Reducing the gluten content of barley

We have successfully bred a barley grain with significantly reduced levels of hordeins, the type of gluten found in barley. This means that a wider variety of foods and beverages suitable for those that avoid gluten in their diet could be just around the corner.

The Challenge

Limited dietary options for coeliacs and people with gluten intolerance

Gluten is a class of proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.

For the majority of people, consumption of gluten has no detrimental effects, however, there are two classes of people who cannot consume gluten containing foods:

  • those who suffer from coeliac disease, estimated to affect approximately one per cent of the population, and
  • people with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which is estimated to affect 5-10 per cent of the population.

At present for both of these conditions the only remedy is a lifelong gluten free diet. These diets are often expensive, high in fat and low in fibre, minerals and vitamins which in turn can contribute to adverse health outcomes. Thus there is a challenge to provide consumers who require a gluten free diet with new healthy alternatives that can add diversity to their diets.

We have successfully bred a barley grain with significantly reduced levels of hordeins, the type of gluten found in barley.

Our Response

Breeding barley with low levels of gluten

In barley, the class of gluten-like proteins is called hordeins, and these cannot be consumed by coeliacs. We identified that there was an opportunity to use conventional plant breeding techniques to develop a barley grain in which the hordein content had been reduced below 20 parts per million (ppm), the level recommended by the World Health Organisation for classification as gluten free.

Barley was chosen as it is genetically simpler than wheat, so achieving a barley variety in which the gluten content was reduced is easier and faster. Barley is not a large component of the standard Australian diet, but products from barley including malt and beer are common.

Developing a low gluten barley is an important proof-of-principle step on the way towards producing a range of novel products for coeliacs and those with gluten intolerance.

A novel grain for farmers, ULG barley broadens the barley market.

The Results

'Gluten free' barley just around the corner

Using conventional plant breeding techniques, our researchers have successfully bred the first ultra-low gluten barley, a barley variety in which the hordein content has been reduced to below 5 ppm.

While it is 'ultra-low' in gluten, the grain cannot be called 'gluten free' in Australia or New Zealand under current standards, as it is a barley grain and does contain some gluten. However, the gluten level is well below the level recommended by the World Health Organisation for classification as gluten free.

Our researchers have achieved ultra-low gluten levels in hulled barley, typically used in malt products and brewed beverages such as beer. The next step is to look at reducing the gluten levels in hulless barley, which is more typically used in foods. These new barley grains could in the future be used to produce food and beverages with gluten levels below the acceptable limit for coeliacs, offering a greater variety of healthy foods for consumers.

The Coeliac Friendly Cereals project has been co-funded by CSIRO and The Grains Research and Development Corporation.

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