Who needs it? Gluten-free barley for beer and breakfast

Gluten-containing foods are a serious health challenge for people with coeliac disease and the less well-understood non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Many more choose to avoid gluten for less convincing reasons. Coeliac disease is an auto-immune condition occurring in about 1% of the population and requires lifelong exclusion from the diet of the various gluten proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye.

Untreated coeliacs suffer from painful intestinal malignancy and greatly damaged mucosal villi, resulting in poor absorption of nutrients. They frequently suffer from low bone density, and their alternative diets are often low in fibre and high in fat and sugar. Although there are multiple classes of gluten proteins in barley (hordeins) and many genes responsible, we sought to develop a barley that was effectively gluten-free and yet could function normally and continue to be a major source of dietary fibre and micronutrients and with familiar cereal taste in foods and drinks.

Combinations of variant lines eventually delivered more than 10,000 fold reduction in gluten compared to control barley. The hordein levels in these Kebari lines, even as pure grain, are well below the World Health Organisation’s recommended level of 20 ppm for classification as gluten free.

This is the story of how it was achieved, why it was first used in Germany to make a gluten-free barley beer, and how CSIRO has now turned the original hulled version into a naked grain suitable for food applications.

Dr. Philip Larkin is a Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO Agriculture and Food in Canberra, previously holding positions of Program Leader (Metabolic Engineering of New Plant Products) and Group Leader (Cereal Quality Traits). His group has focused on modifications to cereal grain composition to enhance their health benefits, targeting a reduction in chronic diet-related diseases. A number of the improved grains from the group’s research have had their benefits substantiated through clinical trials and are now available in supermarket products.