Many of the major health challenges worldwide are diet related, which has led Dr Brittany Hazard’s research group at the Institute of Food Research to designing wheat starches to make them healthier and more nutritious.
Her background is in wheat genetics and trait development, and she is working across the Norwich Research Park with the John Innes Centre to bring a multi-disciplinary approach to the issue by looking at crop improvement, food and health.
Dr Hazard is one of the speakers at our Pollinator event ‘Nutritious and Delicious – Innovations for Value-Added Crops’ on 22 February, so we asked her to explain how wheat starch can be improved for better health benefits.
Unhealthy diet is a significant risk factor for obesity and related diseases like type II diabetes which are major global health issues. As wheat is a staple food crop worldwide I’m interested in improving the nutritional properties of starch in wheat grains, which has great potential for addressing some of those health challenges.
Preventing the sugar rush
Most wheat food products like bread are typically made from refined flour; the bran is removed and the extracted flour is mainly comprised of starch.
You’ve probably heard that when you eat refined or processed starchy foods your blood sugar can rapidly spike but your energy levels aren’t sustained because everything is digested very rapidly.
We are interested in making foods that have a lower glycaemic index by designing wheat starch that is slowly digested or resistant to digestion in the upper gut. This can lead to better blood glucose control and any undigested starch can move on to the colon and feed gut bacteria that also produce by-products with potential health benefits.
Starch molecules are made up of chains of glucose sugars, and they can have different shapes and sizes. By targeting wheat genes involved in starch synthesis you can change the starch structure; for example you can make the glucose chains shorter or longer, or change the number of branch points. This is important because starch structure influences its digestibility.
Healthier starch from wheat
I’m very interested in the genes controlling starch structure in wheat because targeting these genes will allow us to allow us to fine-tune starch properties to make them less digestible or more slowly digested. For example, starch with longer chains tends to be less digestible. With the recent availability of new wheat genomics resources we can study the effect of knocking out those genes and what happens in the grain and to the plant.
Many food companies are interested in developing healthier food products to meet consumer demand and this project has potential to add value to the grain used to make those foods. If growers take on new wheat varieties with improved nutritional properties they could potentially command a higher price from the food industry.
Before I came to IFR, I worked on developing resistant starch in durum (pasta) wheat. We made the new wheat available to plant breeders so they could introduce the new starch trait into their breeding program. From there, the breeders can move on to develop the actual varieties, through a process of testing the new trait in the fields, yield trials and quality analyses. It can take several years to develop a new variety.
Whole value-chain approach
A benefit of being on the Norwich Research Park is the broad range of expertise across plant sciences, food, nutrition and health. My background is in crop genetics but to improve nutritional traits in wheat it is important to understand implications on nutrition and health. Agronomic and end-use qualities are also critical to consider for developing new wheat varieties and designing new foods.
I am looking forward to meeting various stakeholders in the agri-food chain at the Pollinator event. In order to bring new wheat to market you need to meet the needs of farmers, millers, food producers etc. and it is essential to understand what is important to them.
Dr Brittany Hazard is speaking at our Pollinator ‘Nutritious and Delicious – Innovations for Value-Added Crops’ on 22 February at the Centrum Building on the Norwich Research Park. For more information please click here.