Wheat is a staple grain that has been cultivated all over the world for thousands of years. You can find wheat flour in everything from bread to pasta to cereals to muffins. But, more recently, with gluten-related disorders and non-celiac gluten sensitivity on the rise, it seems that wheat may be getting a bit of a bad rap.
Wheat germ, on the other hand? That might be nominated for new health class president.
The benefits of wheat germ
Wheat germ has a growing reputation as a nutritional powerhouse and breakout health-boosting superhero. Though research is still in progress, early signs suggest that it contains properties to support immune function, help with heart health, and even improve mental health.
Let’s look at what science has to say about the many potential health benefits of wheat germ.
Though the term “germ” usually refers to something we want to avoid, this kind of germ is on the side of good.
Wheat germ is one of the three edible parts of the wheat kernel, along with the endosperm and bran. The germ is like a little tiny wheat embryo in the center of the grain. It plays a role in the reproduction and production of new wheat.
Although the germ is packed with nutrients, the bummer is that it’s removed from most processed wheat. Refined wheat products, like those containing white flour, have the wheat germ and husk removed so the products last longer in storage. Thankfully, you can find the germ in whole-grain wheat.
Wheat germ comes in many forms, such as extracted oil, raw, and toasted, and there’s tons you can do with it.
Because wheat germ boasts many nutritious components and is a natural source of essential amino and fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, phytosterols, and tocopherols, adding some to cereals, granolas, and baked goods will boost their nutritional profile.
Aside from its plentiful nutrients, wheat germ might just bestow a slew of health benefits, according to recent studies. Here’s what we know so far.
1. It has shown some cancer-fighting potential
A 2019 study suggests that wheat germ has powerful antioxidant properties. The researchers tested wheat germ against A549 cells, which are commonly used as a model for lung cancer. They found that wheat germ decreased the viability of the cells in a concentration-dependent manner.
In other words, the higher the concentration of wheat germ, the more effective it was at destroying the cancer cells.
Keep in mind this is a study in cells, not in humans, but it’s an encouraging direction for further research.
2. It may be able to decrease symptoms of menopause
Menopause typically occurs in women between the ages of 45 and 55 as their menstrual cycles change and eventually end. It comes with symptoms like hot flashes, loss of bladder control, sleep problems, and mood changes.
Wheat germ could potentially benefit people experiencing menopause symptoms, as shown in a small 2021 study of 96 females.
The researchers studied the effects of a rusk containing wheat germ on menopausal symptoms. It seems that the rusk improved certain menopause factors, including waist circumference, hormone profile, and symptom ratings on a self-reported questionnaire.
However, the rusks contained multiple ingredients, so we can’t say whether these results are purely due to wheat germ.
3. It could be a mental health booster
Wheat germ could potentially boost your mental health. A 2021 study including 75 participants with type 2 diabetes looked at the effects of wheat germ on mental health. The participants received either 20 grams of wheat germ or a placebo for 12 weeks.
The researchers asked everyone to complete a questionnaire about depression and anxiety at both the start and the end of the study. They found that wheat germ consumption significantly reduced depression and stress compared to the placebo.
Further research would help to find out what aspect of wheat germ causes these effects and how it works in the general population, rather than just on peeps with type 2 diabetes.
4. It’s giving strong immune system support signals
Your white blood cells have an essential role in your immune system, where they fight nasty germs and diseases. A few superstar white blood cells are B lymphocytes (B cells), T lymphocytes (T cells), and monocytes.
A 2021 study on mice found that wheat germ positively affected these white blood cells. The researchers observed that wheat germ could boost the levels of activated T cells and monocytes, helping the immune system function more effectively.
Wheat germ also seems to promote some anti-inflammatory processes — another function of the immune system.
And if that’s not impressive enough, it seems that wheat germ helps the immune system make more baby B cells and raises them to be ready to do battle with invading pathogens.
5. It appears to contain some strong inhibitors of diabetes and heart disease
If you’re living with diabetes, you may experience an increase in LDL cholesterol (aka “bad” cholesterol). This not only decreases your HDL (“good”) cholesterol but also can lead to narrowed and blocked arteries — common contributors to heart disease.
A 2019 trial with 80 participants looked at the effects of wheat germ on metabolic control and oxidative stress in folks with type 2 diabetes.
