Modern wheat has changed a whole lot in comparison to its wild ancestors and cousins. Its seeds are plumper, its golden color is muted, and it grows quicker and taller than its relatives. But since high-wheat diets have lately become associated with unhealthy high-calorie lifestyles – as well as with the increased prevalence of celiac disease, it’s understandable that the modern grain industry is coming under intense scrutiny.
A look at modern wheat
But has our wheat really changed in substance, or just in appearance? That was one of the questions that researchers asked in a recent study – and according to their soon-to-be published work, they’ve found some surprising answers.
Modern wheat bears little resemblance to its wild cousins. These large scale changes have led some to speculate that it has fundamentally changed leading to increased wheat-mediated disease.
The researchers investigated 36 different cultivars of the common Canadian wheat known as Canadian Western Red Spring. This offered a range of samples that gave them a temporal snapshot of wheat’s evolution from the 1860s all the way up to to modern times.
The team examined several characteristics of each of these cultivars – including grain yield, ash (i.e., minerals), and total protein. If they could observe a significant change in any of these characteristics, they knew, then they’d be able to b.i.d.a case for the idea that our wheat has become nutritionally different from its wild relatives. But if none of these factors had changed, then that would make our modern wheat essentially identical to its wild ancestors in all but appearance.
The findings were clear: while modern wheat contains larger and more numerous kernels per stalk than its older or wild cousins – a finding that other studies have also observed – the team found no significant change in protein amounts (as a percent to compensate for increased yields) or minerals. This means that, while modern wheat produces more grain than its ancestors did, its nutritional composition has remained essentially the same.
Researchers examined 36 wheat cultivars, ranging from modern variants to those grown in the 1860. They found no significant change in total protein, carbohydrate, or mineral content.
Still, modern wheat continues to draw its fair share of criticism. Some medical experts champion the benefits of a completely wheat-free diet – but such a diet often cuts out other simple sugars as well, which makes it tough to distinguish the benefits of cutting wheat from those of simply cutting out junk food. In other words, there’s no question that these diets can be effective – it’s how they work that’s in doubt.
Even the researchers admit that more research is needed before we can be sure that wheat’s nutritional content really hasn’t changed in all these years. For one thing, this study analyzed the overall protein content of modern wheat – but they didn’t analyze levels of the specific gluten proteins that are known to be involved in celiac disease. By the same token, they analyzed overall carbohydrate levels, but not the levels of a class of dietary carbohydrates known as FODMAPs, which are associated with a range of gastrointestinal symptoms.
Benefits attributed to wheat-free diets may be due to elimination of simple sugars and thus junk foods. There is still a need for more in-depth studies that examine specific proteins and carbohydrates found in wheat that can have deleterious health effects.
In other words, while this study didn’t gather enough data to conclusively prove or disprove the claim that nothing about wheat’s nutritional content has changed at all in the past 150 years, it does demonstrate that at the macro level, the nutritional content of modern wheat is the same as wheat grown by our forefathers.