Selenium, bread and man

Collaborative research with the University of Nottingham on the BAGELS project aims to increase the amount of Selenium in bread which is linked to human wellbeing

Image of Selenium chemical symbol on the periodic tableHumans need to eat plants or their products to survive. Plants take up their essential elements from the soil. Humans need soil. Recent research in EPI demonstrates the intimate links between human wellbeing and one of the elements that plants need to survive and grow - selenium. It shows our expertise in soils and crops contributes to solving material problems of human wellbeing.

Selenium is an essential element for humans. According to the UK Food Standards Agency selenium plays an important role in our immune system's function, in thyroid hormone metabolism and in reproduction. It is also part of the body's antioxidant defence system, preventing damage to cells and tissues.

What's the problem?

Wheatfield with poppies - photograph from Geoff SquireThe amount of selenium we should consume (the Reference Nutrient Intake) is 60 µg (micrograms) a day for women and 75 µg a day for men. However, the average daily intake in the UK is estimated to be only 34 µg a day. Selenium intakes in the UK have declined over the past 30 years, mainly because we no longer import high-selenium wheat for milling from North America. We now grow most (>80%) of our milling wheat here in the UK, where soils are low in selenium. At present, we obtain only 6 µg a day from bread.

What's being done about it?

Recent trials, led by The University of Nottingham in collaboration with Philip White at SCRI and others, have shown that by applying just a few grams of selenium to crops at the right time — via selenium enriched fertiliser — it is possible to produce bread that could restore the average dietary selenium intakes to recommended levels.

Photograph of bread - from Martin BroadleyThis research, carried out in the BAGELS project has successfully demonstrated that selenium levels of UK-grown wheat can be increased safely through the use of selenium-containing fertilizers, without harming the environment. This UK wheat has been used to produce naturally selenium-biofortified bread, which was baked for the Cereals2008 event at Vine Farm, Cambridgeshire, in June.

Further information and contacts

Contact at SCRI: Philip J. White

BAGELS at the University of Nottingham website

Contact for the BAGELS Project / University of Nottingham: Dr Martin Broadley, Associate Professor in Plant Nutrition in the School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham: email Martin.Broadley@nottingham.ac.uk

(Article added 3 November 2008)