenins and gliadins. There are three genetically different forms of wheat. Each may have as many as a hundred different types of gliadins and glutenins.
Proteins like gluten and its components are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Normally proteins are broken down into amino acids in order for them to enter intestinal cells and be absorbed. Proteins that are not digested but reach cells more-or-less intact often cause problems. The body registers them as foreign and may mount an immune response.
Gluten is hard for the body to break down. It contains a lot of a specific amino acid called proline. The enzymes in the stomach and the intestinal tract have trouble breaking down proteins high in proline. There are also other amino acids in gluten that resist mixing with liquid. There are many parts of gluten that have repeating, similar sequences of these amino acids. The enzymes from the pancreas as well as the enzymes in the intestinal lining cannot completely break down gluten. Therefore, large parts of gluten arrive at the intestinal cells all in one piece. Here, the body starts to react as if they are dangerous.
This is not just something interesting to scientists. New treatments are being developed which target this problem. There are various agents being researched that may help the body break down gluten so that the large chunks of it do not make it down into the small intestine.
A number of treatments involve using enzymes to break down the gluten. Studies have been done using enzymes from bacteria. The problem with some of these enzymes is that they can be digested themselves in the stomach. There are a few recently-investigated enzymes that can actually digest gluten in the stomach. One of these comes from a microorganism that is easy to grow; a lot of this could be made and used for treatment, enough for the many people who need it. There is also research on a combination of two other enzymes that stay stable in the stomach and can turn gluten into non-toxic pieces.
There is a separate type of enzyme treatment which is aimed at the gluten during food preparation, for example, when bread is rising. This can be done by using certain bacteria like lactobacillus. These bacteria are similar to those used in yoghurt and probiotic foods, and they can break down gluten.
Research continues in these areas. It is interesting to note that in the past, traditional methods of making sourdough bread involved long fermentation with sourdough lactic acid bacteria instead of baker’s yeast or chemicals. Perhaps a change in the way wheat is used in cooking has been one of the reasons that there seems to be more gluten intolerance now than previously.
There are trials in various stages looking at both types of enzymes, those given to digest gluten in the intestinal tract, and those used to treat gluten itself. If you are interested in looking at clinical trials, or even want to participate in one, go to http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/search. You can search using the words celiac disease or gluten intolerance. You can choose to hide trials that are not looking for new participants, or you can choose to look at all of them to get an idea of how much research is taking place. This website is definitely worth taking a look at especially if you’re interested in gleaning a bit more insight on what’s happening in the world of Celiac Disease research.