“Go back to the way it used to be!” I often hear this when people are talking about wheat and gluten, as they insist that the wheat products they eat nowadays give them ailments like bloating and stomach aches, thus assuming wheat has been modified too much in the last century.
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 of $632.6 million in nine years? To be vilified in mainstream media the way it has?
I have read claims that wheat is less nutritious, that it has been modified too much and the author of the book Wheat Belly, even goes so far as to call modern wheat the “perfect, chronic poison.”
Wheat is near and dear to my heart. We are one of 11,000 wheat growers in Alberta and wheat is grown on 7.1 million acres in this province alone. When wheat takes a beating, I want to investigate where the claims come from and if they’re true or not, and most importantly — what does the science say?
The traits in wheat that have changed since the heritage varieties are: shorter and stronger plants, plants that have adapted better to growing conditions and plants that use water more efficiently, according to 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 Borlaug has “saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived.”
The wheat of today has not only been changed to improve the adaptability 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.
Dr. Rex Newkirk, VP of research and innovation at the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi), says 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 dough, 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. 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, 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 measures and tests it.
In Canada, we separate wheat into different classes based on the functionality and quantity of protein, with the most popular wheat being Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat. CWRS is known for its 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, flatbread, and common wheat pasta, according to the Canadian Grain Commission.
So — modern wheat won’t give you “wheat belly.” (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
But seriously, 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. Wheat shouldn’t be feared, it should be understood.