Is hydrolysed gluten a health risk?

‘What is hydrolysed gluten and is it safe for those who suffer from coeliac disease?’ To begin to answer this question, we need to understand what hydrolysed gluten is, and how we can measure the amount of hydrolysed gluten in a food product. Advice from FACTS SA…

What is gluten?

Many people believe that gluten is a single protein; in fact, gluten is a mixture of many proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. A common feature of these different proteins is that they contain stretches of similar amino acid sequences called motifs or epitopes. It is these specific motifs that can elicit an immune response in those suffering from coeliac disease.

From a functional point of view, gluten plays a key role in the structural properties of baked goods such as breads and pastas.

What is hydrolysed gluten?

Hydrolysis is a chemical reaction in which bonds between molecules are broken. Specifically, when gluten proteins are hydrolysed the peptide bonds that link amino acids together are broken, forming shorter peptide chains.

Hydrolysis occurs naturally; but in the case of gluten-containing products, often the hydrolysis is intentional, and involves the use of enzymes. The term ‘extensively hydrolysed’ is applied to proteins that are broken down to the point that no characteristic sequences remain intact.

Hydrolysed gluten can be found in sourdough breads, beer, soy sauce and shake-and-bake products, among others.

Why is hydrolysed gluten a risk?

As mentioned previously, it is the specific amino acid motifs that may be harmful to a coeliac patient, and many hydrolysis processes do not break these harmful sequences down fully; they may persist in the final food product.

Preventing the risk?

Two main defence strategies can be applied:

Firstly, the development of a gluten-free product starts with the in-going ingredients. The list of ingredients used should avoid gluten-containing grains, before any processing even takes place. The US FDA has also advised this requirement for adequate assurance of a gluten-free product.

Secondly, to be able to claim that a foodstuff is gluten-free, the product must be tested with the most reliable and accurate method.

Currently, Codex Alimentarius endorses the R5 ELISA method for the measurement of gluten in food products. However, as noted in a wide range of published research, the R5 ELISA method has many limitations regarding the detection and quantification of hydrolysed gluten in food products.

The FDA recently acknowledged that this method for detecting hydrolysed gluten is not infallible. Consequently, there are products allowed to carry the ‘gluten-free’ claim – because they test negative, using the ELISA method – which may still pose a risk to the coeliac-suffering consumer.

LC-MS/MS is a more promising analytical technique for the detection of hydrolysed gluten, because it is able to detect a range of peptide sequences simultaneously – in some cases including the potentially harmful sequences.

Moreover, the LC-MS/MS based techniques have been proven to overcome many of the other limitations associated with the R5 ELISA method.

In summary

Hydrolysed gluten products may still pose a risk to the coeliac-affected consumer. Food manufacturers and consumers must be provided with accurate information regarding the gluten-free status of products; and the only way to ensure this is to use the most reliable analytical methods available.

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