Study of CWRS wheats counters diet book’s claims

A new paper finds nutritional composition of modern wheat is similar to wheat grown in Canada 150 years ago. (Gloria Gingera/University of Saskatchewan photo courtesy CNW Group/Healthy Grains Institute)

Winnipeg | Reuters — The amount of protein in Canadian wheat has fluctuated little in 141 years, according to the most extensive study of its kind, countering claims that radical changes in the grain are making people sick.

Dieters have shunned wheat, the key ingredient in bread, cookies and noodles, since the 2011 bestseller Wheat Belly, written by Wisconsin cardiologist William Davis, claimed modern wheat isn’t what it used to be, causes sickness, and should not be eaten.

But while Canadian spring wheat morphed into a more productive, shorter plant between 1860 and 2001, its concentration of total grain protein, including gluten, within the kernel has increased only about one per cent, according to University of Saskatchewan plant science professors Ravi Chibbar and Pierre Hucl.

Their paper was recently published in the journal Cereal Chemistry. Its results were presented also at this week’s Canadian Nutrition Society conference in Winnipeg.

“Wheat is a very nutritious grain and people should keep on eating wheat because it’s not going to cause the effects that are being claimed,” Chibbar said in an interview on Friday. “Grain composition hasn’t really changed that much.”

The study involved 24 replicated trials over 19 years in fields in central Saskatchewan, and seeds from 37 Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat varieties ranging from Red Fife to Superb, representing grain from each decade from the 1860s onward.

The study’s stated objective was to measure the rate of wheat cultivar improvement “in light of relatively narrow end-use quality definitions for the CWRS market class.”

The researchers compared the older varieties’ nutritional composition against “modern” CWRS varieties and analyzed concentration of starches and proteins, including gluten.

The study also found CWRS’ days to spike emergence and plant height decreased over time, while kernel weight, SDS sedimentation volume (a measurement of bread-making quality), farinograph absorption (measuring flour’s water absorption) and dough development time increased.

Protein concentration determines a loaf’s volume. Davis’ “Wheat Belly” website says wheat has 1,000 proteins, including gluten, that create unwanted effects on health, making it a “Frankengrain” that “has exerted more harm than any foreign terrorist group can inflict.”

Davis, through a spokeswoman, said he needed time to read the study before commenting on it.

Chibbar’s conclusion echoes that of recent studies on U.S. wheat, but his paper is based on 18 years of experiments on cultivated varieties dating back to 1860. The seeds for the experiments are stored in banks, and the new plants they produce replenish seed supplies.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the increased incidences of obesity, diabetes or other health conditions in today’s society are related to the wheat varieties developed during the recent decades as claimed by some critics,” he said in a release Friday from the Healthy Grains Institute, an industry-backed not-for-profit body.

The study was launched in 1989 with funding from the university, the Saskatchewan agriculture ministry, the Canada Research Chairs program and grain handler Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, now part of commodity firm Glencore’s Viterra unit.

Chibbar, an expert in grain quality, got involved three years ago to examine the data for nutritional changes.

The co-authors plan another paper focusing on starch, the biggest component in wheat, for release next year.

Rod Nickel is a Reuters correspondent covering the agriculture and mining sectors from Winnipeg. Includes files from Network staff.

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