Is hydrolyzed wheat protein okay for celiacs?

For those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, navigating food labels can be tricky. Hydrolyzed wheat protein is one of those ingredients that causes confusion. Is it safe? Or does it contain gluten?

What is hydrolyzed wheat protein?

Hydrolyzed wheat protein (HWP) is a food additive produced by breaking down wheat grains into amino acids. The proteins are broken down into smaller peptides through a chemical or enzymatic process called hydrolysis.

This process essentially “pre-digests” the wheat, making it easier for the body to absorb. HWP is used as a flavor enhancer in processed foods to improve taste, add thickness, and enhance protein content.

Does hydrolyzed wheat protein contain gluten?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, ingesting gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine.

So does hydrolyzed wheat protein contain gluten? The answer is yes and no.

HWP starts out as wheat, which does contain gluten. However, the hydrolysis process breaks down the gluten proteins into smaller pieces. How thoroughly the proteins are broken down determines whether HWP can be considered “gluten free.”

Partial vs. extensive hydrolysis

There are two main types of hydrolysis processes:

  • Partial hydrolysis: Breaks proteins down into large peptides that may still trigger a gluten reaction.
  • Extensive hydrolysis: Further breaks down peptides into individual amino acids and smaller chains that are not likely to cause issues.

Extensively hydrolyzed wheat proteins should not contain intact gluten peptides and are generally considered safe for gluten-free diets.

Partially hydrolyzed wheat protein does still contain gluten and is not suitable. However, it’s not always clear from a food label which type of hydrolysis was used.

Regulations on labeling

Given the ambiguity around hydrolyzed wheat protein, several organizations have established regulations around labeling:

  • The FDA allows “gluten-free” labels on foods only if they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
  • Codex Alimentarius international standards require hydrolyzed wheat proteins labeled “gluten-free” to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.
  • The European Commission requires “gluten-free” foods to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten if hydrolyzed ingredients are used.

So if a product containing hydrolyzed wheat protein is labeled “gluten-free,” it should imply the proteins have been broken down sufficiently to be under 20 ppm gluten.

However, it’s important to note there are no laws requiring hydrolyzed wheat protein itself to be labeled as “partial” or “extensive.” Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose which method they used.

What experts and research say

Given the lack of transparency on food labels, what do experts and research studies say about the gluten content of hydrolyzed wheat proteins?

Several studies have attempted to measure residual gluten content in hydrolysates:

  • One study found gluten immunoreactivity in 15 out of 26 hydrolyzed wheat samples tested (1).
  • Another study detected gluten peptides in some, but not all, extensively hydrolyzed wheat proteins tested (2).
  • One study challenged patients with celiac disease by having them consume pancakes made with hydrolyzed wheat. Just one of five participants showed signs of a reaction (3).

The results suggest hydrolyzed wheat proteins may still contain traces of gluten peptides depending on:

  • How extensive the hydrolysis process was
  • Detection method used to test for gluten
  • Individual sensitivity and reaction to gluten

Based on the current evidence, most experts consider extensively hydrolyzed wheat protein to be safe for the majority of those with celiac disease. However, individuals are still advised to exercise caution.

The Celiac Disease Foundation states that hydrolyzed wheat protein is “unlikely to cause a reaction.” But they still recommend checking with your doctor (4).

Others suggest only consuming hydrolyzed wheat proteins that are certified gluten-free, to be safe (5). Those extremely sensitive should avoid it altogether.

What celiac-friendly brands say

Many gluten-free and celiac-friendly brands choose not to work with hydrolyzed wheat protein at all.

Bob’s Red Mill, a popular gluten-free flour brand, does not allow hydrolyzed wheat protein in their products, stating:

“We prefer to steer clear of questionable ingredients like hydrolyzed wheat protein” (6).

Other brands like Kinnikinnick, Glutino, and Schar explicitly state their hydrolyzed wheat proteins are “extensively hydrolyzed” and contain less than 20 ppm gluten.

So if you do opt to consume products with hydrolyzed wheat protein, look for trusted celiac-friendly brands that can validate the gluten content.

Should you avoid hydrolyzed wheat protein with celiac disease?

Whether or not to consume hydrolyzed wheat protein is a personal choice for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding:

  • Your symptoms and sensitivity – Those with more mild or well-controlled symptoms can likely tolerate small amounts of gluten from hydrolysates. But if you react strongly, it’s best avoided.
  • How it’s labeled – Look for a “gluten-free” label and brands that specify “extensively hydrolyzed.” Avoid products that just list “hydrolyzed wheat protein.”
  • Your comfort level – If you are highly uncomfortable with any form of wheat derivative, it may give you peace of mind to simply avoid it.

Speak to your healthcare provider and weigh your personal factors. Some opt to steer clear while others feel comfortable consuming certified gluten-free hydrolyzed wheat proteins in moderation.

The bottom line

Extensively hydrolyzed wheat protein, where gluten peptides have been broken down significantly, may be safe for celiacs in tiny amounts. But there is a lack of transparency on food labels.

Until more stringent labeling laws exist, the only way to guarantee a product’s gluten content is to choose certified gluten-free brands you trust.

Speak with your healthcare provider about your individual case. And listen to your own body – if you react to a product with hydrolyzed wheat protein, avoid consuming it in the future.

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