The health benefits of wholegrain cereal products are now widely recognised and considered to result from the presence of a range of bioactive components, including dietary fibre and phytochemicals. However, little is known about the extent to which the amounts and compositions of these components vary between types of wheat and whether this can be exploited to produce new types of wheat with enhanced health benefits. This topic is the focus of Module 2 of the EU FP6 HEALTHGRAIN programme, which has carried out a diversity screen of the amounts and compositions of dietary fibre and phytochemical components in 150 wheat lines. Substantial variation in all components was demonstrated with differences in the concentrations of phytochemicals in wholemeal ranging from 1.4-fold for tocols up to 3.6-fold for phenolic acids. Similarly, the concentrations of dietary fibre components differed by up to 4.7 fold, for water-extractable arabinoxylans in flour. Furthermore, multi-site trials of a smaller number of varieties showed that much of this variation is genetically determined, although environmental effects were also observed.
This study shows that it is possible to select for high levels for bioactive components in wheat breeding programmes leading to a new generation of “healthy” wheat varieties.