Franken-Food 2.0

Franken-Food 2.0

Food has changed. Some things have improved. For example, the concept of mechanical refrigeration began when William Cullen, a Scottish doctor, observed that evaporation had a cooling effect in the 1720s. He demonstrated his ideas in 1748 by evaporating ethyl ether in a vacuum. In 1834 (the year Lincoln is Elected to the Illinois State Legislature and Slavery abolished throughout the British Empire), the first working vapor-compression refrigeration system was built. The first commercial ice-making machine was invented in 1854. In 1913, refrigerators for home use were invented. This was a major breakthrough in the ‘keeping’ of foods and thus the storage. This means we could store foods more effectively and we didn’t have to buy fresh food as often. This means we only needed to get food once a week! What a time saver! But was it all good?

In a perfect world

In a perfect world, we would just run out to the garden every evening and pick fresh that night’s dinner. Great in theory but who has got the time? Answer: no one (anymore) because we have gotten used to the concept of chucking stuff in the fridge. We don’t think anything of it. Most of us now shop once a week, knowing that the food at the end of the week would be fine to eat, like it was 7 days earlier.

Cold storage

Then we take this concept one step further – cold storage. Cold storage is nothing more than sophisticated refrigeration.  Standard air cool stores maintain fruit at between 0 - 1°C, with humidity around 85%. Controlled atmosphere storage maintains the same temperature and humidity regimes as cold storage but reduces the oxygen level and increases the carbon dioxide level to greatly reduce apple ripening. Again, this sounds all good, but did you know apples on sale in supermarkets are up to 10 months old? Woolworths, which advertises itself as "the fresh food people", was the worst culprit, with the oldest products on sale. The question you have to ask yourself…would you eat fruit that is almost a year old?

Apples are picked in late Summer/early Autumn, yet you can eat them in January?

Wheat – From an international staple to a true ‘franken-food’.

What happened to wheat?

Let’s go back a few years. Say to the 1950’s. There is a shortage of food in a number of developing countries. We need more food and one way of achieving this is to ‘alter’ one of the main food staples’ (wheat) genes to make it basically grow more food. More food – less hunger and death. The equation couldn’t be simpler. It is still ‘wheat’ (kind of). It tastes ok and it is loaded with carbs and calories.

It may be Frankon-wheat’s fault

One inescapable fact is that humans have been consuming wheat, in one form or another, for thousands of years. It is an old food… and most diet-related diseases are relatively new. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to blame old wheat for these new health problems. However, it’s important to realize that wheat today is not the same as it was a thousand, one hundred or even 60 years ago.

In the 1870’s, the invention of the modern steel roller mills revolutionized grain milling. Compared to old stone methods, it was fast and efficient and gave fine control over the various parts of the kernel. Instead of just mashing it all together, one could separate the component parts, allowing the purest and finest of white flour to be easily produced at low cost, so every class of person in rapidly growing cities could now afford “fancy flour”. People rejoiced for modern progress. The steel roller mill became so popular, so fast, that within 10 years nearly all stone mills in the western world had been replaced. After all, white wheat to most people tastes better.

The Genetic Wheat Revolution

The world’s wheat crop was transformed in the 1950s and 60s in a movement called the “Green Revolution”. The father of the movement, Norman Borlaug, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, credited with saving one billion lives. He pioneered new “improved” species of semi-dwarf (shorter) wheat that, together with complimenting fertilizers and pesticides, increased yield spectacularly. This amazing new farming technology was propagated around the world by companies like Dupont and Monsanto, while mid-20th-century humanity applauded the end of hunger.

Like the industrial milling revolution before it, the Green Revolution applied new technologies to improve efficiency and output, with little or no regard to the effect on human nutrition. This Green Revolution was about solving world hunger, but we’re now discovering some unintended consequences.

