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Balancing the Scales: The Specifics of Ancient and Modern Wheat

Wheat, as a pivotal cereal grain in the global diet, has undergone significant transformations over the centuries. These changes are seen starkly when comparing ancient wheat subspecies, like Triticum Monococcum (Einkorn), Triticum Dicoccum (Emmer), Triticum Turgidum ssp. Turanicum (Khorasan), and Triticum Spelta (Spelt), Triticum Sphaerococcum (Paighambari), with their modern counterparts, such as Triticum Aestivum (Common Bread Wheat) and Triticum Durum (Durum Wheat). However, there are several heritage cultivars of both Triticum Aestivum and Triticum Durum that remained unchanged over the years across the globe.

Ancient Emmer, Khorasan and Paighambari with Modern Black and Soft Wheat

There are several key differences between ancient and modern wheat:

Genetic Composition: The extensive cross-breeding during the Green Revolution has led to the genetically complex modern varieties. Genetic variability is one of the stark differences between ancient and modern wheat varieties. Ancient wheat species like einkorn, emmer, khorasan, spelt and paighambari, have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.

An insight into Green Revolution:

The term was developed to refer to a set of research and technological transfer initiatives that occurred between the 1930s and the late 1960s.

The Green Revolution was initiated by Strampelli, who was among the first, in Europe and in the World, to systematically apply Mendel's laws to traits such as rust resistance, early flowering and maturity and short straw.

As a consequence, Italian wheat production doubled, an achievement that during the fascist regime was referred to as the “Wheat Battle” (1925–1940). After the Second World War, some of Strampelli's wheat varieties were used as parents in breeding programmes in many countries in a phase of the Green Revolution, defined as Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution.

This phase was instrumental in the development of the high-yielding varieties. Thereafter, during the 1960s, research was concentrated on improving the storage protein quality, thereby increasing the technological properties. Agronomists bred cultivars of maize, wheat, and rice that were generally referred to as “high-yielding varieties” based on a higher capacity for nitrogen-absorption than other varieties. High levels of nitrogen in the soils causes the lodging of wheat before harvest. Therefore, semi-dwarfing genes were bred to improve to reduce both lodging and the maturation cycle.

The principle results of this revolution were the development of modern varieties characterized by higher yield, a reduced susceptibility to diseases and insects, an increased tolerance to environmental stresses, a homogeneous maturation (to optimize harvest) and a higher gluten content (to improve bread and pasta quality).

Whilst these intensive breeding programs helped to increase production and technological quality, a concomitant decrease in genetic variability as well as a gradual impoverishment of the nutritional and nutraceutical properties of the wheat occurred, mainly determined by the complete replacement of ancient local breeds with modern varieties.

An insight into Ancient Wheat:

Einkorn wheat (Triticum Monococcum) was one of the first crops domesticated approximately 12,000 years ago in the Near East, alongside Emmer wheat (Triticum Dicoccum).

Typically, Einkorn was cultivated on marginal agricultural land, being able to survive in harsh environments and poor soils where other species of wheat could not survive.

Spelt wheat (Triticum Spelta) represents a hexaploid series of the Triticum genome constitution, which is characterized by a great adaptation to a wider range of environments.

Khorasan wheat (Triticum Turgidum ssp. Turanicum) is an ancient free-threshing (“naked”) grain type with an appearance similar to that of common bread wheat.

Nutritional Profile: Ancient wheats are often recognized for their superior nutritional attributes compared to modern types. They generally contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and nutraceutical compounds.

This is in contrast to the modern varieties, where intensive breeding has often prioritized traits like yield and disease resistance over nutritional content.

From a nutritional perspective, ancient wheat often possesses a healthier and more balanced nutritional profile.

For example, einkorn, one of the earliest domesticated wheat species, is rich in protein (59% higher than common bread wheat, albeit with lower bread-manufacturing qualities), monounsaturated fatty acids, and has a more favorable starch (a lower total and resistant starch content, but a higher proportion of slowly digested amylose molecules), which can benefit blood sugar management and satiety. Einkorn holds the highest concentrations of phytosterols and tocols, which could play a role in cholesterol regulation.

Ancient wheat also tends to be higher in phytochemicals and minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.

Remarkably, Khorasan could positively influence glycemic control, lipid parameters, and inflammatory markers. For example, consumption of Khorasan has been associated with significant reductions in TNF-α and IL-6, two critical markers of inflammation, in certain populations.

In terms of gut health, an area of increasing interest in nutrition science, a Khorasan based diet resulted in the release of beneficial short-chain fatty acids and phenolic compounds, alongside a favorable shift in gut microbiota composition.

On the contrary, modern wheat has been bred for high gluten content, crucial for bread and pasta quality. Also, while modern wheat often has high yields, it tends to be lower in dietary fiber and some vital micronutrients compared to ancient varieties.

Gluten Content and Structure: Gluten content has been a major focus of wheat breeding. Modern varieties often have higher gluten content, which can improve the quality of bread and pasta products.

However, the structure of the gluten proteins in ancient wheat is different, which may make it more tolerable for some people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Modern wheat and ancient wheat varieties have quite significant differences in their genetic makeup, nutritional composition, and technological properties.

This is primarily due to selective breeding practices over the centuries, which have been carried out with the intention of improving yield, disease resistance, environmental stress tolerance, and the overall quality of the grain for bread and pasta production.

Environmental Impact: Ancient wheat varieties are typically grown under organic or low-input farming conditions. They have evolved over millennia to survive in their native environments and can often tolerate poor soils and harsh conditions better than modern varieties.

In contrast, modern wheat has been bred for high yields under high-input conditions, often requiring additional water and fertilizers.

Yield and Homogeneity: Modern wheat varieties are bred to produce high yields and uniform ripening – traits essential for large-scale, mechanized agriculture. This uniformity also extends to the size and shape of the grains, which can improve milling efficiency.

In contrast, ancient wheat varieties generally produce lower yields and are less uniform, but they can be more resilient in marginal growing conditions.

Notably, ancient wheat cultivars, being typically grown under organic or traditional low-input farming practices, are also gaining attention for their environmental sustainability.

This, coupled with their potential health benefits, is leading to a resurgence in their cultivation and consumption, despite their generally lower yields compared to modern varieties.

In summary, understanding the differences is crucial as wheat is not one-size-fits-all. Ancient wheat varieties, despite their lower yields, offer nutritional advantages thus an array of potential health benefits, biological and genetic diversity, a different gluten structure, and more environmentally friendly cultivation practices. Conversely, modern wheat provides high yield and consistency, and specific technological properties for bread and pasta, critical for feeding the growing global population. The choice between them depends on individual dietary needs, taste preferences, and ethical considerations. Thus, making a direct comparison between ancient and modern wheat subspecies and their varieties a highly nuanced subject.