Is ‘gluten-safe’ wheat an industry game-changer?

15 Mar 2019

Gluten-free foods have suffered from the perception that they cannot equal gluten-containing products, in terms of both nutrition and texture. Researchers now claim that genetically engineered wheat could change all that, but are manufacturers (and consumers) ready for it?

Researchers from Wageningen University in The Netherlands say they have used CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to target and eliminate the elements of gluten that trigger an autoimmune response in people with coeliac disease, a disorder that affects about 1-2% of the population. Using this technique, the researchers say the gluten is safe for coeliacs and retains its unique baking characteristics, such as providing a light, airy texture in bread.

Is ‘gluten-safe’ wheat an industry game-changer?
Wheat has proved difficult to replace in baked goods

The technique faces some major regulatory hurdles, as well as long-standing barriers in convincing consumers of the benefits of genetically edited foods. In Europe, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that CRISPR should fall under GMO legislation, meaning the wheat would have to undergo strict food safety and environmental tests before it could be grown in the region. In the meantime, the researchers suggest it could be grown in the United States and imported back into the EU.

If the ‘gluten-safe’ wheat can overcome such obstacles – and it is a big ‘if’ – it could be a boon for manufacturers of gluten-free products. Without gluten, baked goods may be lacking in some nutrients, notably fibre and B vitamins, they may be dense or dry, and some gluten-free flours also add a gritty texture. Nevertheless, it is a booming market. According to Innova Market Insights, the number of new products making a gluten-free claim grew an average of 24% a year from 2013 to 2017.

Manufacturers have turned to hydrocolloid suppliers for texturizing ingredients like xanthan, gellan, locust bean and guar gum to help replace gluten’s binding qualities. Some suppliers, including Hydrosol and Alland & Robert, specifically highlight the gluten-free nature of their ingredients. However, there is a strong appetite for more recognisable, kitchen-cupboard ingredients, which has led many manufacturers to look for other solutions.

For their textural and nutritional qualities, some have started using gluten-free ancient grains, such as teff, amaranth and quinoa, while others are using pulse flours – all ingredients with a wholesome, natural image. However, they may not have the functional properties necessary for all gluten-free applications, and many pulses can impart an undesirable beany flavour.

Despite enormous improvements to gluten-free products in recent years, ordinary wheat has a flavour, texture and nutritional profile that has proved extremely difficult to match, at least on a one-to-one basis. Gluten-safe wheat could be the ultimate answer for many product developers – but it still has some way to go before it finds its way onto supermarket shelves.

For now, the researchers say their discovery is five to ten years away from commercialisation, leaving plenty of time to debate the future of coeliac-friendly wheat, and to convince manufacturers and consumers of its benefits.