Nutrient Depletions in Wheat

Cereal crops are an important source of minerals and other nutrients for humans. For example, cereals and cereal products provide 44% of the daily intake of Fe (15% from bread), 27% of Mg (13% from bread), 25% of Zn (11% from bread) and 31% of Cu (14% from bread). The ‘Green Revolution’, i.e. the breeding of semi-dwarf, high-yielding crop cultivars that respond more to increased inputs of fertilizers and other agrochemicals, has markedly increased grain yield since the mid-1960s and has undoubtedly contributed to alleviating global food shortages and famine that would have otherwise occurred at a much larger scale. However, modern plant breeding has been historically oriented toward higher agronomic yield rather than the nutritional quality. Increased grain yield may have resulted in a lower density of minerals in grain.

Figure 1. Nutrients (Zinc and Iron) in wheat were slightly increasing until the 1960 (the introduction of high yield wheat) and then the level of nutrients fell dramatically.

Figure 2. Again, we see two other key nutrients (Copper and Zinc) virtually disappear from wheat as soon as the high yield wheat came into production.


Comparison between long and short straw cultivars

Average concentrations of Zn, Cu, Fe and Mg in the grain of the short-straw cultivars grown during 1968–2005 were significantly lower, by 19–28%, than those of the long-straw varieties grown during 1845–1967. From 1988 to 1990, the long-straw cultivar Squarehead’s Master was grown side-by-side with the short-straw cultivar Brimstone in the Broadbalk Experiment. This allows a direct comparison between the two cultivars. The differences between these two cultivars were remarkably similar to those observed when comparing all of the long-straw with all of the short-straw cultivars, with Brimstone having 18–29% lower concentrations of Zn, Cu, Fe and Mg than Squarehead’s Master.

In English, this means that when the two species of wheat are grown side by side, the ‘original’ long stem wheat retained greater nutritional value than the short stem wheat (the newer, high yield wheat). This indicates that the cause of the nutritional insufficiency is the wheat itself and not soil depletion. This is confirmed by the graphs (Figure 1 and 2) that showed that over many decades of farming, using the original wheat (long stem), this species didn’t deplete the soil as much as the new species that seemed to rip the nutrients right out of the soil.

Gluten – Another problem with wheat

Gluten is a protein found in grains that causes all sorts of gut issues. It doesn’t just cause Coeliac Disease, but allergies and leaky gut syndrome and huge intolerances. Even the medical studies are realising this protein is a health hazard and they have suggested a list of possible treatments for gluten problems. Of course, the obvious one is to not eat any ‘frankon-wheat’, but if you ‘need’ to, here are a list of possible treatment options.

Summary of the ‘novel’ therapies for Coeliac Disease (CD)

CD, a genetically driven, aberrant immune response to dietary gluten, is more common than was previously thought. CD can present with typical intestinal manifestations or atypical extraintestinal manifestations. CD has traditionally been treated using a gluten-free diet, which may be problematic from a standpoint of patient compliance. New insights into CD pathophysiology have led to research into novel therapeutic opportunities. Research approaches include engineering gluten-free grains, decreasing intestinal permeability by blockage of the epithelial zonulin receptor, inducing oral tolerance to gluten with a therapeutic (censored), and degrading immunodominant gliadin peptides using probiotics with endopeptidases or transglutaminase inhibitors. These treatment options have shown encouraging preliminary results in phase II and phase III clinical trials. These non-diet-based therapies hold promise for enhanced, lifelong CD management with improved patient compliance. If successful, these novel approaches raise the possibility of reintroduction of gluten, in amounts to be determined, into the diets of CD patients. Nonetheless, a gluten-free diet is the mainstay of CD therapy for the immediate foreseeable future, and all you are eliminating is a problem you don’t need to have in the first place.

Gluten Sensitivity Treatment – Lactobacillus GG (L.GG)

Gluten Sensitivity is characterized by enhanced paracellular permeability and an impairment in the integrity of the intestinal barrier that allows the interactions of gluten peptides with antigen-presenting cells in the lamina propria. Gliadin is rich in glutamine and the presence of numerous glutamine acceptor proteins in the extracellular matrix could be responsible for the formation of crosslinks between gliadin and matrix proteins. In turn, this gliadin immobilization to extracellular matrix proteins could provide a long-term availability of toxic gliadin fractions in the mucosa. However, there is still much debate about the possible interactions of gliadin (and/or its peptide derivatives) with intestinal epithelia and the mechanism(s) through which it crosses the epithelial barrier to reach the submucosa.

