Wheat is one of the most popular foods in the world; over half a billion tons are consumed each year. In fact, combined with rice and maize, wheat grains comprise two thirds of all human food consumption. What’s more, those little grains are packed with nutrients, helping to fuel the human body. But there’s a problem. Somewhere along the line those nutrients are lost, so when we eat wheat, we miss out on lots of the good stuff inside the grain. That’s where Andy Neal, Senior Research Scientist at Rothamsted Research, comes in.
Supported by the BBSRC* and Rothamsted Research, Andy is using Diamond’s microfocus spectroscopy beamline I18 to investigate the chemical properties of the grains we eat in the form of breakfast cereals, bread and pasta. Andy uses the X-rays on I18 to map the composition of wheat’s nutritious metals, such as iron and zinc, with a view to improving the nutritional content of humanity’s third most popular food.
Wheat has a lot to offer, but we don’t know how to make the most of it. All grains contain a hearty supply of nutrients, and these are locked up in the seed by a chemical called phytate. The young wheat plant then uses enzymes called phytases to slowly break down the phytate and release the nutrients as it sprouts and grows. But human beings don’t produce phytases. This means that when we eat wheat, we’re not able to unlock and digest the nutrients inside.
And this is no minor problem. The UK has some of the highest obesity levels in Europe; rates have quadrupled in the last 25 years, with nearly a quarter of British adults now being classed as obese. Obesity often goes hand in hand with nutrient deficiency, and it’s one of the leading preventable causes of death in the West. Processed, sugary and fatty foods can lack the basic nutrition our bodies need to function; that’s where grain comes in. The importance of grain is that it’s not a ‘superfood’ in the sense that treats like goji berries, papaya and wild salmon are. Wheat is a staple food and most of us eat it every day, so by improving the nutritional quality of the grain, our diets could drastically improve.
And as Andy observes, nutrient deficiency is a global problem: “Even today one billion people are still permanently hungry and millions die each year as a consequence of deficiencies of iron and zinc. This is not good enough. Whether this is a problem of politics, production or distribution doesn't matter: we must explore all avenues to correct this, and it starts with basic scientific investigation”.
One of the solutions to help create more nutritious grains could be to change the way that the nutrients themselves are stored. By reducing the phytate content in grains, the nutrients would become easier for our gut to digest. This would mean that the same quantity of grain would pack a much bigger nutritional punch.
The grain varieties we have today have largely been produced by natural breeding programs; one type of wheat with certain characteristics is bred with another to try and create the best possible grains. However, one of the consequences of trying to create the most productive wheat varieties is that the micro-nutritional content has reduced. Andy explains: “The original ancestors of our modern wheat stored greater levels of essential nutrients in the grain than our conventionally grown varieties do today”.
The low-phytate grains that Andy is studying at Diamond have the potential to redress the balance and restore the nutrients that have been lost. And Andy’s amazing low-phytate grains have been produced using natural breeding methods. Plant breeding has taken place for a long time but, using machines like Diamond, we now have the capacity to look at the chemistry inside the grains; and we can use this knowledge to inform future breeding programs.
Andy Neal spent six busy days conducting experiments on I18 at Diamond. He comments: “Everything has gone very well and I’m looking forward to analysing and publishing what I believe will be some very interesting results that will help to move this project forward (once I get some sleep)”. The research is still in its early stages, but each visit to Diamond brings Andy closer to uncovering the key to creating amazing grains.
Wheat may not be the most glamorous of foods, but what those little grains lack in style they make up for in substance. That’s why research like this is so important – because it could fundamentally improve the diets of people around the world and save millions of lives in the process. So next time you’re eating a sarnie, make sure it’s wholemeal - oh, and spare a thought for the humble grain; if Andy has anything to do with it, it’ll be the most important thing you ever eat.
* Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council