The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can’t stomach bread? Alterations to the carbs, gluten and fiber in wheat could change that.


Ah, bread. Whether they love it or hate it, everyone seems to have an opinion about it. There are whole diets built around avoiding carbs and gluten in bread — sometimes by choice, sometimes by medical necessity.

This piece is written for those in the latter camp — people who enjoy bread, but have to skip it because they have celiac disease, because carbs affect their type 2 diabetes, or because wheat triggers unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.

Science and technology may be coming to the rescue. Researchers and food companies around the world are trying to develop bread without side effects or with health-enhancing components, using newly developed enzymes, novel ingredients and gene editing. Read on for some hopeful developments.

Lower carb content

Up to 45 million Americans have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea. Researchers believe that one of the culprits of IBS is food high in FODMAPs (which are poorly absorbed fermentable carbohydrates). Wheat is a well-known FODMAP. It contains carbs called fructans, which some people with IBS have trouble digesting.

Who decided we should all take 10,000 steps a day, anyway?

Finnish company Fazer Mills recently introduced an enzyme called LOFO, which can help lower the fructan content in wheat bread. That means bakers could produce low FODMAP bread for people with IBS. Researchers have found that a diet low in FODMAPs can help improve symptoms in about 70 percent of people with IBS.

The secret ingredient is fructanase, an enzyme that helps the body break down fructans into smaller units, which may be gentler on the stomach. According to company reports, this enzyme decreases fructans by 50 percent and does not change the taste or texture of the bread. For some people with IBS, reducing fructans by half will give relief. Others may need to avoid fructans entirely, so this bread may not help.

There are lots of test baking going on in the United States using the LOFO enzyme, but no bread is on the market yet.

Reduced-gluten wheat

When used in breadmaking, gluten is responsible for the elasticity that gives bread its unique texture. It’s also the protein that triggers an immune response for the 3 million Americans with celiac disease, and it can cause unpleasant symptoms for those with gluten sensitivity.

Researchers across the globe are hoping to develop wheat that’s lower in gluten for those who are mildly intolerant, or to change the DNA of wheat so gluten is not a problem for people with celiac disease.

Dan Voytas, a professor in the Genetics, Cell Biology and Development Department at the University of Minnesota, is part of a team that developed a reduced-gluten wheat using gene-editing technology. Not to be confused with genetic modification, gene editing doesn’t add any foreign genes into the mix. Instead, it deletes or splices in part of an organism’s own genome.

Voytas’s lab has created a prototype for reduced-gluten wheat.

“This type of wheat is meant for people with gluten sensitivity, or those who want to reduce gluten in their diet,” Voytas says. “I believe we will eventually be able to make wheat without proteins that elicit the immune response in people with celiac disease, and they will one day be able to consume this product, too. I think we’re looking at a five-year timeline.”

So, how does it work? Using gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9, researchers modify the celiac-causing gluten gene.

“We know which proteins in wheat create an immune response, so we delete those genes so it no longer makes the protein that causes that immunogenic response,” Voytas says. “In our initial study, immune reaction was reduced by 85 percent.”

But wait — if gluten provides structure to bread, will reduced-gluten wheat flour change the taste and texture of bread? Perhaps.

“When you change the gluten content, you change the functionality of the product,” Voytas says. “So this flour may not be used for all purposes, but will be better than rice or corn for bread. It will still have a lot of the properties that we like in wheat flour.”

Fiber-rich flours

While some scientists are actively working on reducing or eliminating components in bread (such as fructans and gluten), others are asking “what can we add to bread to make it healthier?”

This is a common question in the community of people with type 2 diabetes, where bread has taken a huge hit because it’s high in carbs, which raise blood sugar levels.

Some people with type 2 diabetes opt for low-carb diets, which work well for many. But giving up carbs isn’t always realistic, and people who still want to eat bread are looking for a better option. It’s usually a minimally processed bread that’s higher in fiber and protein, but lower in starchy carbohydrates. This combination of nutrients helps the body break down bread slowly, so it doesn’t cause a quick rise in blood sugar levels.

Because there’s only so much fiber that you can get from whole grain wheat, manufacturers are getting creative. European bakers are experimenting with tritordeum flour, which is a newly developed hybrid of wheat and wild barley. Its manufacturer says it yields 30 percent more fiber than traditional wheat flour, so the same piece of bread would have enhanced health benefits.

Other bakers are adding fiber by blending traditional wheat flour with lupin bean or lentil flour. Studies show that eating lupin-enriched bread instead of regular wheat bread can help reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Adding lupin to an otherwise carb-rich meal can reduce blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. And it may play a role in overall blood sugar management.

Americans love bread, but they are also wary of scientifically modified food, as the debate has shown over genetically modified organisms.

When these products make it to the American marketplace, it will be interesting to see which impulse wins out.

Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She also co-wrote “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”

More from Lifestyle:

Calories and macros and BMI don’t count. Here are the numbers that really matter.

 The fat-burning heart-rate zone is a myth: How exercise and weight loss really work

 Want to live a longer life? Research says you should do these five things.