Wheat: The age-old diet of champions

With the 2022 Winter Olympics complete and after watching incredible demonstrations of athleticism, it’s logical to wonder what nutrition fuels these athletes’ record-breaking feats and jaw-dropping performances. One nutritional pillar for many athletes is wheat because of its carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients.

However, wheat becomes even more extraordinary considering the original athletes that competed in the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece were eating wheat that was extremely similar to the crops grown today. Although Greek citizens probably would not recognize the present-day Olympic Games with its evolution since the first torch was lit in 776 BC, they would see a familiar food source in our wheat—a unique distinction for a food product in 2022.

“Many of us conducting research in wheat are humbled by its place in human civilization and how important it has been over the years, and we’re excited by its potential to carry humanity forward,” said Brett Carver, Regents Professor and holder of the wheat genetics chair at Oklahoma State University. “This potential, however, is grounded in the deep history of the varieties that we grow and consume today.”

To understand present day wheat and dispute misinformation surrounding the seed grown today, it is crucial to go back in time and take in a history lesson on this grain. Carver said the wheat that we eat today is as hearty and natural as the wheat that was introduced to this country over 100 years ago.

“I can say that because wheat variety development has transparency unlike any other major food crop,” he explained. “That’s because public universities are the drivers of genetic improvements of wheat. That’s not to say that private companies aren’t involved, but wheat is less privatized than any other major food crop in this country.”

Additionally, Carver said ancient and wild relatives of wheat not only remain critical to today’s breeding, they really formed the genetic backbone of the varieties we have today. Because of that, the protein and starch of present-day wheat really have the same components as heirloom varieties and beyond. Carver said crosses that are made by wheat breeders are taken out of Mother Nature’s playbook, as those are the crosses that could naturally happen.

“New wheat breeding methods focus on better utilizing what we call native genes, the genes that are inherently present in the family tree of wheat, and not on introducing foreign genes,” he explained. “Nature has been breeding wheat for thousands of years and we’ve been doing it for a little over 100, so we have a little way to go. Today’s wheat is a natural melting pot of ancestral genetics, which are sometimes called ancient grains.”

The roots of wheat

One of the earliest species of domesticated wheat is Triticum monococcum, which is also known as Einkorn—and can still be found in grocery stores today. Carver said it was being used up to 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. A very close relative to Einkorn was hybridized in one of nature’s accidents about 385,000 years ago. The Einkorn relative mated with a wild grass and their genomes were combined into one species called Emmer.

“This hybrid species had two berries rather than one, so nature doubled the yield of that species of wheat and that was the central evolution of wheat,” he said. “About 8,000 years ago Emmer wheat allowed human expansion and migration out of the Fertile Crescent. In fact, Emmer was used by ancient Egyptians as a staple crop. After the first century A.D., Julius Caesar brought Emmer wheat, known as farro at the time, back to his empire and sustained his people.”

About 8,000 years ago in another of nature’s happy chances, Emmer crossed with another grass, Aegilops tauschii, which brought in another genome that was significant because it allowed leavened bread products. When that hybridization occurred, Triticum aestivum, which is also called common wheat, bread wheat or spelt wheat, was born. It features all three genomes present in the Einkorn relative, Emmer and Aegilops tauschii. Durum wheat evolved directly from Emmer wheat, but it lacks the genome from Aegilops tauschii.

“By using this family tree, we’re able to continue this process and it’s quite often that breeders will utilize accessions or plants available from the Emmer or Aegilops tauschii species to bring in new genetics that may not have been brought along in the original hybridizations that occurred in nature thousands of years ago and that’s what is sustaining our breeding programs today,” Carver explained.

Furthermore, the disease resistance today is almost completely enabled by distant or ancient relatives.

“That’s where we get the genetics we need to make progress and move this species forward,” he said. “By using these relatives, we’re only about 2% removed from wheat’s wild relatives or ancient progenitors.”

How does today’s wheat compare?

Modern wheat breeding has put a great deal of prominence on yield potential and adaptation of varieties to environment.

“We don’t always reach the potential depending on the weather, pathogens or disease that are present, but we have pretty much doubled the yield and even tripled it in some situations, compared to our heirloom varieties,” Carver said. “We’ve developed varieties that are more locally adapted to the diseases, climate and insects. By selecting for higher yield, we have improved resource efficiency of the plant so that inputs like fertilizer and nitrogen.”

These accomplishments are even more impressive considering the genetic make-up is basically the same, the genes are native and are already present in the family tree of wheat.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“There is a 98% similarity to the most important parts of the DNA sequencing, what we call the coding regions,” Carver explained. “It’s the part of the DNA that produces something of biological significance.”

As far as the nutritional breakdown, the bran is the outer layer and accounts for about 14% of the mass of a kernel. It has fiber, minerals, B vitamins and antioxidants. The endosperm constitutes about 85% of the weight of the kernel and includes protein, which forms gluten, carbohydrates, B vitamins, iron and fiber. The germ makes up 3% of the kernel and has healthy fat, sterols, B vitamins, tocols and minerals, Carver said 10-20% of human protein intake is related to wheat and about 80% of the protein in wheat is related to gluten.

“In hard red winter wheat, we can expect about 12% protein, in a spring or durum wheat, it’s about 15 to 18%, soft wheat is about 9 to 10%,” Carver explained. “The environment can have twice the effect on the amount of wheat protein than the genetics. This has been a source of a lot of misinformation. The gliadin proteins, a component of gluten, that are present in today’s wheat, were inherited from wheat’s ancestors and there are no new gliadins being introduced.”

Genetically modified organisms have become a major issue among consumers in the past decade, and to the grain’s credit, all wheat currently grown is from traditional crossbreeding techniques to yield traits beneficial to farmers and consumers. Although breeders are capable of growing GMO wheat, there is none on the market at this time. Billions of people depend on wheat in their diet, whether they are Olympic athletes or taking in the games from the comfort of their sofa. Tracing back wheat’s historical significance gives a whole new meaning to “eat your Wheaties.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].