The Dirt Issue 39 – Breeding Wheat for Greater Nutrition

Posted on May 24, 2019
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Nutrition for Health
As scientific research delves ever deeper into the relationship between nutrition and health, it has become evident that good nutrition is key not only to surviving, but also to thriving.

Our knowledge about nutrition is a remarkably recent development. In the late 1800s there was some rudimentary understanding, but it was based mostly on observation rather than science. When it was discovered that sailors with access to fruit, predominantly citrus, did not develop scurvy, no one then had any idea that the reason was vitamin C. Vitamins were not discovered, let alone named, until 1912.

Slightly more than 100 years on, nutrients are classified most broadly by how many of them we need to function as human beings. When large amounts are required, they are called macronutrients. There are three required by human beings: carbohydrates (sugars), lipids (fats), and protein. But, just as important for bodily functions are micronutrients, or nutrients we need in relatively small quantities. These include vitamins and minerals.                

Small but mighty
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Micronutrients play a central part in metabolism and in the maintenance of tissue function. There is a growing interest in the role of micronutrients in optimizing health and in the prevention or treatment of disease.” Studies conducted or reviewed by the NIH indicate, “Most benefit from micronutrients seems to come from a well balanced diet.”

Therein lies the problem
Even in the developed world, with many varied foodstuffs available; it takes effort and dedication to consistently eat a well balanced diet. Ask most Americans about their diet and their assessment is far rosier than dispassionate reality can confirm. Studies show we fail to meet basic dietary guidelines most of the time, falling well short, for example, of the five daily servings of fruit and vegetables. Our diet is, at best, hit and miss. At worst, it’s far more miss than hit.

It’s even worse in the developing world, particularly in those regions where the majority of daily food intake is from one dominant staple like rice or wheat. To address the issue, in 2012, the International Food Policy Research Institute put forward the goal to reshape agriculture for health and nutrition. How? Well, in many ways, but the one that we’re addressing in this issue of The Dirt is a process known as biofortification, the natural increase of the nutritional value of a crop.

An ideal candidate: Wheat
Known to have been cultivated over the past 8,000 years, wheat ranks as one of the top three staple crops in the world, comprising some 15% of the daily caloric intake worldwide. With a genome some six times larger than a human being’s, wheat contains genetic traits in the thousands upon thousands. Over millennia, some wheat strains have either completely lost certain nutrients or have seen the genetic code that yields those traits silenced. Processing, too, has had an effect. Much of milling, especially to produce white flour, results in nutrient loss. Enriching flour, by replacing nutrients in an amount similar to what was lost in milling, has been the practice in this country since 1941. Adding iron, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin to flour has helped eradicate beriberi and pellagra in the United States. Similarly, adding folic acid in the late 1990s has led to a 23% decline in neural tube defects in babies. These additions, added during processing, are referred to as fortification. Biofortification, however, breeds higher nutritional content into the plant itself. Selecting those strains that naturally have higher micronutrient content and using them to breed new strains of wheat can achieve the end goal of greater nutrition.


WSU Bread Lab’s Success
The Bread Lab, located at the Port of Skagit, has garnered attention for its successful development of small grain varieties, including wheat, which are ideally adapted to local growing conditions; beneficial to the farmer in terms of yield, cultivation requirements and profitability; and desired by consumers for their flavor and culinary value. But, The Bread Lab has made nutritional content a priority, too. 

Innovative breeding strategies are used to identify strains with desirable traits as well as strains that minimize undesirable traits such as antinutrients. (Antinutrients are naturally occurring compounds that inhibit absorption of certain micronutrients as they are ingested.) It is a remarkably delicate balance. Nevertheless, researchers in the wheat breeding program at WSU’s Bread Lab have developed such varieties as Skagit 1109, a hard red winter wheat, which boasts over 300% more calcium, 19% more phosphorus, 26% more potassium and 900% more sodium than the USDA standard. Calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium are termed major minerals (ones the body requires in the amount of at least 100 milligrams per day) and the types of functions they affect in our bodies include nerve transmission, blood clotting, regulation of blood pressure, muscle contraction and cellular metabolism.

Along with higher quantities of these major minerals are higher quantities of trace minerals (those we require in amounts less than 100 milligrams per day), like zinc and iron, in Skagit 1109. These, respectively, are vital for immune support, transporting oxygen throughout the body, energy metabolism and even normal growth. And, by no means is Skagit 1109 the only success story. Other varieties have been nutritionally enhanced to yield an end product that gives every end consumer more of what their body needs.

Micronutrients are just part of the picture
Wheat varieties are wholly location-sensitive. As one USDA researcher puts it, “Great Plains wheats do well in the Great Plains, but not elsewhere.” So it goes also with wheats developed here in the Skagit Valley for cultivation under our specific and evolving growing conditions.

But, that’s all to the good. As the WSU Bread Lab continues its wheat breeding program we all benefit as new wheat varieties not only meet the farmers’ needs, but our needs in ways both nutritious and delicious.