The good news is that concomitant administration of L.GG is able to counteract these effects. Interestingly, the presence of cellular polyamines is necessary for this probiotic to exert its capability in restoring paracellular permeability by affecting the expression of different proteins in the gut.

Phenolic compounds in grains, sprouts and wheatgrass

The use of sprouts and young plantlets in human nutrition is increasing because they often contain phytochemicals and other high value nutrients. This was also the case for wheat, although the new species mentioned earlier has little to no polyphenols, especially as it has been so refined.

A recent study determined total polyphenols, phenolic acids (PAs), fibre and minerals in grains, 5-day-old sprouts and 12-day-old wheatgrass of einkorn (cv. Monlis), emmer (cvs Augeo, Rosso Rubino, Zefiro), spelt (cvs Pietro, Giuseppe), durum wheat (cv. Creso) and soft wheat (cv. Orso) and found that grains of einkorn and emmer contained twice bound PAs as compared to soft and durum wheat and spelt, with p-coumaric acid accounting for about 50% of total bound PAs. In wheatgrass, differences between species for bound PAs decreased due to a decrease in einkorn and emmer and an increase in soft and durum wheat. In all species, total phenols and free PAs increased passing from grains to sprouts and wheatgrass. Thus, the evidence suggests that the grains of einkorn and emmer and the sprouts and wheatgrass of all Triticum species might potentially be valuable for the development of functional foods.

Soil mineral concentrations

There was no evidence of any mineral depletion in the soil. Total concentrations of the minerals studied either remained stable or increased significantly over the last 160 years. The increase can be attributed to the inputs from the applications of inorganic fertilizers for Mg, of FYM for Zn and Cu, and from atmospheric deposition in the case of Zn in the control plot.

Because total concentrations of minerals in soil do not necessarily reflect their bioavailability to plants, we measured the concentrations of extractable minerals in the soils (N2PKMgNaS). The extractable concentrations are more likely to reflect the pool of minerals in soil that is available to plant uptake. Fig. 3 below shows that the concentrations of extractable Zn, Cu and Mg have all increased substantially over the last 160 years.

Figure 3. Changes in the concentrations of Zn (a) and Cu (b) and ammonium nitrate-extractable Mg (c) in the soils from the N2PKNaMgS (fertilised) plot.

Figure 4. Changes in the total concentrations of Zn (a), Cu (b) and Mg (c) in the soils from three plots of the Broadbalk Experiment. Lines represent regression lines: dashed line for the control, dotted line for N2PKNaMgS, and solid line for naturally fertilized (Farm Yard Manure) wheat.


So, what does all this mean to the quality of the wheat grown today compared to pre-1960’s wheat?

Researches have taken advantage of an on-going long-term (160 year) agricultural trial to investigate whether grain mineral concentrations have changed over time as a result of genetic improvement targeted at grain production. They used the archived samples from the Broadbalk Experiment, which is the oldest continuous agricultural experiment in the world, with a detailed record of experimental treatments since the beginning (1843) and climatic data (since 1878).

Despite it being unique in terms of the length of the experiment and the associated sample archive, the cultivars used and the growing methods are typical of arable farming in England. Researches have chosen samples from eight plots treated with different fertilizers or manures; some of them have had the same fertilizer/manure treatments over the last 160 years, whilst others have received increased inputs of Nitrogen fertilizers in line with common farming practice in the country. In all plots, scientists found significant decreasing trends in the concentrations of Zn, Cu, Fe and Mg in wheat grain since the introduction of the semi-dwarf, high-yielding cultivars in the late 1960s. The overall decrease (approximately 20–30%) was considerable, and for alarmingly for Zinc the magnitude was even larger if the mean concentration of the most recent 5 years was compared to the mean of all long-straw cultivars grown during 1845–1967.

