Feature by Susan Bubak
You may have never heard of or seen purple wheat before, but it could be coming to a grocery store near you, thanks to a collaboration between U of G, industry and government partners.
Researchers at U of G and the Guelph Research and Development Centre, part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), are studying the health benefits of purple wheat food products made by InfraReady Ltd., a Saskatoon-based company that has been commercializing its “AnthoGrain” purple wheat since 1998. Food manufacturers in Southeast Asia are already using the purple wheat in grain products such as bread and noodles.
The U of G nutritional study involves crackers and granola bars made with purple wheat. Previous research done at AAFC has shown that purple wheat contains high levels of anthocyanins and phenolic acids. These compounds help neutralize free radicals that cause cell damage linked to aging and disease.
“We need to improve the nutritional value of wheat by increasing the level of anthocyanins,” says Tamer Gamel, a PhD student leading the study with principal investigator Prof. Amanda Wright and Prof. Amy Tucker, all in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. Anthocyanins produce antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and they also give purple foods their colour, such as berries, red wine and blue corn.
“We’d love to see that consumption of these products decrease risk factors for inflammatory processes and oxidative stress that impact a wide variety of chronic diseases,” says Wright.
Since most people eat grains on a regular basis, the researchers wanted to incorporate purple wheat in grain products to make them healthier and find out how they affect the body. They’re looking at the bioavailability of anthocyanins and phenolic acids in the blood and urine of participants who ate crackers and granola bars made with purple wheat, as well as biomarkers for inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.
The second phase of the study will begin later this spring, focusing on how purple wheat products affect inflammation and oxidative stress in overweight participants, since they face a greater risk of these types of health problems.
“It’s always nice to be able to validate a food product that’s actually health-promoting,” says Wright. “There’s a lot of really good pre-clinical evidence to suggest that these products could have health benefits, but we need the research to validate that.”
Adding bioactive ingredients to food products can make them healthier, but they need to be incorporated in a way that preserves their health benefits in the final product, she says.
The purple wheat project is funded through the Canadian Food Innovators Cluster and led by Elsayed Abdelaal, senior research scientist at the Guelph Research and Development Centre. He and Prof. Pierre Hucl at the University of Saskatchewan have been developing purple wheat since the late ’90s.
Pairing human health and nutrition research with industry creates the potential for real-world applications. “It’s always good to link research to the people who can apply it,” says Abdelaal. “If the study proves that consuming purple wheat has health benefits, it could lead to new applications for purple wheat in the future.”