TUFFAH, Gaza Strip — When the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip intensified in 2008, people with gluten intolerance, including celiac disease, lost access to gluten-free wheat imported via the Israeli border crossings. Gluten-free wheat is a staple for thousands of people with gluten intolerance around the world. With necessity as the mother of invention, after five years of investigation, two researchers from Gaza succeeded in producing gluten-free wheat in July 2015. Gluten, a substance consisting of two proteins, is present in cereal grains such as wheat. It gives dough its elasticity.
One of the researchers, Mohammed al-Askalani, chairman of the Department of Scientific Research and Community Service at Al-Isra University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The idea behind gluten-free wheat production is that this staple food is a human need for many patients with autism or celiac disease in the Gaza Strip. We produce gluten-free wheat as a substitute for the imported product, which is often scarce in the local market due to the blockade and, if available, is sold at high prices that do not suit the patients’ economic situation.” Some people believe that a gluten-free diet positively affects the behavior of children with autism.
Another factor driving this development is that the wife of Abdel Fattah Qarman, Askalani's research partner, suffers from gluten intolerance, a condition that her physicians in Gaza were at pains to diagnose. Qarman told Al-Monitor, “My wife suffered from osteoporosis, acute anemia and emaciation. She was examined by an orthopedist, an internist and then a kinesthesiologist. She also underwent blood tests, but doctors could not identify her disease, which remained undiagnosed for three years, because the symptoms of wheat allergy intersect with about 55 other diseases.”
Qarman further explained, “Wheat allergy makes young people walk like a 90-year-old person [if they regularly ingest gluten]. Gluten, which is in ordinary flour, is what affects people with wheat sensitivity. This is what my then-25-year-old wife suffered from. She was diagnosed by a medical committee at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City following numerous tests.” Qarman added, “When my wife was diagnosed, she started the treatment journey by following a diet excluding wheat and its derivatives and gluten-containing flour, oats and sugars.”
Askalani noted, “The disease has severe complications that can lead to death. Two wheat allergy patients died as a result of the halt in importation of gluten-free wheat during Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, starting December 2008 [and going] into January 2009. The gluten-free wheat shortage continued for nine consecutive months after the war.”
The researchers' method, which they declined to discuss in detail, appears to be sustainable, as the gluten-free wheat is produced locally using available resources and can be sold at affordable prices. The Arab diet relies heavily on wheat.
“One kilogram of gluten-free flour imported from Israel is sold at about $3.50. The kind imported from Europe reaches $15 per kilogram and is only available through a charitable organization. There is only one supermarket in the Gaza Strip that sells [gluten-free flour], and it isn’t always available. The flour we are making is sold at $1 to $1.50 for a kilogram. We hope to be able to establish a factory to produce [large quantities],” said Askalani. “Before we made this type of wheat available, people would buy one kilogram of imported gluten-free wheat at a price equivalent to that of a sack of regular wheat [about $1]. We broke this rule, since the price of one kilogram of our produced gluten-free wheat is equivalent to the price of only two kilograms of regular wheat.”
For the moment, the new wheat is only available through Terre des Hommes, a humanitarian organization that provides care for patients with wheat allergies and celiac disease in Gaza. Those affected can currently get gluten-free wheat from the group for free. According to Ahmed al-Helo, executive director of the Right to Live Society, which specializes in providing health care to autistic Gazans, Terre des Hommes also supplies gluten-free wheat to organizations focused on autism.
Helo told Al-Monitor, “This discovery will alleviate the crisis of the patients, who follow a special gluten-free diet all year long. An ordinary diet would irritate the nerve cells of patients with autism, not to mention lead to these people’s malabsorption of nutrients.”
No official authorities are currently supporting or documenting the development of the gluten-free wheat so far. The research stems solely from Askalani and Qarman's personal efforts, which Al-Isra University decided to support during the past academic year. The researchers obtained accreditation for the findings of their research from the Arab Center for National Research in Egypt and obtained a certification from the Saudi Food and Drug Authority attesting to the safety of their wheat.
Um Mohammed, a woman with gluten sensitivity, is one of the beneficiaries of the gluten-free wheat provided by Terre des Hommes. She told Al-Monitor she is relieved and happy to have access to this new product through the organization. “Gluten-free wheat was unavailable in the market, and when I eat regular wheat, I suffer severe flatulence and my eyesight is weakened,” she said. “I become helpless when not on a gluten-free diet. If this product is available in the market, it is often sold at a high price that I cannot afford.”
The two researchers introduced significant modifications to the combination of ingredients used to produce gluten-free wheat, making their wheat different from that sold on the international market. Their modifications aimed to satisfy Eastern preferences in food production. For instance, bread from internationally available gluten-free flour does not have the same color as bread made from local, regular wheat and cannot be used to prepare several popular traditional dishes, primarily due to issues of consistency but also taste.
Askalan asserted, “We developed the features of the new product to turn it into a raw material whose functions, uses and characteristics are similar to those of regular wheat in such a way that the patient does not feel alienated by following a gluten-free diet.”
Askalani and Qarman aspire to apply their methods to produce casein-free milk and porridge for children with autism and celiac disease and phenylketonuria, a rare disorder in which the body fails to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. A lack of resources, however, and a national authority uninterested in scientific research and unable to facilitate development remain challenges for many researchers.
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