The myth of Frankenwheat
“Frankenwheat” is a term frequently used to describe modern-day wheat that many believe has spurred the prevalence of diabetes and obesity. Ravindra Chibbar, Ph.D., is here to tell you that is not true.
A professor and Canada research chair in molecular biology for crop quality at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Chibbar shared the findings of multi-year research with participants at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), held Oct. 8-11 in Las Vegas.
“This is essentially what we’re trying to answer: Has the quality changed in such a way that it is very different?” Dr. Chibbar said. “That was the whole point that we were trying to analyze based on real science.”
Wheat has come under scrutiny as rumors persist that agricultural breeding practices to increase yields have resulted in a less healthy crop. To evaluate the validity of such claims, Dr. Chibbar led a team of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan to examine whether the nutritional composition of wheat has changed over the past 150 years.
The research team grew and harvested several dozen historical and modern-day wheat cultivars on the same plot and analyzed the protein, carbohydrate and mineral content of each variety. The project was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
While wheat breeding has led to higher yields and shorter plants over time, the researchers found that the nutritional composition of wheat has changed very little since 1860.
“All of these varieties were grown side by side using the same agricultural practices, and we did not find significant differences,” Dr. Chibbar said.
Changes in protein and starch characteristics over time were not statistically significant, Dr. Chibbar said.
The team also assessed the digestibility of the wheat varieties and discovered several modern cultivars contained more slow digestible starch than earlier varieties.
“Slow digestible starch is actually the one you really want because it helps your satiety,” Dr. Chibbar said. “I was surprised by this but also very happy. When you look from the nutritional point of view, maybe we have improved (the composition) of starch.”
Finally, the team evaluated mineral content, recording no significant differences in the concentration of selenium or zinc. Iron and calcium were found to have gradually decreased in wheat over the decades. However, Dr. Chibbar noted, iron is added to fortified flour.
“We haven’t gotten to the ‘why’ on the mineral decrease; that’s much more complicated,” he said.
Generally, the research concluded wheat remains a nutritious grain that is in many ways similar to that grown more than a century ago.
The team has not yet evaluated the wheat for contaminants or vitamins, which Dr. Chibbar said are “tricky,” but the research is ongoing. Future projects will examine changes in wheat related to non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
“There are reports people are becoming more wheat-sensitive,” he said. “We need to find out (if wheat breeding is to blame).”