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More than two and a half years ago, we blogged about an interesting Italian study we had stumbled upon in our never-ending search for cool info about grains. In this study, researchers showed that it’s possible to render wheat technically gluten-free when it undergoes a slow lacto-fermentation with speciﬁc lacto-bacilli and fungi. The wheat started out life with a normal 75,000 ppm (parts per million) of gluten, but after the sourdough fermentation process, gluten levels were only 12 ppm. And remember, under the new gluten-free labeling laws, anything under 20 ppm is considered gluten free.
What’s going on here? In short, gluten (found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale) is one of the world’s more diﬃcult-to-digest proteins. For most of us, the fact that we can’t break it down completely isn’t a problem; it passes through our bodies harmlessly. For others it causes medical problems. However, if very speciﬁc natural “good” bacteria and fungi have already pre-digested the gluten, its problematic potential seems to disappear.
Still intrigued by this study, we recently checked in by email with corresponding author Marco Gobbetti, Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Bari in Italy to see what was new in his team’s research — which we’ll share in today’s blog in Q&A form.
You may also be interested to know that Dr. Gobbetti will be a speaker at our Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers conference in November. Join us there, to hear more! [Update: See a 29-minute video of his 2014 presentation here.]
An important note: Dr. Gobbetti’s work has been doing using speciﬁc lacto-bacilli and procedures; it does NOT imply that any other sourdough breads will be safe for celiacs. While the research is promising, there are no wheat products yet on the market that are safe for celiacs.
Whole Grains Council: We were fascinated by your earlier study. Have you continued to learn more on this topic?
Dr. Gobbeti: Yes, many further developments were achieved. After the discovery that a mixture of fungal proteases and selected sourdough lactobacilli degraded gluten to below 20 ppm during sourdough fermentation [study here], we further explained the enzyme mechanism for gluten degradation, including the epitopes responsible for celiac disease [study here].
Whole Grains Council: Sounds like you’ve made good progress in the lab, on the theory behind what you refer to as “digested ﬂour.” But what about in real life?
Dr. Gobbetti: Based on these encouraging foundations, and in cooperation with physicians, we carried out an in vivo [human/real life] challenge with celiac patients. The patients ate about 200 grams of sweet baked goods daily, made with our [specially fermented] wheat ﬂour. The wheat ﬂour in these baked goods originally contained the equivalent of around 10 grams of gluten, that had been completely digested [by the fermentation process].The trial lasted 60 days, and based on serological, hematological and intestinal permeability analyses, all the patients completely tolerated the sweet baked goods [study here].
After this challenge, a second 60-day in vivo challenge was carried out under almost the same conditions with other celiac patients, only this time intestinal biopsies were also carried out. Again, in this case, we observed 100% tolerance of our baked goods made with digested wheat ﬂour [study here].
Whole Grains Council: Wow. 100% tolerance, in celiac patients, documented by intestinal biopsies. What comes next?
Dr. Gobbetti: Nowadays, a third and ﬁnal in vivo challenge is running. Celiac patients will ingest baked goods made with digested wheat ﬂour each day for 6 months. The study will conclude at the end of this year but some patients have already ﬁnished the challenge – once again showing complete tolerance.
Whole Grains Council: Could you please clarify – did you do your studies using whole wheat ﬂour or using reﬁned ﬂour? We’re guessing you could potentially turn either one into “digested” ﬂour?
Dr. Gobbetti: We got our results both on whole wheat ﬂour and on reﬁned ﬂour; the results are the same with both.
Whole Grains Council: Is anyone using this “digested ﬂour” in commercial baking yet? Either in Italy or here in the US?
Dr. Gobbetti: The approach is not currently available on the market. We are co-inventors of the process with an Italian company (Giuliani SpA), which has patented this nationally and internationally. This company also funded the last part of the in vivo research and developed an industrial plant for the manufacture of leavened baked goods to be made with the sourdough fermented wheat ﬂour. The company hopes to be ready for the market in mid-2015. Obviously, the U.S. market will also be interested!
Whole Grains Council: The work that you and your group are doing is fascinating. Now that you have done two in vivo trials and are partway through a third, longer trial, it seems you are very clearly establishing the safety of this digested wheat for celiacs. Do you mind if we share your emails in a blog?
Dr. Gobbetti: It’s a pleasure to share our results with you. Please feel free to use them!