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Whatever happened to this food-of-the-future? | New World Seeds & Tubers

My mom loved the original “Star Trek” series, so back when I was a wee lad, we watched them. (I don’t watch television anymore. No time, no inclination).

There was one episode that was sufficiently memorable, that I can remember it all these years. It was called “The trouble with Tribbles”. Tribbles are imaginary animals. They look like an overgrown powder-puff, and make a cooing noise that humans find soothing, but Tribbles and Klingons don’t get on well.

They caused trouble by invading and gobbling up stores of a grain called “quadro-Triticale”. But it turned out that was actually a good thing, because when the tribbles who ate the grain turned out to be dead, the humans realized that the quadro-triticale had been poisoned.

They saved the day again by exposing the identity of the Klingon saboteur who was disguised as a human.

Back in the 1960s, when that series was made, was when the real breakthroughs in xTriticale-breeding were being made. xTriticale is a fairly old idea, which was to combine the productivity of wheat with the toughness of rye. The first few tries resulted in shrunken kernels with negligible endosperm (the white starchy part of the kernel). It wasn’t until the 1960s that xTriticales started showing up that were more like normal grains.

xTriticale is a complicated grain. It’s a type of hybrid between wheat and rye, but it’s not a matter of matching up their chromosomes like most hybrids; I don’t think they’re capable of matching up; there’s not a one-to-one correspondence of chromosomes.

It’s an “amphiploid”, which means that it has all of the chromosomes from wheat (paired up with each other, and not with rye chromosomes), AND all the chromosomes from rye. As an aside, our “perennial wheats” are amphiploids or partial amphiploids of wheat and wheatgrass (Thinopyrum).

My guess is that wheat was already a multi-way amphiploid hybrid. That’s probably part of the reason wheat already has a gigantic genome, one of the longest of any organism, though apparently beaten by Paris japonica.

Unfortunately that’s a poor picture up above that I took of it, but xTriticale looks as you would imagine sort of mid-way between wheat and rye. The heads tend to bend characteristically, the tips drooping slightly, when just about ripe.

In some respects, xTriticale seems too good to be true:

  • Protein levels rivaling hard wheat
  • More lysine than wheat, therefor a little better amino-acid balance
  • Yields exceeding the already high yields of wheat
  • Can grow in some climates marginal for wheat

No wonder the writers of Star-Trek decided it was a “food-of-the-future”.

xTriticale is rarely grown in the USA or Canada. The only state in the USA that has any significant production at all, to the best of my knowledge, is here in Washington, and that is relatively minor.

What happened?

Well, a few countries do produce significant amounts of xTriticale–especially in northeastern Europe where it is cold enough and wet enough that wheat is marginal. It’s a major crop in Poland, which is the world’s top producer.

Here in the USA, “there’s no market for it”. Meaning that nobody wants to grow it because they’re not sure how to sell it.

The gluten in xTriticale is somewhat defective. If you know how–and I do–you can make a crumbly bread out of it. A few xTriticales have been bred to improve their gluten structure.

It works better if you add a little wheat flour. You can go up to about half-and-half wheat-to-triticale and get a fairly good loaf.

One problem for marketing purposes is that while the gluten in xTriticale doesn’t work well for bread, it might still be a hazard for people with Celiac disease. Whereas the gluten in Spelt has a sufficiently different structure that many people who are sensitive to wheat gluten can eat it (ask your doctor before trying this! When in doubt, don’t risk it! Gluten intolerance can be deadly).

So, Spelt has largely replaced xTriticale as a consumer end-product human food.

There used to be porridges containing xTriticale but they seem to have disappeared since quite a while ago. Now it’s hard to find anything that doesn’t contain oats, and guess what, I have a sensitivity not to Gluten but to Avenin, a protein in oats!

But I did find some rolled xTriticale. Bob’s Red Mill has it. It makes a great porridge, with a little more “stick to your ribs” power than oats or for that matter, wheat.

We suggest caution before growing xTriticale for sales until and unless you’re sure you have a buyer for it. Someone we knew grew a fine crop of it, then had a hard time finding a buyer for it.

For the small-scale grain grower who isn’t raising it for sales, its marketability is not an issue, while its benefits are still worthwhile.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that for a lot of uses of wheat, the gluten content is actually a drawback not a benefit. You wouldn’t like hard, leathery muffins, pancakes, or pie crusts! So the fact that most xTriticales don’t have useable gluten is not necessarily a problem.

Any xTriticale that is produced, especially where wheat is marginal or impractical, and marketed as human food, spares that much more precious wheat, supplies of which are already very tight.

We’ve got some very cool xTriticales in production. Tim Peters was singing the praises (OK, not literally) of several of them to me this summer, and Tom was recently lovingly cradling the “beautiful” grains of another in his hand after threshing them out. That particular one happened to be a relatively old and obscure one at that, but he thought it much finer-looking that a number of commercial xTriticales, rivaling a fine wheat.

They’re hard enough to find that we grabbed whatever ones we could find, and grew them. Now we’re sorting them out.

Some of our xTriticales, including and especially several of Tim Peters’, are perennial. So add all the benefits I’ve already mentioned, plus the potential for less plowing and replanting. Some of these have productivity rivaling annual grains. Tim’s perennial xTriticales have the interesting feature of having perenniality genes from both wheatgrass and perennial rye. No idea if it helps but probably doesn’t hurt.

Stay tuned for more developments.

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