The health-conscious trend is that gluten should be avoided, even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten or diagnosed with Celiac disease—but have you ever gotten a full answer on why gluten is on the naughty list? Why wheat was so widely consumed by previous generations, and what makes it such a contentious issue for us today? The most current research examines what has changed in the wheat itself within the last 129 years.
This summer, researchers thoroughly investigated the properties of wheat. Gluten is the name given to the combination of protein molecules in wheat, so it is actually composed of individual proteins, called glutenins and gliadins. The detailed analysis conducted for the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry focused on a type of wheat called winter wheat from Germany. Researchers were able to study sixty different cultivars of German winter wheat known to have been registered for use between 1891-2010 from seed archives at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Research.
During the twelve decades between 1891-2010, the wheat was cross-bred and resulted in today’s modern German winter wheat. The researchers focused on the five most common cultivars in each decade. Each cultivar was grown and brought to harvest three times between 2015-2017.
As turn of the 19th century farming sought to increase harvest yields, the ratio of proteins in the wheat changed. Modern wheat now has a lower concentration of proteins overall, with decreasing gliadin protein and increasing glutenin—but the relative content of gluten has not changed. This sounds confusing, but remember that gluten is the name of the group composed of gliadins and glutenins; so the concentration of gluten in wheat hasn’t changed, but the smaller parts inside the gluten group has changed.
It’s also important to point out that the mineral composition of wheat has also changed, most notably the magnesium content. Studying wheat and its effects on the human body is far from complete, but we’re getting closer to understanding why wheat has been causing problems for more people in recent generations.
Darina Pronin, Andreas Börner, Hans Weber, Katharina Anne Scherf. Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) Breeding from 1891 to 2010 Contributed to Increasing Yield and Glutenin Contents but Decreasing Protein and Gliadin Contents. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2020; DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.0c02815