Scientists prove high fibre white bread is possible, having identified the parts of the wheat genome that control the fibre content of white flour, raising hopes that products will be in supermarkets within five years.
It might be the best thing to happen to bread since, well, sliced bread.
An international group of scientists led by Rothamsted Research and the John Innes Centre have opened the door to healthier white bread, after they pinpointed genes responsible for the dietary fibre content of flour.
They say this new white flour is otherwise identical and makes a good quality white loaf, but with all the added health benefits that come from eating wholemeal bread, including reduced cancer, diabetes and obesity risks.
The high fibre white flour they produced has as much as twice the fibre of traditional white flour.
Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, lead author Dr Alison Lovegrove, Rothamsted Research, said the team had achieved the breakthrough by exploiting the results of an earlier genetic screen of over 150 different wheat varieties from around the world.
“We knew that the white flour made from one particular Chinese wheat variety, Yumai 34, was unusually high in fibre, but it’s not well suited for growing in the European climate,” she said.
“Using conventional breeding techniques, we crossed this high fibre trait into several other varieties. This allowed us to narrow down where in its genome the genes for high fibre are.”
Traditionally, crop varieties are improved by identifying plants with desirable traits and breeding from them. The problem with high fibre is it is not a trait you can identify by eye, and biochemical lab tests for it are slow and expensive.
“We’ve developed genetic markers that can easily be used by plant breeders to identify which individual wheat plants have the high fibre genes,” said Dr Lovegrove.
“That will allow them to incorporate the high fibre into elite wheat lines, and opens the possibility of significant increases in dietary fibre intake for everyone.”
The quest to increase fibre in white bread through breeding had stalled in recent years, with various manufacturers instead producing loaves that contain both white and wholemeal flours, or have fibre from other sources added in an attempt to address the issue.
“We hope to go on and identify further genes that increase fibre content, thereby providing plant breeders, millers and food producers with even more options,” said Dr Lovegrove.
The effort behind the study was no simple matter, however, as the wheat genome is much bigger than the human genome – containing six copies of every chromosome rather than the two copies humans possess.
This means wheat has in the region of 150,000 genes, compared to about 25,000 genes in humans.
By looking for sections of genetic code shared by plants with the high fibre trait, the team was able to home in on the likely spots where high fibre genes reside.
The conventional breeding of a new wheat variety is a slow process with breeders having to select wheat lines with high yield and disease resistance, but the team are hopeful high fibre bread and other products made from white flour will be a staple within just five years now that breeders have a new tool with which to screen wheat lines.
Dietary fibre describes those carbohydrates we get from plant-based foods that aren’t digested in the small intestine and has been shown to have a number of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, improving insulin sensitivity and reducing the incidence of certain types of cancer.
Most of the fibre found in wheat grain is in the bran – the part that is removed when producing white flour, and what differentiates it from wholemeal flour.
A slice of typical white bread has about 1g of fibre, whereas wholemeal has about 3g. A slice from a high fibre white loaf could contain up to 2g.