“Frankenwheat” a myth says new U of S research

“Wheat of today is nothing like the wheat of 40 years ago,”: William Davis, author of Wheat Belly.

Davis, the cultural leader of the gluten free movement, has argued that wheat makes millions of people sick every year because modern wheat is a “Frankenwheat”, which is basically toxic to humans.

University of Saskatchewan research, just published in Cereal Chemistry, suggests that Davis is dead wrong. After evaluating the chemical composition of 37 spring wheat varieties, U of S experts concluded that modern wheat is essentially the same as wheat grown in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Ravi Chibbar, a U of S plant sciences professor and Canada Research Chair in crop quality, said the nutritional composition of Red Fife, a variety developed in 1860, is very similar to Unity, a variety from the 2000s.

“We looked at the carbohydrates, that is total starch, the total proteins and the polymeric proteins, which include the gluten,” said Chibbar, who presented the findings in a poster at the Canadian Nutrition Society conference, held in Winnipeg May 29-30.

“(Polymeric proteins) are 60 to 70 percent of all the proteins in the grain…. We found there was no definite trend of an increase over time.”

Data from the poster illustrated that the amount of starch in spring wheat, grown in Canada, has remained around 60 percent for more than a century.

As well, the concentration of polymeric proteins was very similar in the 37 varieties, ranging from 57 to 65 percent of total protein.

“The glutenin and gliadin composition… also do not show any specific trends in accumulation… over time,” Chibbar said. “Gluten is a complex, made up of several proteins…. There are some minor changes but essentially they are the same…. We thought maybe the polymeric proteins would be low (for older varieties) and high (for newer varieties). But there is no such difference.”

Chibbar, in an interview at the nutrition conference, said the results were surprising because Davis’s beliefs, that modern wheat is completely different from ancient wheat, is a cornerstone of the gluten free philosophy.

Davis has said that modern wheat is an “opiate,” and the wheat of today is “by far, hands down, the worst thing you can eat.”

Chibbar said newer wheat varieties do yield more bushels per acre, do flower earlier and are shorter than older wheat varieties, but the exaggerated claims around nutritional changes is nothing but noise and nonsense.

“When we were looking at all the news coverage (around wheat and gluten)… we thought there maybe was a change,” he said. “The nutritional quality of the grain, the grain composition, hasn’t really changed very much…. It is very similar to what the grain was in 1860.”

Christine Lowry, executive director of the Healthy Grains Institute in Canada, said most cereal experts already knew that plant breeding hadn’t dramatically altered the nutritional profile of wheat.

But there was little or no published research on the topic.

“The size (of the grain) may have changed and they (farmers) may get more yield per acre,” Lowry said.

“I think people look at visual changes and think this must be the reason for X,Y or Z…. There have been a lot of anecdotal myths out there.”

Chibbar was able to study the nutritional composition of 37 spring wheat varieties because his U of S colleague, Pierre Hucl, has been growing old and new wheat varieties since 1989.

Hucl, a plant sciences professor and wheat expert, grew the CWRS varieties in plots to evaluate the benefits of plant breeding, such as increases in yield over time.

Using Canada research chair funding, Chibbar began studying the nutritional profile of the 37 wheat varieties in 2013.

After repeating the experiment in 2014, there was sufficient data to publish a paper in Cereal Chemistry.

“It took us (nearly) three years to get to this stage to publish, even though the data was there,” Chibbar said. “We (had) to be very thorough because we get it peer reviewed. Whereas (Davis’) book was never peer reviewed by scientists. That’s a big difference.”

Chibbar, a member of the scientific advisory council for the Healthy Grains Institute, said he wants to provide the public with the facts: wheat has been and continues to be an important and nutritious grain.

“As we’ve said always, the whole civilization is based on wheat grain. Something (valuable) must be in there.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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