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Heirloom grains gain a new following: Gluten watchers

Are heirloom grains the next best thing since sliced bread?

With all the buzz around gluten-free products, more attention has been paid to heirlooms, an emerging category of grain which have lower gluten content than typical wheat. This alternative is attractive to bakers, who are looking to woo back customers that are increasingly leery of wheat and its byproducts.

The protein found in wheat, barley and rye contributes to dough's elasticity, but is also linked to celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is aggravated by gluten consumption.

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According to market researcher NPD Group, as many as 30 percent of Americans are looking to cut down on gluten based on health concerns. However, an answer to the growing wheat aversion may be found in heirlooms.

Such grains include einkorn, spelt, emmer, farro and heirloom wheat. Some say they can be used as a way to cut back on gluten, while still having bread and other products typically made from grain.

"If someone has celiac disease, they should not eat einkorn because it has gluten. But for some people like myself that have a gluten allergy, I enjoy einkorn every day and don't have any allergic symptoms," Eli Rogosa, head of the Heritage Grain Conservancy and a baker herself, said.

Rogosa cites a study by Dr. Hetty van den Broeck, a Dutch researcher who works with gluten, as a scientific reason behind her lauding of the grains.

According to van den Broeck's work, modern wheat can be linked to a fourfold rise of celiac disease in the past 30 years, largely because the type of gluten it carries stimulates celiac disease. Einkorn, and other modern grains, contain less of a certain aggravating property in their gluten content, and is therefore easier on the stomach, according to the study.

For her part, Rogosa has been working with Cornell University and the University of Vermont on developing heirloom grains. Their work has been supported by $3 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is yielding results.

"After four years of work, I've developed heritage wheat varieties that yield higher than modern wheat in organic fields," Rogosa said.

Gluten woes: real or bum rap?

The science on gluten, and the ailments it triggers, is far from uniform. Celiac disease only affects about 1 percent of the population, according to Dr. Elizabeth Mayer Davis, chair of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina's (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Despite that relatively small fraction of gluten allergy sufferers, the gluten free market, estimated to be around $4 billion as of 2013, is proliferating. Much of it comes from individuals who claim to be "gluten intolerant," or who may adhere to the increasingly popular paleolithic ("paleo") diet. Others point to a growing body of work that claims gluten can trigger gastrointestinal, skin and other health problems.

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"There is no valid test to determine gluten allergies," said UNC's Davis. "The sensitivity is a loose term that anyone could use to describe gastrointestinal distress after consuming foods that contain gluten."

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Other experts cast doubt on the science behind gluten's bad rap, even as they acknowledge the rise of celiac afflictions.

"The difference is that there have been a whole series of anecdotes, and there have been tens of thousands of them, but there haven't been any controlled clinical trials where they set up large groups of people," said Dr. Patrick Hanaway, the medical director of the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

"It's interesting to note that in the last 30 years the rate of celiac disease has gone up four times. So that's a curious thing, in and of itself," he added.

Heirloom grains 'turn the corner'

Heirloom grain boosters have seized on the litany of health complaints. As modern grains were engineered to boost their yield, their gluten content became harder to digest, they argue.

Abraham Palmer, owner of Box Turtle Bakery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, cited anecdotes of gluten-sensitive people responding well to his heirloom-grain baked goods, which include spelt pecan loaves and red fife olive hearth bread. Beyond customers' personal tales, Palmer also thinks the benefits of heirloom grains could extend beyond their gluten content.

"Some people with diabetes tell me that the breads I make don't cause their sugar levels to spike so much," he said.

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Palmer also said the heirloom grains allow for more unique and custom flavor pairings for baking. Spelt, he said, has a "very mild and smooth profile with a hint of nuttiness—perfect for a tortilla." Red fife wheat, he added, makes for excellent hearth bread.

While it still is hard for Palmer to get a hold of heirloom grains, he is optimistic about the future of the plants, and the businesses that use them.

"We're just maybe starting to turn the corner," he said.