Wheat and barley expert Nancy Ames wants consumers to know the whole story around gluten
by Lauren Comin * photography By leiF norman
Nancy Ames is a cereal research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and holds degrees in crop science, plant science and food science.
She is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences,
Faculty of Human Ecology, at the University of Manitoba. Ames serves on several industry committees for oats and barley, including as chair of the oat quality evaluation committee for the Prairie Grain Development Committee in Western Canada. She is a regular contributor to scientific journals, and recently authored two chapters for the book Oats Nutrition and Technology. Ames works closely with cereal breeders and the cereal industry to add value to cereal grains, and to improve both market opportunities for producers and the health of consumers. She has been instrumental in promoting the health benefits of cereal grains.
GrainsWest: What are you researching?
Ames: My research focuses on the nutrition and quality of oats, barley and wheat, and the genetic, environmental and processing factors that affect overall value. I work with other researchers and the grain industry to develop wheat, oat and barley cultivars with added-value processing and improved end-product quality, and to develop methods to predict quality characteristics of the raw and processed product.
GW: Are Canadian researchers at an advantage in addressing some of these issues?
Ames: Canada is known for producing high-quality grain, which is a result of a strong research base in cereal science and breeding. We have strong multidisciplinary teams of researchers that can address most of the questions that come up about wheat varieties, genetic changes over time, GMO questions, composition and quality aspects, as well as nutritional effects of wheat or gluten on health.
The history and detailed genetics of wheat cultivars grown in Western Canada is well documented. This information gives us an advantage and perhaps branding capability in that we know where our wheat comes from. We know why each new variety was developed and what the main benefit of the development was.
GW: What’s next in terms of wheat, nutritionally?
Ames: I am excited about research related to the healthfulness of wheat—the whole grain and the bran layers. There are lots of opportunities in terms of combating issues like obesity and diabetes. We need to look at the healthful components in wheat along with opportunities for improving whole grains and whole-grain products. Also, in the developing world, wheat can play a huge role in the fight against malnutrition and hunger. Wheat has not been considered as a healthy grain so much as a staple food. Wheat is unique as it can be both.
GW: What about the gluten?
Ames: If people have Celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, they need to avoid it. However, for the majority of people, there is no scientific evidence showing a nutritional advantage in removing gluten from the diet. What many people don’t know is that gluten is protein, and people need protein as part
of a complete diet. Sound, scientific messaging needs to be distributed to consumers
so they can understand the whole story around gluten.
GW: How have you been involved with grain health claims?
Ames: I was involved in researching and preparing a petition for a therapeutic health claim—“barley beta-glucan soluble fibre and reduction of blood cholesterol, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease”—that was approved by Health Canada in 2012. Now we are starting to see more interest from industry in using barley for food. There are also new opportunities to use health claims. We continue to research barley health benefits because we see additional effects that are not [already] validated by the claim, like the potential effects on glycemic response and the potential for use with diabetes patients.
GW: How do these health benefits affect farmers?
Ames: Consumer demand for nutritious and health-promoting food products is an important factor in today’s agri-food processing industry. Growing high-quality cereal grains that will impart improved nutritional properties to the end products represents an opportunity to strengthen demand for Canadian grains and expand into new, value-added markets.
GW: Do you think there will be a health claim for wheat in the future?
Ames: The soluble fibre component in wheat meets a health claim in Europe, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. There was a whole-grain health claim proposed in Canada, but it was not accepted. There needs to be more work on this.
GW: Why do you think the science community has been so quiet, relative to the wheat naysayers?
Ames: The science community is focused on providing factual evidence from sound research studies, and does not customarily critique articles found in the popular press. In fact, there is often no venue for scientists to respond to apparent market trends that may not be based on science or healthy choices for consumers.
Perhaps the best approach the scientific community can take is to increase efforts to transfer science-based findings into consumer-friendly messages. Validating food-based nutrient and health claims and educating consumers are important functions of the scientific community in this age of health-conscious consumers.
GW: Why is it important for the public research sector in Canada to get involved with whole-grain research and
Ames: Part of the role of public research is to support the development of value-added agricultural products that will be competitive and profitable in the marketplace for our Canadian producers and processors.
As well, it promotes the production of agriculture products that will improve the health and wellness of Canadian consumers. Research and promotion of whole grains and their products would help achieve these outcomes.
GW: Do you see nutrition as something that will ever be included in the variety registration process?
Ames: Currently, nutritional constituents are not considered as quality factors in varietal registration of wheat, but they are considered in registering oat and food barley varieties. Part of the reason for this is that the industrial users of oats and barley are motivated to meet the requirements of the U.S. and Canadian health claims.
A health claim for wheat, or increased demand for whole grains by industrial processors and consumers, may result in nutritional traits being considered in variety registration.