Grain of truth Getting the full benefits of whole grain

by Brian Hauri

With the staggering amount of food options available, making healthy food choices can be difficult. Although it may not surprise you that products with refined grains found in breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas have links to increased incidences of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, what about whole grains?

There has been a surging anti-grain movement in recent years lead, in part, by New York Times bestselling author Dr. William Davis, whose 2011 book Wheat Belly advised the wholesale write-off of wheat consumption. But what does the scientific evidence say about this radical approach to grains?

Meet Maryam Shamloo, a third-year PhD student at the University of Manitoba (U of M) and winner of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Scholarship for Food Advancement through Science Training (FAST). Working under the direction of Peter Jones and Peter Eck at the Richardson Center for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals (RCFFN), Shamloo’s research focuses on the bioactive compounds in wheat and oats that can potentially prevent and treat Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Using different genotypes of wheat and oats received from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s  Cereal Research Center, and with collaborators from the University of Queensland, Shamloo and her colleagues grow the strains in sophisticated growth chambers which “allow for adjusting factors such as temperature, lighting, and CO2 levels.”

Following AOAC INTERNATIONAL standard protocols, the seeds that are harvested are then analyzed for levels of antioxidants such as phenolic acids, linoleic acid, flavonoids, and their efficiency in the control of blood glucose levels. The bioactive compounds that are being researched have an effect on living tissue that can influence human health. Specific to Type 2 diabetes, certain compounds can inhibit glucose transportation in the gut.

“The problem that diabetics face is that they have a lot of glucose in their blood after each meal, and this much glucose cannot be handled by the body,” Shamloo explained. “So, if we have some compounds that naturally inhibit glucose transporting, then it would reduce the amount of glucose present in their blood after eating.”

From some of her preliminary measurements, she has noticed that “the amount of bioactives that are healthy for the body are actually twice or even three times more prevalent in just the bran of each grain; the outer layer of the grain.”

In Canada, the standards for whole-wheat flour, for example, permit up to five per cent of the wheat kernel to be removed. The five per cent is comprised mostly of the germ and the bran, and although this helps to slow the rancidification of the flour and prolong its shelf life, it also means that a large portion of the protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins are also removed. To an even greater degree in refined foods, this is what is being thrown away.

“We’re just throwing away the good stuff,” Shamloo said. “The bran doesn’t only make the food look darker, but it also makes it healthier.”

The research that Shamloo and her colleagues are conducting at the RCFFN isn’t just important in helping the public make more knowledgeable personal food choices. One of the main focuses of the research is providing wheat breeders with suggestions of which strain will give not only the most yield, but the most health benefits as well. Because Canada is a global leader in the production and exportation of wheat, the research being conducted at the RCFFN, through collaboration with Agriculture Canada, will have an impact on global food security.​

Shamloo remains focused on completing her PhD research through the U of M, but she has goals of eventually working in the research and development labs of a food production company like Kraft or Nestle, which offer a lot of grain-based products. She hopes to influence what goes in the products in an effort to make them healthier.

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