“Misinformation about grains and whole grains abounds” and is hindering sales and consumption of whole grains in the U.S., the Whole Grains Council said in materials prepared for its Oldways Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers conference in Boston Nov. 9-11, at which multiple speakers presented facts to set the record straight.
Myth #1: U.S. wheat is genetically modified
“A lot of things have happened to wheat by evolution and domestication by humans” in the last several thousand years, but genetic modification is not one of them, said Brett Carver, a regents professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in wheat breeding and genetics research.
“There has been tremendous gene flow from one species of wheat to another over time and many genes have been lost. Much of gene breeding is going back to find those lost genes and chromosomes” to restore or cultivate them, he explained.
With breeding, as opposed to genetic modification, “no progeny can contain new genes except in the case of mutation, which is very rare,” and, therefore, the wheat growin the U.S. has only native genes and the gene sequences are still highly conserved at 98% the identity of ancent wheat grains, Carver said.
The Whole Grains Council adds one of the main reasons that there is no GMO wheat commercially available in the U.S. is “in large part because farmers have fought hard against GMO wheat, ,out of concern that it would put a damper on the export market for U.S.-grown wheat.”
Myth #2: Modern wheat’s bred to have more gluten
The protein content in wheat actually is about the same – or slightly lower – than it was about 100 years ago when wheat breeding began, Carver said.
He noted the protein content in hard red winter wheat grown in the northern plains was about 12.1% in the 2000s compared to 13.4% before 1940. The protein content for hard red spring wheat grown in the same region was about 15.1% in the 2000s compared to 14.9% before the 1940s.
“Breeders tend not to pick for protein,” and instead favor genes to increase yield potential, disease resistance and the speed of maturation, Carver said.
As a result of breeding, the genetic-yield potential of wheat has tripled since the 1940s, the size of the wheat head has increased and “there are more kernels packed in the heads, but the kernel size is not bigger,” Carver said.
In addition, the maturation time for wheat is now about two weeks shorter, he said.
Breeding to increase pest resistance has reduced the need for pesticides, but has increased the presence of some compounds to which people are sensitive, including amylase tripsin inhibitors, the Whole Grains Council adds.
The council also notes that gluten is being added as an isolated ingredient to many processed foods, which can bother sensitivities. However, this is “not an issue if you eat your foods more on the intact/minimally processed end of the scale,” it said.
Myth #3: Americans eat more wheat than ever before
Currently, Americans eat about 130 pounds of wheat per person per year – half the amount consumed in the 1870s when consumption peaked at about 230 pounds per year, the Whole Grains Council said.
Carver noted, however, that Americans are eating slightly more vital wheat gluten today than about 35 years ago, based on import levels. In 1977, about 0.3 pounds of vital wheat gluten was imported per person compared to 0.9 pounds in 2013.
“That is a three-fold increase that looks impressive, but compared to the amount of gluten naturally occurring in products consumed” annually it is less significant, he said, noting the amount of naturally occurring gluten consumed per person in 1970 was 9.1 pounds compared to 12 pounds today.
“Are these small levels the tipping point” though for allergic reactions, Carver asked. “I don’t know.”
Myth #4: Wheat is addictive
Some dieters advocate avoiding wheat because it has “addictive properties,” but “wheat has no special addictive properties,” according to the Whole Grains Council.
“While wheat can produce peptides, called gliadorphins, that may interact with opioid receptors in the brain, these same peptides are found in milk, rice and even spinach,” the council notes.
There are no studies showing gliadorphins can be absorbed intact by the intestines and no evidence gliadin stimulates appetite or induces addiction-like withdrawal effects, it adds.
Myth #5: Grains cause inflammation
“Whole grains are part of the solution, not the problem, when it comes to inflammation,” the Whole Grains Council said.
It notes researchers at the University of Nebraska in 2013 found eating a cup of whole grain barley or brown rice for four weeks can increase the good bacteria in the gut that fight inflammation.
A more recent study published in April found consuming whole-grain-rich foods for six weeks reduced levels of inflammatory markers C-reactive protein by 22% and soluble intercellular adhesion molecule-1 by 28%. (Read more about the study HERE.)