Gluten and “toxic” fractions (part I)
– the structure of the gliadin and the toxicity of some fraction –
Gluten which is a protein compound formed by the prolamine, known as gliadin in wheat and responsible for the main phenomena of adverse reactions, and glutenin present mainly in the endosperm of cereal caryopsis such as wheat, spelled, rye and barley. Gluten is formed when water, flour and yeast are mixed: gliadin and glutenin combine to form a mixture characterized by viscosity, elasticity and cohesion. Therefore the quantity and integrity of the proteins that make up the gluten present in a flour are an important index to evaluate the quality and aptitude for baking.
Gliadin and glutenin, therefore, have been the subject of numerous research both in relation to the properties concerning the rheological characteristics of the doughs and to the adverse reactions that activate the immune system. Studies have been carried out on celiac disease that have discovered who and how this pathology is caused: they are some peptides (a set of amino acids) present, especially in the gliadin that contain sequences that are toxic, ie they activate the adverse reaction in genetically predisposed subjects of the immune system. The gliadin, in turn, is composed of several sub-units and these contain the “toxic” fractions in different quantities and qualities. Not only has William Hekkins’ research highlighted how the shape and location of gliadin molecules also influence not only chemical and physical properties but also toxicity.
“The gliadin proteins are heterogenous in different regions of the molecule and consequently differ in phisical and chemical properties. About 35% of the gliadin molecule is the alfa helix form, whereas 35% are beta turns(5). The latter are concentrated in the N terminal and C terminal more apolar parts of the gliadin. The remaining part has a random structure. These form have conseguences for the immunogenecity of the different regions in the molecule. Especially beta-turns are immunogenic.” The Toxicity of wheat prolamins William TH. J. M. Hekkens Annales Nestlé 1995 n. 51.
The study also analyzed the mechanism underlying the toxicity by detecting how “the passage of undigested gliadin fragments (fragments longer than 8 amino acids) or a lower tolerance to gliadin causes the immune system to react”. It is not enough, therefore, to know how much gliadin is present in a grain, but it is necessary to have the complete screening of its sub-units (quality, quantity, and, according to the study mentioned also form and position). The study on the “structure of gliadin” could partly explain why some ancient grains (for example, the monococcus), despite having a quantity of gliadin (and in particular alpha gliadin) not inferior to modern grains, have almost zero toxic levels.
The Toxicity of wheat prolamins