Has gluten become more inflammatory? Brett Carver and crew are on a mission to find out

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Oklahoma State University wheat breeder Brett Carver, left, approached two nutritional experts on campus, Brenda Smith and Edralin Lucas, about doing a study to determine whether the gluten in modern wheat varieties differs from that of the heritage variety Turkey Red. The results from their experiment were later published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Interest in heritage wheat is being driven in part by concerns about whether the gluten in modern varieties is more difficult to digest.

During a recent heritage grains forum, hosted by the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and organized in conjunction with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a question was posed regarding the rise of gluten sensitivity and whether any land grant wheat breeders and nutrition academics were collaborating to explore the issue.

In fact, multidisciplinary research of this sort is already underway in neighboring Oklahoma.

It began when Oklahoma State University wheat breeder Brett Carver sought to put to rest a claim that had been bothering him for a long time: the idea that the gluten in modern varieties is more inflammatory than the gluten in heirloom Turkey red, which dates back to the 1870s.

He was skeptical, but wanted some definitive proof.

“It’s not just about yield,” he said emphatically of his goals as a wheat breeder. “It’s about food, something that goes on somebody’s dinner table.”

Has the gluten in wheat changed?

Carver decided to see if he could tap into nutritional expertise on campus for answers.

He reached out to Brenda Smith, a regents professor in nutritional sciences whose research focuses on how nutrients and other dietary components from plant-based foods influence the immune response as well as age-related diseases.

More:Breeder traces wheat’s evolution from ancient grain

She and another colleague in nutritional sciences, Edralin Lucas, met with him to discuss how they might collaborate. Smith immediately saw the value of what Carver wanted to do.

“He has a very sincere interest and motivation to improve wheat and at the same time in no way do anything that would cause health issues for anyone consuming the product,” she said. “For him it got to the point of taking action to find a way to actually test this out.”

The two scientists proposed a laboratory experiment, and the Oklahoma Wheat Commission stepped in to help fund it, with explicit agreement they would not exert any input or control over the study’s design or its findings.

“They were after, if something is happening here in our breeding programs, we want to know what it is, and get it fixed,” Smith said.

The lab-based study compared Gallagher, a modern variety, with the original Turkey red.

“From an inflammatory standpoint, there was no difference between the two varieties,” Smith said. “If anything, modern wheat had some minor improvements in gut health.”

“When we compared the effect of diets incorporating the heirloom and modern wheat varieties, mice on the modern wheat diet showed improved structure of villi, finger-like projections in the small intestine that increase surface area for absorbing nutrients, compared with the mice fed the heirloom variety,” she continued. “These findings, along with some others, indicated modern wheat does not elicit an inflammatory response and did not compromise the integrity of the gut.”

The work was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Both Carver and Smith concede the initial findings are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to better understanding individual characteristics of wheat and how they interact with other foods commonly consumed within the human diet.

Another component of modern wheat under scrutiny as a potential source of inflammation is short-chain carbohydrate sugars — or FODMAPs — which have increased proportionally in wheat over time.

These fibers are difficult for the small intestine to absorb, so they travel into the lower GI tract, where they are fermented by microorganisms, Smith said. Her studies have shown that while they can cause digestive distress in some, they can also confer favorable effects on immune function and bone health in others.

“It raises the question, are there people who don’t tolerate these very well? And that also gets back to the gut micro-biome and whether microbes have shifted over time, as they adjust to the environment they live in, in such a way that causes them to respond negatively. That’s kind of way out there, but those are some of the early talking points our team is tossing around,” she said.

“I do think it’s something that needs to be investigated,” she added.

A more collaborative future

Though gluten and wheat-based foods have drawn intense interest over the last decade, related research is often costly and difficult to do.

Not only do different people respond differently to the same foods, but wheat products aren’t consumed in isolation, Smith explained.

People who feel healthier after eliminating gluten from their diet, for example, are also typically reducing their consumption of highly processed refined foods. And it could be that problems with digesting grain relate back to whether people are getting enough of other nutrient-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, she said.

“It gets kind of complicated teasing all of that out,” she said.

“If something is happening we have to make sure we are attributing it to the right culprit,” she added.

Even the implications of consumer-friendly traits that look like a clear win could vary, she said.

One example is the new high fiber wheat flour sold exclusively by Bay States Milling under the HealthSense brand, which delivers up to ten times the dietary fiber of traditional wheat flour. It is derived from high amylose wheat, which contains resistant starch that doesn’t break down as rapidly.

Most Americans would benefit from getting more fiber in their diets, Smith said, but there could be cases where increasing fiber actually has a negative effect, due to the composition of the micro-biome.

“Frankly we just don’t know for sure,” she said.

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While more research is needed, it makes sense for land grant universities to lead the way by increasing collaboration between agricultural and nutrition departments, she said.

“Research entities like the National Institutes of Health focus historically more on disease states, such as gluten-containing products and celiac disease, or other conditions,” she said. “But when we look at it more from a public health standpoint, looking at agriculture to human health as a whole continuum, including the way the product is grown and processed, there’s a lot of things that happen in each one of those steps. And to be able to really focus in and study that, there are not that many funding agencies that span that spectrum. So what ends up happening is a lot of that has to occur from private sources, whether it’s industry or foundations.”

“It’s a risky venture for them, with possibly negative implications on the marketing of their product,” she notes. “That’s what’s unique about the opportunity we had here at OSU.”

More cross-campus collaboration could lead to groundbreaking discoveries around fundamental questions society is grappling with, she added.

“That’s the beauty of the land grant university and why I’ve spent the majority of my career at one,” she said. “That’s the heart and soul of the land grant mission. I feel like this particular project has been a beautiful example of that, of how it can work and what the benefits are for everyone.”