A team of Italian scientists was recently honored at the European Inventor Awards after discovering a protein in corn mimics the properties of gluten. Under certain conditions—including temperature, moisture, and pH—researchers Virna Cerne and Ombretta Polenghi found that the protein, called zein, forms an elastic network similar to gluten, which accounts for wheat-based foods’ soft springiness. “Today the gluten-free products include a lot of fiber,” Cerne said, “but the fiber cannot be really elastic. Once the zein protein is isolated, it can be added to different gluten-free flours like rice or corn flour, and it solves the problem of no elasticity.” Cerne and Polenghi also pointed to the cheap cost of corn as another benefit, potentially unlocking an affordable way to enhance the taste of gluten-free foods. The duo is working with popular European food company Dr Schär to develop better-tasting foods for gluten-intolerant people and those with celiac disease.
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