The researchers found that the people who consumed wheat germ had a significant reduction in total cholesterol concentrations. In addition, those who took wheat germ experienced a rise in total antioxidant capacity concentration.
The mice also showed improved mitochondrial metabolic functioning, which is promising for people with heart disease. Mitochondria are crucial for fat metabolism, and when these cellular components don’t work correctly, fat deposition and oxidative stress increase. Both factors contribute to heart problems.
So, we’ve covered some promising benefits of raw wheat germ. But what about prepped wheat germ? Here’s some early info on the upside of cooked or extracted wheat germ.
Fermented wheat germ
So, it seems that fermented foods are good for you — kombucha, anyone? This might also apply to wheat germ.
A 2017 study examined the effects of fermentation on wheat germ and found that the fermentation process increased free bioactive compounds called phenolics and decreased bound phenolics.
Free phenolics can be extracted by a specific solvent, like water, while bound phenolics cannot be removed. So, an increase in free phenolics means you can absorb more phenolics, thereby increasing their benefits.
The research also found that fermentation enhanced antioxidant activity in the wheat germ.
Toasted wheat germ
The main benefit of toasted wheat germ is a sweet and nutty flavor that raw wheat germ just doesn’t have. But toasting the wheat germ does change its nutritional value slightly.
15 grams of raw wheat germ has 1 gram of total fat, whereas the same amount of toasted wheat germ has 1.5 grams of total fat. In addition, the 141 milligrams of potassium found in raw wheat germ decreases to 130 milligrams when it’s toasted.
Finally, and rather surprisingly, the sugar content decreases from 6.67 grams to 0 grams when wheat germ is toasted.
Wheat germ extract
Avemar is a fermented wheat germ extract that, similarly to raw wheat germ, could potentially have significant benefits for people living with cancer.
A 2018 study on cells examined the anti-angiogenic effects of Avemar on cancer cells. Anti-angiogenic medicines or compounds block a tumor from forming blood cells, so it starves.
The data from the study suggests that Avemar may exert an anti-angiogenic effect on some cancer cells, including gastric cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, and cervical cancer.
Since unregulated angiogenesis can also result in other health conditions — such as diabetic retinopathy, inflammatory diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis — Avemar could potentially help in these conditions. But more studies are needed to explore this.
Another study examined how Avemar could help enhance the effectiveness of natural killer (NK) cells against osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that begins in the bones. NK cells can kill various cancer cells, but those sneaky bastards can sometimes escape.
A 2019 study on cells found that osteosarcoma cells treated with Avemar are more susceptible to the actions of NK cells.
Avemar could also prevent cancer cells from migrating and affect their invasive capacities. Plus, it seems that Avemar leads to widespread cell death in lymphoid tumor cells but doesn’t damage healthy surrounding cells — an essential quality for successful cancer treatment.
Using wheat germ safely
Our bodies don’t all react the same way to foods or other substances. Most people can use wheat germ without any hesitation, but there are some exceptions that may lead to some adverse reactions.
Seek advice from a healthcare professional before trying wheat germ if:
- you’re pregnant or nursing
- you have stomach or intestinal ulcers or severe absorption problems
- you’re fructose-intolerant
- you’ve had an organ or tissue transplant
- you’re having a barium X-ray contrast test in the next few days
Since wheat germ contains gluten, it’s best to avoid it if you have a gluten-related disorder or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Even if that doesn’t apply to you, some peeps may experience mild side effects like nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting after eating wheat germ.
You should also know that wheat germ has a relatively short shelf life. Why? Well, it contains a high concentration of unsaturated oil, coupled with active enzymes. That means its nutritional value deteriorates rapidly, limiting storage times.
So, basically, there’s no health grace period on the expiration date.
Wheat germ may provide a wealth of health benefits, including antioxidant and anti-angiogenic properties, which could fight cancer cells. It may also boost your mental health, lower insulin resistance, support your immune system, and ease menopausal symptoms.
The jury’s still out on whether wheat germ is safe for most pregnant or nursing folks. Organ and tissue transplant recipients should talk with their doctor before considering adding wheat germ to their diet as well. Also, since wheat germ contains gluten, anyone who has gluten-related digestive issues should pass on it.