Research seeks to make maize protein behave like gluten

by Jeff Gelski
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CHICAGO — Creating gluten-free products might become less difficult if researchers are able to make another protein work more like wheat gluten. Zein, a protein from maize, shows promise.

Bruce Hamaker, a professor in the Department of Food Science at Purdue University, spoke about zein July 16 at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago.

He said previous research found moistening the zein protein and bringing temperatures to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) achieved viscoelastic properties in dough similar to the properties associated with gluten. That research was unable to sustain the properties, such as when temperatures dropped or during relaxation of the dough.

Dr. Hamaker said research in progress involves finding ways to stabilize the viscoelastic properties of zein. A paper in the April 2012 issue of Trends in Food Science & Technology details the work at Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., on the potential use of zein in gluten-free products.

“Can we functionalize this non-functional protein?” Dr. Hamaker said.

Near-term applications might work in non-leavened products such as tortilla dough, he said. Leavened applications like bread might be further out in the future.

The gluten-free market in recent years has had a compound annual growth rate of 28%, said Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Ambler, Pa., during her I.F.T. presentation. She said 23% of the U.S. population now is eating gluten-free products. About 1% of the population has celiac disease and thus must avoid eating gluten. Another 6% to 8% are gluten-sensitive. Others may avoid gluten as a lifestyle choice, said Ms. Bast, who has celiac disease.

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By Peter Olins, PhD 8/15/2013 8:15:34 PM
This is certainly a promising development for celiacs, who depend on a strict gluten-free diet. I must, however, disagree with Ms. Bast regarding the poorly-understood phenomenon of "non-celiac gluten sensitivity": there is currently no scientific data on the prevalence of this condition, even though there has been wild speculation on the internet. Clearly, the magnitude of this problem has huge implications for the baking industry, either as a problem or as an opportunity.