Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Barley Breed Brings Better Bowels

By Ian Lowe

A high-fibre barley variety developed by CSIRO is proving a winner with consumers of breakfast cereals.

Changes in lifestyle and diet have led to increasing numbers of Australians and New Zealanders with health problems. Only a small minority of us get enough exercise to maintain heart–lung fitness, while a majority of adults are now seriously overweight.

This has been a regular topic of discussion at recent transport meetings. Groups as diverse as the Australian Local Government Association and the National Heart Foundation have worked together to produce a national vision for active transport. It estimates that lack of physical activity costs the health system $1.5 billion per year and the economy as a whole nearly ten times as much. Medibank Private calculates that inactivity could cause as many as 16,000 premature deaths a year. That’s not as bad as tobacco, but it is still a startling figure.

Inactivity doesn’t just cause problems of the circulatory system. Problems concerning the digestive tract in later life are also associated with diet. Most of us don’t eat as much fruit and vegetables as we should. Modern processed food also lacks fibre, causing short-term problems like constipation and contributing to cancers of the digestive tract. Eating red meat is also associated with colon cancer.

So it’s good to see science being used to improve the health of our digestive systems. CSIRO researchers have used traditional selective breeding techniques to develop a strain of barley that they have christened BarleyMax. It has about twice as much fibre as the grains normally used as the basis of breakfast cereals, as well as enhanced levels of resistant starch – which helps to produce beneficial bacteria in the bowel.

CSIRO has licensed growers to produce bulk quantities of the new cereal crop and negotiated an agreement with a Victorian food company to turn the grain into a breakfast food. The new product has taken the cereal market by storm. With an unprepossessing box and no advertising except word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied consumers, it has apparently captured more than 5% of the breakfast food market.

The major cereal producers have been forced to take notice. I am not surprised. Some popular brands contain so much sugar they are almost a health hazard and rely for sales on massive amounts of advertising targeted at impressionable children. The manufacturers are probably right to be concerned about the impact of a cereal that has measurable health benefits and is walking off the supermarket shelves without any advertising at all.

When I was told the story by delighted CSIRO executives, I headed for the supermarket myself and tracked down the new wonder cereal. I might have less need of its magic than many people my age, as I try to eat my daily quota of fruit and vegetables as well as avoiding red meat, still regularly take to the cricket field and have stayed about the same weight for the past 30 years. But I can certainly testify that the new cereal is good for my digestive system. It is great to see science being applied in this way to alleviate a serious health problem.

Many of my scientific colleagues have a jaundiced view of Japanese science. This is understandable given the cynical claims of “scientific” whaling, which seems to produce no contributions to the refereed literature despite the annual slaughter of thousands of whales. So I was relieved to see a local Japanese contribution to serious science.

Analysis of particles brought back to Woomera by the Hayabusa space capsule shows that they are the first ever obtained from an asteroid. Australian experts agree that the chemical composition of the tiny particles does not correspond to any terrestrial rocks. We now have strong evidence that the asteroid contains similar minerals to those found in meteorites, confirming the assumption that those invaders of our atmosphere are fragments of asteroids.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish readers the compliments of the season. I also want to remind you that our region still has higher levels of skin cancer than anywhere else in the world and urge you to protect your skin from ultra­violet radiation as you relax this summer. Australasian Science wants you to remain regular readers for decades to come!

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.