Wheat breeders cop flak over flour protein levels causing gluten intolerance, yet the blame may lie elsewhere, Anna Campbell writes.

Gliadins and glutenins of wheat make up the major storage proteins of the grain’s endosperm (the white stuff you see when you crack open a wheat grain). In food manufacturing the ratio of protein groups is different according to the end-use of the flour.

Essentially, more protein equals more gluten equals more strength and more strength translates into more volume and a chewier texture.

A general rule of thumb is that “weaker” flours (less protein at 5-10%) are preferred for biscuits and “stronger” flours (10-14%) are preferred for bread-making. There are also seasonal and geographical impacts on the protein content of flour, as an example, the same wheat variety grown in Australia in drier conditions can have a greater protein content than wheat grown in wetter New Zealand.

Why is this of any interest to the average consumer? Well, the wheat breeding industry has taken some flak for increasing the protein levels of wheat varieties and indirectly increasing the incidence of celiac disease and non-celiac specific gluten intolerance levels in society. This would seem a logical hypothesis yet published scientific data does not support this – there is no overall increase in protein levels in modern compared to heritage wheat varieties.

Subsequent evidence suggests that increases in non-celiac gluten intolerances (but not celiac disease) may be associated with what happens to the wheat products post-harvest, when it is further processed and refined and recombined with additional gluten, fats, sugars and salt. When product is refined in such a way, fibre is also removed as a “co-passenger” which has anti-inflammatory properties.

Will we ever really understand then what causes gluten intolerance? These types of questions are hard to definitively answer. Specific, reductionist scientific testing in humans is incredibly expensive and who pays? Certainly not the food industry.

And why is it important? We have all read about the very real threat of alternate protein manufacturing (plant-based proteins and cellular proteins) to our food supply. Watch a video from ‘Just’ an eggless product for making scrambled eggs made predominantly from mung beans https://twitter.com/ mashable/status/1184141129605763072?s=20.

Just were formerly named Hampton Creek and hit the news when they had an eggless mayonnaise product pulled from Target’s shelves after unsubstantiated allegations of contamination and false labelling. Substantiated or unsubstantiated, it does raise the issue of how major dietary changes and extreme food processing will impact our health.

Why did Just choose mung beans? Number one reason was to replace eggs, the most ubiquitous animal protein eaten, then Just surveyed multiple plant protein products to find the one which scrambled, then worked out technically how to remove the protein at scale and what else to add to make the mung-bean as egg-like as possible.

How they do this is proprietary, they will share with the consumer what they have to, but not enough for another company to swoop in and steal the deal.

Funky, cool and hip, these companies present a compelling story and mung beans, an ancient superfood from Asia, have been eaten for centuries, what could possibly go wrong? The rise in non-celiac gluten intolerance is perhaps an example of what can go wrong. Evidence is pointing to food processing being the cause of the dietary problems rather than the humble wheat grain itself.

Alternative protein products are generally highly processed, they are refined, added to and spun to a point where the final product barely resembles the original ingredients. The money invested in these companies is significant and we are told they are going to be healthier for us and the planet. What and who do we believe as consumers? Where is the investment from commercial enterprise and governments to ensure our safety? When we see things in such simple terms, it is easy to replace one pollution with another.

I love reading and hearing about food innovation, but we need to make sure these industries are regulated and handled appropriately. Investment in fundamental nutritional science is critical and outcomes of such research must be transparent for consumers.

  • Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.