Why Gluten Free Wheat and Non Allergenic Peanuts are Not the Answer


Woman looking uncertainly at light bulb. Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Sometimes "good" news makes me angry. This is one of those times. We keep hearing news of gluten free wheat and it's getting annoying.  This isn't the first such news and probably won't be the last.  But the fact is, this news is not for us, the people with Celiac Disease, it's for the food processing corporations that make packaged foods. 

The big news in the past few days has Israeli scientists smugly showing lab devices in nice photos, but I think the optimism is premature.  An Israeli startup, Ukko, is working on two food tolerance problems (paywall if you close the page), using CRISPR to edit the genes of the plants, wheat and peanut.  

Normally, if you said to me, hey I've got a less allergenic peanut, people will get sick, but they won't have anaphylaxis from it.  I'd be jumping up and down and demanding that all ordinary peanut butter should be made from it.  But using CRISPR in this way isn't going to yield anything that actually solves the problem.  

The problem is, peanut butter is cheap and any solution to the allergy must keep the price down.  Peanut butter has prevented starvation among the ultra poor children of the USA.  We have a gigantic wealth gap, which we had even before the pandemic and the pandemic made it worse.  Peanut butter is an important source of protein for poor children.  When a poor child is allergic to it, it can be a serious problem for the family not only because they may get in contact with it, but also because their family has an additional financial hardship as a result.  

A CRISPR designer peanut will not help because it will be too expensive.  

Similarly, even if you succeed at making a Celiac safe wheat with CRISPR, unless you standardize it so that all wheat grown in the world will be that one wheat variety, it won't actually help people with Celiac.  Labels are not required to show the "variety" of wheat.  Labels just say wheat.  And it will be a patented product that will, again, be expensive.  It's not solving much of anything.  We have expensive GF food now, and we will still have expensive specialty designer GF food in the future.  

Unless the CRISPR modified wheat will be placed into the public domain for anyone to use it, for any farmer to save the seed and replant it, it's not a solution.  Even if that happens, there's no guarantee that Non-Celiacs will accept the new wheat as good enough for them.  People with Celiac Disease are globally only about 1-2% of the population.  You expect everyone to just change the main grain in the world for us?  Excuse me if I remain in doubt about that.  

And what about barley and rye???And certain varieties of quinoa?

And who told Ukko that GF foods are "bad"?  The GF food I make is wonderful.  The mass produced sawdust powder cookies that supermarkets sell at a premium price are "bad."  And everyone in the Celiac community knows to avoid them, and look for local bakers, which in my case are JP's, Imagine, and even Reason to Bake.  If they don't know that, then they figure it out quickly. 

This is why it's important to keep stereotypes of Celiac and gluten free at bay.  Painting all GF food as "bad tasting" can literally drive science in the wrong direction.  Here's the proof. 

Dear Ukko, you have so much power in your hands, and you're well funded.  Why not actually produce a drug that stops the autoimmune reaction?  Or produce a genetic fix so that Celiac genes of humans go back into a dormant state and stay that way? You've fixed 35 genes in wheat, out of 45 needed?  OK, well, if you made a genetic drug to fix the 1-2% of humans who have Celiac genes, you'd only have two genetic targets: HLA-DQ8 and 2.5.  Why not work on the puzzle of how to quiet those genes?  

I don't want to be buying expensive food, telling B&B operators "no breakfast for me" or having to book every vacation with a kitchenette that I have to obsessively clean on day 1, and tell the staff to never touch.  I don't want to prep everything for the rest of my life.  I don't want to need to learn to make bagels if I want good bagels, ditto croissants, ditto pizza dough, ditto bread.  But they can be made great gluten free.  Just not commercially.  

Stop treating us like a resource, spreading misinformation about our food, giving us choiceless choice, making our lives more expensive, threatening farmers with more patented seeds, giving unscrupulous restaurant owners another excuse to feed us things that will hurt us (oh shuure, all the wheat in our kitchen is the "new wheat" hahaha you can't prove otherwise), and start treating us like people who don't want to be ill.  

Wow I'm so sick of this gluten free wheat theme!  It's a wonderful party trick, but that's all.


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