From the days of early pioneers in wheat genetics, the goal has been better wheat for improved human health.
Though Norman Borlaug who died in 2009, the man credited with saving a billion lives through his wheat research, his work continues at locations including the University of California, Davis. There, professors and graduate students look deep into the genetic code and biology of wheat to seek ways to make wheat more resistant to disease and healthier for the humans.
This continues to be critical as about 20 percent of the human diet worldwide includes wheat.
Two UC Davis Ph.D. students are studying how various traits in wheat used for bread can have positive human health benefits.
Brittany Hazard and Andre Schönhofen are part of an effort to alter the starch composition in wheat by creating “resistant starch.” In very simple terms, this maintains the bran quality in the product, making it less digestible in the small intestines and better for overall human health while not increasing the caloric count of the product.
While much of Hazard’s work dealt with pasta products created from Durum wheat, Schönhofen’s work deals primarily with bread products.
As of Farm Press' deadline, Hazard will have earned her Ph.D. in the Genetics Graduate Group of the Plant Science Department. Schönhofen is in the early phase of his doctoral studies.
According to Hazard, resistant starch passes through the small intestine into the colon, acting as a prebiotic, where natural bacteria in the colon feed on it. This creates a series of short-chain fatty acids, thereby promoting better colon health.
“Our wheat has this now, but in a low content,” Schönhofen said.
Benefits for diabetics?
Studies like this could benefit diabetic patients because foods with resistant starch have a lower glycemic index, Hazard said.
Resistant starch acts as a dietary fiber, improving the health benefits of the product, she said. It also leads to higher satiety and that “full” feeling, which could help reduce over-eating and obesity rates.
While the U.S. does not have a recommended daily allowance of resistant starch for the American diet, other countries do. Australia recommends 20 grams of resistant starch as part of a healthy, daily diet.
“The implications are wide when it comes to human health in developed countries,” Hazard said. “I think developing a trait like this is important.”
Hazard hopes to continue work in this arena by developing consumer demand for the healthier wheat products. This will require federal guidelines and a recommended daily allowance of resistant starch, plus the associated labeling on food products.
Hazard recently accepted a position with the Institute of Food Research in England to work with the organization’s cereal quality and human health initiatives. Some of this work will include developing improved nutritional traits in wheat.
According to Hazard, the resistant starch trait could be commercially available in wheat in the next five years.
Australia already has products available that are higher in resistant starch, “So I think it’s coming,” she added.
This is just the beginning of a learning and research curve. Milling and recipes will need to change to accommodate high resistant starch varieties, she said.
“We still have much research to do,” she said.
Small grains research
UC Davis was the host May 12 to a small grains and alfalfa field day on campus, where Hazard and Schönhofen talked about their work. University professor and wheat breeder Jorge Dubcovsky also highlighted some of the efforts under way at the land grant college.
Dubcovsky says there is a growing interest in barley because of the popularity of craft beer in America.
“We are very interested in the barley here,” Dubcovsky told about 200 attendees at the field day.
The university’s oats project has focused primarily on forage crops, though it is now moving to include more oats for grain and organic production, he said.
As work continues into various traits such as drought tolerance, the goal is to create the ability to take wheat all the way to the grain stage with less need for irrigation, according to Ph.D. student Tyson Howell.
During the field day, an announcement was made that Mark Lundy, current agronomy advisor for Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties in northern California, will become the new statewide small grains specialist on the UC Davis campus.
Steve Wright, a small grains UC farm advisor in Tulare and Kings counties, said Dubcovsky is well-known for his work on the UC Davis campus in wheat and other small grains.
“The work that Jorge is doing here has been given awards across the country,” Wright said.