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No change in wheat protein in a century, Canadian study finds

Gino Celli inspects wheat nearing harvest on his farm near Stockton, Calif.
Gino Celli inspects wheat nearing harvest on his farm near Stockton, Calif. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Go ahead — bite down on that bagel.

A University of Saskatchewan professor says he’s debunked claims that modern varieties of wheat are causing gluten intolerance because of how their protein content has been manipulated.

“The science doesn’t support what people have been saying,” said Ravi Chibbar, whose paper was published Thursday in the journal Cereal Chemistry.

“There’s no such thing as Frankenwheat.”

READ MORE: Gluten-free for weight loss? You’re doing more harm than good: study

Chibbar’s research involved studying wheat varieties that have been planted in North America since the 19th century. They were grown and analyzed in test plots that have been maintained since 1989. The original intent was to catalogue improvements made in yield and time to harvest since the 1860s when homesteaders planted Ontario-originated Red Fife on their newly broken land.

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But the focus shifted when Chibbar began to notice claims from health advisers that new wheat varieties contained high protein levels and different kinds of starch that were contributing to gluten intolerance.

READ MORE: Are Canadians over the gluten-free food trend?

“A lot of questions started to arise that the modern wheat is very different.”

Chibbar decided to find out if protein levels really have increased.

The answer was yes. Protein levels have increased by about 0.01 per cent a year.

“That’s one per cent in a 100 years,” said Chibbar. “The whole thing about protein levels having significantly increased, and that’s why we’re seeing the negative effects of wheat, that did not stand out.”

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Gluten is a collection of proteins unique to wheat. Gluten proteins enable wheat flour to capture the gases released when yeast ferments, which allows dough to rise.

Chibbar said the mix of the individual proteins in the gluten may have changed slightly.

“Maybe to make a better quality wheat bread, some of the sub-units have gone up or down,” he said. “But it will not give you the kind of changes where (the effects) will become bad.”

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He believes the overall balance of protein and starch in a grain of wheat hasn’t changed since the days when crops were harvested by threshing crews. Even the starch component of wheat — a complex amalgam of many carbohydrates — is about the same level it has always been.

READ MORE: Canadian researchers developing treatment for celiac disease

“I would say to people, enjoy your wheat-based products. Things over the years haven’t changed.”

What has changed is the yield that producers get from new varieties, as well as the time those varieties take to grow, ripen and mature.

By 1995, improvements were resulting in increased yields of 23 kilograms per hectare each year. Modern varieties pour into the bin a full week ahead of Red Fife.

Those are the attributes that producers look for when choosing a wheat variety to plant, said Chibbar, who has studied grain quality for 25 years. He maintains wheat is one of the healthiest agricultural products on the market.

“Wheat grain is one of the most nutritious grains,” he said. “Enjoy your wheat-based products.”