Feb. 22, 2002 MANHATTAN — A new weapon has been discovered in the battle against disease: whole grain wheat.
According to Kansas State University biochemist Dolores Takemoto, new research is showing that wheat contains powerful antioxidants which are key to its ability to prevent colon cancer, and possibly diabetes and heart disease.
"In the past, we thought the fiber in wheat prevented cancer," Takemoto said. "This discovery shows that there are antioxidants, in addition to fiber, which are responsible for preventing cancer."
With this information, K-State scientists maybe be able to create modified wheat strains with high levels of cancer-fighting chemicals.
"We hope we will be able to create a genetically modified plant," Takemoto said. "We won't be modifying it to adapt to its environment, like most genetically modified plants, but we will be modifying it to produce more of its own cancer-fighting chemicals. We want to produce for the Kansas community strains of wheat that are nutraceuticals, which are higher quality grains that have enhanced amounts of these antioxidants in them."
Wheat's antioxidants are important because they combat the body's free-radicals. Free-radicals are charged particles which the body produces and which, if they react harmfully, could cause damage.
"Throughout life you make a lot of free-radicals," Takemoto said. "You want to keep them from forming because they contribute to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, cataracts, even wrinkling. High antioxidant levels mop up the free-radicals."
Wheat's antioxidants are found in the plant's orthophenols. Takemoto and other K-State biochemists are in the early stages of developing wheat with high levels of orthophenols. A successful modification could lead to wheat's ability to combat cancer by simply including it in a daily diet.
K-State scientists are optimistic of wheat's cancer-fighting ability because their preliminary testing shows some available wheat strains already contain a great number of orthophenols.
"Several high antioxidant wheat strains are already available for growing," Takemoto said. "People worry about the antioxidants not surviving baking, but some of the strains we tested had high antioxidant levels across the board. These could be grown now and they do survive baking well."
Antioxidants can be found in several vitamins, including vitamin E and vitamin D, but research shows that eating whole grain products and wheat germ is critical for the antioxidants to be absorbed.
"I like to argue against taking a pill," Takemoto said. "Only very stable vitamins provide the high levels of antioxidants needed, and even then they don't have very long shelf lives. Folic acid, for example, doesn't have a long shelf life for keeping high antioxidant levels. Many people use vitamin pills to compensate for a poor diet, but including whole grain wheat into your regular diet will have greater effects."
This project is funded by the Kansas Wheat Commission. Takemoto received her doctoral degree from the University of Southern California. She has been teaching and conducting research at K-State for 23 years.
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