Something that gets brought up often when discussing wheat, is people insisting that the wheat products they eat nowadays gives them physical ailments like bloating and stomach aches, and thus our wheat has been modified too much in the last century. “Go back to the way it used to be!“, so often I’m told.
Wheat has been a staple food in the world for approximately 10 000 years, so has it really changed that much, even in the last 100 years, to deserve allegations of causing various health problems? To warrant a boom in the gluten-free industry—an increase in 26% in sales per annum? To be vilified the way it has?
There are claims that wheat is less nutritious, that it has been modified too much and the Wheat Belly author calls modern wheat “perfect, chronic poison”.
Wheat is near and dear to my heart; we live in the heart Wheatland County, Alberta after all. We are one of 11,000 wheat growers in our province and wheat is grown on 6.6 million acres in Alberta alone. When wheat takes a beating, I want to look into where the claims come from and if they’re true or not, and most importantly—what does the science say?
Has Wheat Changed on a Genetic Level?
The traits in wheat that have changed since the heritage varieties are the following: shorter plants, stronger plants, plants that have adapted better to growing conditions and plants that use water more efficiently, according to research done by researchers Drs. Ames, Edwards and DePauw. These traits came from Dr. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution. As a result of his accomplishments to prevent hunger and famine around the world, it is said that Dr. Borlaug has “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived” and thus has dubbed him as “the man who saved 1 billion lives”.
In terms of quantity of protein, the average protein of the western Canadian wheat crop is essentially the same as what was produced 100 years ago. In general, we haven’t found that many changes. …but where we did see difference was uniformity of newer varieties, which maintained nutritional components regardless of environment.” – Dr. Ron DePauw
The wheat of today has not only been changed to improve the adaptability of wheat to grow, but the varieties in Canada have been developed to preserve good baking and milling quality by improving on dough strength and water absorption which means more loaves of bread for the same quantity of flour. Similarly, Dr. Donald Kasarda found no evidence of any obvious trend toward higher protein content for either winter or spring wheats since the early part of the 20th century.
Gluten Is a Protein. What Does It Do?
Dr. Rex Newkirk, VP of Research and Innovation at the Canadian International Grains Institute (CIGI), was interviewed by Lyndsey Smith, and he explains that protein is what makes wheat functional: it’s the difference between wheat and rice (which is just a starch). Gluten gives wheat functionality by allowing it to “stay together”. The chain of proteins in gluten creates a matrix of gas bubbles to form during the fermentation process, to expand and hold their shape in bread doughs, instead of escaping. Bagels need more gluten, as they have a chewier texture, Dr. Lawandi a PhD chemist-turned-baker explains, as well as how more of your favourite wheat products require different amounts of gluten for various textures and desired traits.
“Proteins are a way of measuring how much gluten is in wheat, but it’s a broad category”, says Newkirk. Really high protein levels could mean low quality wheat, adversely you could have low quantity protein and high quality wheat. There are several kinds of protein in wheat, as Smith points out, and there are several ways of measuring it, but it all comes down to functionality—how well does it hold together? CIGI takes the wheat, turns it into flour and then into a dough and actually measures and tests it physically.
In Canada we have a unique system in place where we separate the wheat into different classes based on the functionality of protein and quantity of protein. In Canada, our most popular wheat is Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat, Newkirk says “it’s been selected to have the right balance and the right, high proteins”. CWRS is known for it’s excellent milling quality and is used for production of high volume pan bread and is also used alone or in blends for hearth bread, steamed bread, noodles, flat bread, common wheat pasta, according to the Canadian Grain Commission.
So What Is the Skinny on Modern Wheat?
That it won’t give you “wheat belly”. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
On a more serious note, in terms of protein and gluten, wheat has essentially not changed since “the way our ancestors grew it”. What has changed is that it maintains nutritional components better than older varieties and it has been bred to grow shorter, yield higher and has broad adaptations to growing conditions.
References and Further Resources
Jones, J. Wheat Belly—An Analysis of Selected Statements and Basic Theses From the Book
Kasarda, D. Can an Increase in Celiac Disease Be Attributed to an Increase in the Gluten Content of Wheat as a Consequence of Wheat Breeding? Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry
Lawandi, J. Kitchen Geekery: Misunderstood Gluten. Food Bloggers of Canada
Patterson, J. Kernels of Truth. GrainsWest Fall 2014
Specter, M. What’s so bad about gluten? The New Yorker
Canadian Grain Commission