Canada research: Wheat little changed since 1860

by Laura Lloyd
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Canada wheat field
Modern Canadian wheat is nutritionally similar to ancient wheat.

SASKATOON, SASK. — Ravindra Chibbar, Ph.D. has published research challenging claims that obesity and a host of serious diseases, including diabetes, are caused by alterations in the protein content of modern wheat that have caused the grain to be harmful for human consumption.

His big contribution to the wheat wars: Modern Canadian wheat is nutritionally similar to ancient wheat. In the scientific community at least, that finding appeared to undercut popular assertions that today’s wheat was different — and much riskier to humans — than its early precursors.

Dr. Chibbar, professor and Canada Research Chair in molecular biology for crop at the University of Saskatchewan, has since turned his research to the question of carbohydrates in wheat. Preliminary data suggest these components, like proteins such as gluten, have changed very little in wheat in the last 150 years. Early indications involving mineral content also pointed to only miniscule changes in Canadian grain since 1860, Dr. Chibbar told Milling & Baking News.

Ravindra Chibbar, Ph.D.
Ravindra Chibbar, Ph.D.

“If we want to see whether wheat has really changed, we need to study all the components that make the grain,” he said.

Dr. Chibbar’s published research on the protein concentration in Canadian western red spring, the dominant wheat variety grown in Canada, involved raising 36 wheat cultivars with different years of registration, beginning in 1860 and at subsequent intervals every few years.

He used seeds from a seed bank to obtain samples grown at intervals of every few years from 1860 into the 21st century. The plants were grown under identical conditions in his field laboratory for at least two years. He and his team of scientists replicated this methodology in testing for changes in wheat carbohydrates, using an identical set of cultivars as was used to test protein, but grown in 2013.

“There are small variations … like what we first saw in the proteins,” he said.

Dr. Chibbar said he hopes to send the results of the carbohydrate study out for publication within the next four to five months.

Dr. Chibbar’s research on proteins and gluten content in wheat, funded by the Canadian government, showed changes of less than 1% have occurred since 1860, all as a result of selective breeding techniques that have led to a bigger kernel size, a shorter straw and more nutrients being concentrated in the head of the wheat plant.

He is careful to say current wheat cultivars are similar to the early variety, not identical, despite only minimal differences.

“Identical is a very strict term,” he said. “That is why I used the word similar, which is a more scientifically correct word because nothing can be identical over so many years.”

Some of the concerns about whether wheat is healthy rests on the notion the wheat genome has been altered by scientists into being an addictive “frankenwheat” that leads, among other things, to uncontrolled weight gain and other negative health outcomes.

The changes that have occurred in the last century and a half have been the result of selective breeding, not actual genetic modification, he noted. As of yet, there is no bioengineered wheat variety on the market anywhere. Dr. Chibbar, in fact, contended selective breeding, not genetic modification, was the best way to improve wheat. Bioengineering for “herbicide resistance is easy,” he said. “Disease resistance is easy. But to get the changes in quality that I specialize in, it is kind of difficult. Selective breeding is a much better strategy.”

“We want enough wheat so that everybody can consume it,” Dr. Chibbar said. “But we also want wheat that can impart special health benefits. Selective breeding would be able to make those changes.”

 He said assertions that wheat is addictive were easy to refute. Peptides produced during the digestion of wheat bind to opioid recepters in the human brain, which some anti-wheat promoters have said indicates wheat is a food substance many people are powerless to stop eating. Noting that a protein used in plant photosynthesis also binds to human opioid receptors, Dr. Chibbar said any green vegetable should therefore be addictive, clearly a false conclusion. 

While Dr. Chibbar noted his research had its inception with the work of his close colleague, Dr. Pierre Hucl, Ph.D., as early as 1989 — well before the current wheat debates — he offered perspective about why some self-help professionals were eager to exploit the fears of individuals worried about their weight and their health.

“People are looking for a magic bullet,” Dr. Chibbar said. “You gain weight pound by pound. You didn’t become overweight overnight. You cannot lose 30 lbs or 50 lbs overnight. Removing gluten makes you lose so many other important components of your diet. My approach is everything in moderation. If you overdo anything, you will have bad effects.” 
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