Wheat Has Not Changed

Photick/ZenShui/Michele Constantini/ Photick / Getty Images Plus
Photick/ZenShui/Michele Constantini/ Photick / Getty Images Plus

If you read and relied on advice from recent bestselling books claiming that wheat has somehow morphed into “Frankenwheat,” and is responsible for every ailment from diabetes to weight gain to arthritis to asthma, this is a must-read.

What if Wheat Hasn’t Really Changed at All?

New research published in the peer-reviewed journal Cereal Chemistry, and additional results presented at the Canadian Nutrition Society annual meeting, show that the nutritional composition of modern wheat is similar to wheat grown in Canada 150 years ago.

While some claim the protein composition of the grain (including gluten), has been fundamentally altered by the agriculture industry, the truth, as discovered by the University of Saskatchewan researchers Ravi Chibbar, Pierre Hucl and their colleagues, is that the overall nutritional quality and composition of wheat grain over time has seen little change.

This new study debunks claims that modern varieties of wheat are causing gluten intolerance because of how their protein content has been manipulated. It’s simply not true, say the researchers.

The scientists took seeds from 37 varieties of wheat representing grain from each decade from the 1860s onwards, and grew the wheat in the same field under the same conditions. They harvested the wheat and compared the nutritional composition against modern Canada Western Red Spring wheat.

Upon analysis of carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients in wheat, they discovered that wheat today is nutritionally similar to wheat grown in 1860, and that 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.

The research, which was funded by independent (non-industry) sources including the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and the Canada Research Chairs Program, will hopefully help consumers overcome their fear of bread and pasta.

Unless someone has a wheat allergy, celiac disease or gluten intolerance (which, combined, is less than 10 percent of the population), there seems to be no scientific reason to avoid wheat, which has not significantly changed since your great grandparents ate it.

Some people are left wondering, “If wheat hasn’t changed, why is there a rise in celiac disease and gluten intolerance?” Many theories abound to answer that question, including the use of pesticides, overconsumption of wheat in general, the abundant use of gluten as a food additive, the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that indigestible FODMAPs may be more to blame than gluten, or that some individuals have damaged gut flora. Sometimes the way wheat products are prepared can make a difference — studies show that artisan bread loaves made with traditional long-fermentation times may be easier to digest than quick-rise commercial loaves.

For now, we know two things. First, the gluten protein in wheat has not significantly changed over the last 150 years. And second, that there will be more information to come as the science continues to evolve.

A previous version of this blog post, published July 6, 2015, has been edited and updated above.

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Cara Rosenbloom
Cara Rosenbloom, RD, is the president of Words to Eat By, a Toronto-based nutrition communications company specializing in recipe development, writing and nutrition education. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.