Complexity of gluten discussed at Kansas Wheat Innovation Center

Posted December 10, 2015

General Mills' Jaime Sheridan speaks to a group of wheat industry leaders.
Gluten is a complex issue.

This was the subject of a December 8th “Wheat’s On Your Mind,” presentation by Jaime Sheridan, Molecular Biologist/Bioinformatics Specialist with General Mills.

About 45 constituents of the wheat industry attended the luncheon meeting, which was sponsored by the Kansas Wheat Commission.

Ms. Sheridan recently attended the 12th International Gluten Biotechnology Workshop, which was held in Perth, Australia, in September. She discussed gluten-related food disorders and quality as it relates to the different world niche markets. She also covered approaches being used to investigate the interactions between gluten quality and reactivity.

Gluten is a complex issue for a number of reasons. First of all, there is no universal definition of “gluten-free.” There is also no standardized product testing or international standards. In the United States, a product can be labeled “gluten-free” as long as it has fewer than 20 parts per million. In Australia, the standard is fewer than 2 parts per million. This “contamination” level is of great importance because people with Celiac Disease can vary greatly in the amount of gluten they can tolerate.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, an estimated 1 in 133 or less than 1% of the population has Celiac Disease. That number is increasing, partially due to better testing methods. It is estimated that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. There are no pharmaceutical cures for celiac disease. A 100% gluten-free diet is the only existing treatment for celiac today.

Sheridan shared an update on experimental celiac disease vaccines and treatment drugs, including a vaccine, which sequesters gliadin, and if approved, would allow individuals with celiac disease to consume gluten. Other upcoming medications may allow some relief of celiac symptoms.

While only about 1% of the population has celiac disease and another .5% has a wheat allergy, Sheridan said that another 10-30% of people are avoiding wheat.

Discussion indicated that there is a need to educate those people that gluten-free foods aren’t healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. Gluten-free products oftentimes contain more calories, sugar and sodium and cost more.

“It’s our responsibility to correct misinformation,” said Dr. John Floros, Kansas State University Dean of College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension. “We, as educational research institutions, do not have the resources.” He went on to say that large food companies do have money to spend on advertising, and all facets of the industry should work together. “If we spend money to educate consumers at an early age, we could make a difference,” he said.

Sheridan did her graduate work at UNC Charlotte in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology with targeted projects focusing on miRNA discovery and expression in oat, broccoli, and soybean. Since joining General Mills, her focus has shifted from oats to wheat. She works on collaborative projects with K-State and others at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, where she has her office.

Wheat’s On Your Mind is an informal, occasional gathering of wheat professionals in the Manhattan and Junction City areas. It gives like-minded individuals a chance to exchange wheat news and notes.