For people with gluten sensitivity, even tiny amounts of gluten can cause severe discomfort, which makes eating in restaurants — where gluten-containing products like flour can easily contaminate other food — extremely tricky. Recent research reveals, however, that a pill for people with gluten sensitivity may eventually be a viable option. Although the pill, made up of an enzyme that breaks down gluten, isn’t a solution to the problem of gluten sensitivity or intolerance, it has the potential to make eating out a lot safer for gluten-sensitive folks.
Researchers from the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Örebro, Sweden, presented their findings at Digestive Disease Week 2017, an international conference of gastroenterology specialists, on Sunday. Their study focuses on an enzyme called “aspergillus niger-derivedprolyl endoprotease,” also known as AN-PEP. Previous research has found that AN-PEP can break down gluten in the gut, but these earlier studies have only looked at AN-PEP when added to liquid meals via feeding tubes. This new study is the first to assess the efficacy of AN-PEP when taken as a tablet to accompany a regular meal.
The researchers started by dividing 18 people with gluten sensitivity into three groups: One taking a high dose of AN-PEP, one taking a low dose, and one taking a placebo. They had each person eat a bowl of porridge with two wheat cookies (high in gluten) crushed into it, and then they measured the subject’s gluten levels over a period of hours.
The study found that AN-PEP is effective at breaking down gluten in the stomach and small intestine. People who took the high and low doses of AN-PEP had 85 percent less gluten in their stomachs than those who took placebos. People who took the high dose were also found to have 81 percent less gluten in the small intestine than the placebo group, while those with the low dose had their gluten levels in the small intestine lowered by 87 percent.
“Since even small amounts of gluten can affect gluten-sensitive patients, this supplement can play an important role in addressing the residual gluten that is often the cause of uncomfortable symptoms,” lead author Julia König, PhD, said in a press release. König warned, however, that gluten sensitive people should not regard AN-PEP as a license to eat high-gluten foods like pizza and pasta. “Our results suggest that this enzyme can potentially reduce the side effects that occur when gluten-sensitive individuals accidentally eat a little gluten,” König said, “little” being the operative word.
König also said that AN-PEP should not be used by people with celiac disease as an excuse to eat gluten. Because people with celiac disease experience extreme reactions to gluten that can involve lasting damage to the small intestine, they should continue to keep gluten out of their diets altogether.
With only 18 subjects, this is a relatively small study, and more research will be needed to explore the full scope of AN-PEP’s potential as a treatment for gluten sensitivity. Still, it’s an encouraging step forward for people with gluten sensitivity who want to be able to eat out without worrying about negative symptoms.