For people with acute gluten sensitivity, eating out can be a stressful experience.
Despite the often sincere assurances of restaurant staff, small amounts of gluten can still be present in food, resulting in discomfort, bloating and pain.
Research by a team from the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Örebro, Sweden, has opened the way to a pill that will afford a degree of protection in such circumstances.
Lead author Julia König reports that a tablet containing an enzyme known as aspergillus niger-derived prolyl endoprotease (AN-PEP) can break down small amounts of gluten before it reaches the area of the duodenum where symptoms develop.
“This substance allows gluten-sensitive patients to feel safer, for example, when they are out with friends at a restaurant and can’t be sure whether something is 100% gluten-free,” she says.
Konig and her team report their results this week at Digestive Disease Week in Chicago, US, the world’s largest professional gathering from scientists studying the gastrointestinal tract.
The latest findings build on earlier work that showed AN-PEP could break down gluten when introduced into the stomach in liquid form via a feeding tube.
The new work tested the enzyme using a real meal, ingested conventionally.
Konig’s team used only a small sample, comprising 18 gluten-sensitive volunteers, feeding them a porridge containing a known amount of gluten. The participants also took a high- or low-dose enzyme tablet, or a placebo.
The results show AN-PEP broke down gluten in the stomach and upper parts of the small intestine. The volunteers who took the high dose pill had 87% less gluten in the central area of the duodenum than the control subjects; the low-dose recipients had 81% less.
“Studies show that even when following a gluten-free diet, unintentional gluten intake can still occur, depending on how strict a gluten-free dieter is,” König says.
“Our results suggest that this enzyme can potentially reduce the side-effects that occur when gluten-sensitive individuals accidentally eat a little gluten.”
She adds that the enzyme tablet is effective only against small amounts of gluten – it won’t suddenly allow someone to chow down on pizza or pasta.
She also sounds a warning: the tablet has not been tested on people with coeliac disease, a serious condition in which gluten consumption can lead to severe long-term harm.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.