A team of scientists is hoping to produce mineral-enriched nutritious flour using high-powered x-rays.
The scientists are from the Rothamsted Research, an institute of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
They are using high powered x-rays from the world famous Diamond Light Source, a third generation synchrotron in Oxfordshire, UK, to carry out fluorescence analysis in favour of traditional staining techniques to identify new wheat varieties with added health benefits.
This rapid approach not only locates several different minerals simultaneously, but also provides information about their chemistry and digestibility.
According to Dr Andrew Neal, who leads the project, "Essentially, we are looking for new healthier grain. Diet deficiency is a big global issue; nearly one million people a year die worldwide as a result of iron and zinc deficiency. Milling methods and our preference for white flour products over wholegrain means that much of the essential mineral content of wheat grains is lost during milling to produce white flour."
"We are looking for ways to increase iron and zinc quantities in white flour, ensuring they end up in our diet," he said.
A wheat grain consists of bran (the outer layer), the germ (or embryo) and white flour (or starchy endosperm).
Wheat bran and germ are rich in protein, fibre, oil, vitamins and minerals but the endosperm has little valuable mineral content meaning white flour is virtually devoid of minerals.
Using an x-ray beam line, Neal exposes grains to microfocussed high intensity x-rays.
As the x-rays encounter different minerals, characteristic fluorescence x-rays are emitted.
Scanning across the energy range of fluorescent x-rays shows a great deal about the properties of the grains including where and how much of each mineral is present, and how each mineral is complexed within the various regions of the grain.
"It is certainly early days for this approach, but already we are showing that we can screen-out unsuitable lines early on, preventing breeders wasting investment in them and we are able to view wheat grains in a whole new way," Neal said.
"I am hopeful this new approach has real promise to aid nutritious grain development and help answer some of the pressing issues regarding providing more nutritious food from limited productive farmland to feed our increasingly growing population," he added.