Common Food Additive Suspect in Celiac Disease

According to new research from Germany, a food additive commonly used in cheese, bread, hot dogs, pasta and other processed foods might both cause and trigger the autoimmune attacks that are characteristic of celiac disease.

For some time, researchers have been exploring the possibility that environmental factors—such as infections, drugs, surgery, and so on—might lie behind celiac disease. More recently, they have been looking into the possible role of food additives and this most recent research from Germany has identified a suspect called microbial transglutaminase.

Transglutaminase is naturally produced in the body, but it has a different structure from the microbial variety used in food products. And, according to Aaron Lerner, M.D., of the AESKU.KIPP Institute in Wendelsheim, Germany,  these food products could “significantly increase” the amount of transglutaminase in the gut. And it’s known that gluten allows certain proteins, including microbial transglutaminase, to interact with immune cells in the gut.

To test their theory, the scientists tested antibodies from the blood of celiac patients. They discovered that microbial transglutaminase, when bound to gluten fragments, is likely a target of the immune response in celiac disease.

Does this mean that microbial transglutaminase is unsafe? At this stage the researchers can’t draw a definitive conclusion. According to Dr. Lerner, “Ultimately all we have so far are associations between microbial transglutaminase and celiac disease.” What needs to be done, he says, is “experimenting with exposure in animal models, intestinal cell lines, or biopsies.” In the meantime, he recommends “transparency and vigilance with regards to labeling of foods processed using microbial transglutaminase.”

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