It gets worse…

The total dietary intake of a mineral is not the only consideration when assessing the nutritional value of a food or diet. Absorption of minerals is incomplete and variable, depending on a number of dietary and host-related variables which determine its bioavailability. One of the best-known modulators of Fe and Zn bioavailability is phytate. The decreasing ratio of Zn or Fe to phytate in wheat grain over the last 160 years confirms that mineral bioavailability to humans may have also decreased.

Other studies showed that grain Zn and Fe concentrations decreased significantly with the date of cultivar release in a set of 14 US wheat cultivars from production eras spanning more than a century. They grew these cultivars in a single season (1998–99) at two locations in the US. Our results are in general agreement with their conclusion, but also provide further insight that the changes appear to coincide with the introduction of semi-dwarf cultivars (i.e. the Green Revolution). The large data set generated over the last 160 years also allows a more detailed examination of the factors responsible for such changes. For other crops, evidence for changing mineral density over time is scarce.

And yet again, it gets worse again!

Other researches compared statistically the data from the McCance & Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods in the UK for the 1924–1944 and 1984–1987 periods. They found that the average concentrations of Cu, Mg and Na in the dry matter of vegetables, and the average concentrations of Cu, Fe and K in fruits decreased significantly between the 1930s and the 1980s. They also showed similar decreases in the USA vegetables and fruits since the 1930s. This means that the combined effects of nutrients depletions across a wide range of foods amplifies the problem two-fold.

So, it isn’t all about how the soil is farmed?

While farming practices (such as spraying foods with glyphosphate) sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, scientific results refute the notion that conventional farming causes a depletion of mineral nutrients in soil, which in turn results in lower mineral concentrations in grain. Mineral concentrations in the soil have remained either constant, or increased due to the inputs from fertilizers, manures or atmospheric deposition.

The Zinc Paradox

In the case of Zn, total concentration in the soil has increased by 40–60% since 1860, which makes the decrease in Zn concentration in grain even more striking. Similar to the total concentrations, the extractable concentrations also show significant increasing trends. This is not surprising, because key soil properties that influence bioavailability of metals, such as texture, organic matter content (except the FYM plot) and pH, have remained constant in the experiment, and the bioavailable pools of these nutrients should follow the same trends as the total concentrations. We found that the organic manure plot produced higher concentrations of Zn and Cu, but not of other minerals, in grain than the inorganic plots since 1968. This is easily explained as the FYM applied to the organic plot contained substantial amounts of Zn and Cu. However, use of organic manure did not reverse the decline in mineral concentrations in grain. This again indicates that the decreasing trend in grain mineral concentrations is caused by plant rather than soil factors.

The Green Revolution Paradox

Results from the present study suggest that the Green Revolution has unintentionally contributed to decreased mineral density in wheat grain, at least in the Broadbalk Experiment. The study of Garvin et al. suggests that this may also be the case for US wheat. The Broadbalk study is based on a single experimental site, and therefore, more work is needed to examine whether similar trends occur in other regions as well as in other cereal crops, particularly in developing countries where diets are rich in cereal-based foods low in bioavailable micronutrients, and micronutrient malnutrition is most prevalent. Another issue to bear in mind is that our mineral concentration data are for the whole grain, not the white flour that is more widely consumed.

Putting it in context

The ‘Green Revolution’ didn’t set out to purposely deplete the minerals of wheat. In fact, the original driver of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, was probably a great man with nothing but inspired ideals to feed the world and largely, he achieved his goals. His work was inspired and probably worthy of his accolades. He probably saved many millions from starving.

Unfortunately, the science reveals that the plant doesn’t take up essential trace minerals humans need. Therefore, as wheat is a staple in many countries world-wide, this drives micronutrient deficiencies. And eating fruits and veggies may not cut it anymore either due to the before mentioned reasons. Sure, aim to eat as healthy as you can, but ensure you supplement a naturally sourced whole food concentrate to ensure you aren’t missing out on optimal health. 


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M.-S. Fan et al. / Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology 22 (2008) 315–324

M.-S. Fan et al. / Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology 22 (2008) 315–324

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M.-S. Fan et al. / Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology 22 (2008) 315–324