Gluten-free might not have to mean wheat-free, according to a new report, with new wheat crops being developed as an alternative to a gluten-free diet. 

Everyone knows that wheat contains gluten – a mixture of proteins that can be toxic for people with coeliac disease. Now, a new study has analysed the toxic components of these proteins in different varieties of wheat, and has taken the first step towards developing wheat-based products that are safe for coeliacs.

In recent years, research that seeks to understand the relationship between the proteins of wheat gluten and the reaction it produces in coeliacs has been promoted. One of the theories - with no clear scientific basis - was that modern wheat production practices that aim to improve the viscoelasticity of bread dough have contributed to increasing the prevalence of coeliac disease since the late 20th century.

The new study, published in the journal Food Chemistry, said even the oldest varieties of wheat, which have not been subject to alteration, can present toxicity through some components of gluten, called epitopes, which are responsible for the autoimmune response in coeliac patients.

Marta Rodríguez-Quijano, a researcher at the Technical University of Madrid, and one of the writers behind the study, said: “The results show that the different varieties of wheat produce considerably different immune responses.”

The research went on to reveal the potential of production practices to develop wheat products that are safe for coeliacs: “Genetic diversity makes it difficult to obtain a variety of wheat with no toxicity, while maintaining the viscoelastic properties of gluten. For this reason, learning about the different varieties would enable production techniques to be developed to achieve this.”

Rodríguez-Quijano added: “We hope this study enables products to be developed that are safe for coeliacs, with detoxification processes that combat the poor nutritional and technological characteristics of gluten-free products and thereby contribute to improving patients’ quality of life.”