Spelt is a species of wheat, which was commonly grown in ancient times (more than 6,000 years ago) throughout Europe and the Middle East. Today, spelt is increasingly being used by manufacturers as a substitute for conventional wheat flour in breads, pasta, crackers, breakfast cereal, and baking mixes. However, spelt still only represents a small number of products, compared to those using conventional wheat.
Spelt has a tougher outer husk compared to other varieties of wheat, which plays an important role in protecting the grain from climatic conditions, pests and disease, and may also assist in nutrient retention. This husk makes spelt more difficult to process than conventional wheat, as it needs to be dehulled before it can be milled into flour(1).
While some studies have suggested that spelt may be nutritionally superior to conventional wheat, the exact nutrient composition appears to be dependent on the variety of spelt (and variety of wheat used as the comparison), the origin and the environmental conditions in which it is grown(2, 3). Such studies include a nutritional comparison wholemeal and milled fractions (sieved flour, fine bran, course bran) from nine dehulled spelt samples and five soft winter wheat (soft wheat: lower protein and higher percentage carbohydrate) samples grown in Belgium, which demonstrated that spelt had a higher copper, zinc, iron, magnesium and phosphorous content (4).
In another study that compared three varieties of spelt grown in Italy with two conventional varieties of wheat, spelt was shown to have a higher protein (15.9 – 17.1% versus 12.4 - 13.8%) and soluble fibre content (1.75% versus 1.5%). The results also showed that bread produced from whole spelt wheat flour had less total starch but greater resistant starch, compared to bread made from white spelt wheat flour and white wheat flour (5).
Despite some studies suggesting nutritional differences between spelt and conventional wheat varieties, other research shows no significant differences between spelt and wheat (hard red winter wheat (hard wheat: higher protein content)) in regards to the protein, fibre, vitamin and mineral content (with the exception of zinc, which was found to be higher in spelt varieties)(6).
It is possible that these disparate results are attributable to the use of different varieties of spelt and conventional wheat. It was also not clear in the majority of these studies whether both the conventional wheat and spelt samples where whole grain (i.e. containing the bran, germ and endosperm). More evidence is therefore required to substantiate the nutritional differences between specific conventional wheat and spelt varieties available to consumers in Australia.
Spelt contains gluten, and has a similar gliadin and glutenin composition to other wheat varieties, and so people with coeliac disease must avoid spelt containing food products. Interestingly, some people who suffer from wheat sensitivities have reported better tolerance to products made from spelt compared to conventional wheat. While further research is required to investigate the properties of spelt that may be linked with the reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms in sensitive people(1), this observation may be due to a lower FODMAP (which refers to fructose, fructans, galacto-oligosaccharide, lactose and polyols) content. According to Monash University (Melbourne) spelt and spelt flours tend to be lower in total FODMAPs than conventional wheat. However, not all spelt products are low in FODMAPs i.e. whilst traditional sourdough spelt bread products are lower in FODMAPs, spelt pasta is high in FODMAPs (7).
At this stage, the evidence on the nutritional benefits of spelt over conventional wheat requires further substantiation before conclusions can be drawn. In addition, the evidence for any health benefit of spelt wheat versus conventional varieties is non-existent. On the other hand, the totality of the scientific evidence supports higher intakes of whole grains and/or high fibre grain food for improved nutrition and disease risk reduction.
This evidence supports the Australian Dietary Guidelines which encourage a variety of grains foods, mostly whole grain or high fibre grain foods. Spelt core grain foods (i.e. bread, breakfast cereals, intact/cracked and crispbread), which are becoming increasingly available, can contribute towards Australians daily core grain food recommendations, and when consumed as a whole grain foods (i.e. intact or in a wholemeal spelt bread) can also contribute to Australians whole grain Daily Target Intake.
1. Neeson R. Organic Spelt Production: Industry & Invesment NSW Government; 2011 [cited 2015 November]. Available from: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/380784/Organic-spelt-production.pdf.
2. Grela ER. Nutrient Composition and Content of Antinutritional Factors in Spelt ( Triticum speltaL) Cultivars. Journal of the science of food and agriculture. 1996;71(3):399-404.
3. Gomez-Becerra HF, Erdem H, Yazici A, Tutus Y, Torun B, Ozturk L, et al. Grain concentrations of protein and mineral nutrients in a large collection of spelt wheat grown under different environments. Journal of Cereal Science. 2010;52(3):342-9.
4. Ruibal-Mendieta NL, Delacroix DL, Mignolet E, Pycke J-M, Marques C, Rozenberg R, et al. Spelt (Triticum aestivum ssp. spelta) as a Source of Breadmaking Flours and Bran Naturally Enriched in Oleic Acid and Minerals but Not Phytic Acid. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 2005;53(7):2751-9.
5. Bonafaccia G, Galli V, Francisci R, Mair V, Skrabanja V, Kreft I. Characteristics of spelt wheat products and nutritional value of spelt wheat-based bread. Food chemistry. 2000;68(4):437-41.
6. Ranhotra GS, Gelroth JA, Glaser BK, Lorenz KJ. Baking and nutritional qualities of a spelt wheat sample. LWT - Food Science and Technology. 1995;28(1):118-22.
7. Muir J. Are all spelt products low in FODMAPS? MONASH University2015. Available from: http://fodmapmonash.blogspot.com.au/2015/03/are-all-spelt-products-low-in-fodmaps.html.