Reviving Wheat

by Laurie Gorton
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Where would the baker be without wheat? Flour is no doubt the most important ingredient in the baker’s inventory, yet what about the crop from which that flour is milled? Adequate supplies are one thing, but baking quality is quite another. Conditions unique to wheat as an agricultural product prompt continual change in the varieties selected for cultivation. Work with new cultivars, including traditional and biotech approaches, have turned wheat quality into a moving target.

For many in the grain-based foods community, notably wheat breeders and flour millers, interest in crop improvement never flagged, but the past few years found bakers returning to the discussion of wheat quality. Revival of the bakers’ participation strengthens overall efforts because it lends voice to the end user, according to members of the Wheat Quality Council (WQC) and industry observers.

Such intervention comes at a critical time. Wheat is under threat as never before, challenged by disease vectors as well as economic conditions and the expanding gluten-free movement.


“Wheat is in trouble as a competitive crop in American agriculture,” said Brian Walker, manager, technical services, Horizon Flour Milling, a Cargill Joint Venture based at Minnetonka, MN. It has steadily decreased in acreage. Higher yields and higher prices make soy and corn more attractive to growers than wheat, and the emergence of switchgrass, a drought-tolerant plant, as a viable biomass for ethanol production puts further pressure on acreage normally given to wheat.

“Everyone is concerned about wheat acreage,” said Lee Sanders, senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs, American Bakers Association (ABA), Washington, DC. Two of ABA’s standing committees are involved in wheat concerns: the Commodity and Agricultural Policy Committee (CAPC) and the Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee (FTRAC). “Other crops are exceeding wheat on yield, and wheat seems to be standing still,” she said.

One of the largest issues is production, said Dave Green, director of quality control and lab services, ADM Milling Corp., Overland Park, KS. “According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other sources, wheat is facing a long decline in acreage,” he said. “That’s why some are pushing for biotech wheat, to make it more economically interesting to the grower.”

Acreage concerns are one factor attracting the bakers’ interest. Another is its baking quality, particularly as measured in absorption and finished product attributes. The latter can make a big difference in consumer popularity.

“When I talk with customers, the most important thing is baking quality,” Mr. Green said. “Millers worry about yield and extraction, but the overwhelming factor is baking quality.”

Balancing the competitive yield potential with the needed quality could direct the path ahead for the American wheat crop. “Wheat producers urge breeders to produce crops with competitive earning potential. This is very, very important,” Mr. Walker said. Continuous improvement in wheat’s baking quality, in this process, is key. “The wheat breeders need to continue listening to the bakers. Their needs are always changing,” he added.


When bakers look at wheat quality, they see absorption, the quality of protein and the functionality in new products, according to Hayden Wands, director of procurement, flour, Sara Lee Food & Beverage, Downers Grove, IL. “We need to improve on varieties’ quality traits to meet changing demands of our consumers. We’ve seen more demand for whole-grain products, and we need to develop wheat varieties that will accommodate that transition in consumer preference with a higher quality of protein and better absorption properties,” he stated. Mr. Wands is WQC’s current chairman, the first baking company representative to hold this position in nearly a decade. He joined Sara Lee with previous experience at ADM and Cargill and has participated in WQC’s annual wheat tours for 15 years. He also chairs ABA’s CAPC.

Absorption, a percentage figure describing the ability of flour to take up water, has been running 56 to 57 the past two crop years, according to Mr. Wands. “We used to see 58, 59, 60 in absorption,” he noted. “[Such differences] mean we have to make changes in our baking procedures and use blends to bring the absorption up.”

With wheat, cultivar or variety is not the end-all determinant of quality. A good deal of the year-to-year performance of wheat depends on environment. As Mr. Green explained, “About one-third of wheat’s potential is determined by the cultivar, but two-thirds is due to growing conditions.”

Mr. Walker also identified growing conditions and added disease as the environmental problems for wheat that account for the biggest differences seen in milling and baking performance. “Eliminating those variations would result in more consistency,” he said.

For these reasons, far more commercial varieties of wheat now grow in the US than 20 years ago. “[US farmers] turn over cultivars relatively quickly,” Mr. Walker observed. “This is driven by the need to stay ahead of diseases and to achieve more tolerance to drought. For example, hard winter wheat now grows in North Dakota. That was unheard of 20 years ago. Winter conditions were just too severe. Breeders have been able to develop a host of regional adaptability qualities.”

Ug99 wheat stem rust is the wheat disease currently making the most headlines (see “The Coming of Ug99”). Originating in Uganda and now spreading in the Middle East and Asia, it can wipe out whole wheat fields.

Sustainability, and the related topic of traceability, present new issues to wheat breeders. A customer-driven concern, sustainability relates to energy use and its resources used in preparation of consumer goods. Because the customers of ABA members are requesting more effort in this area, the association has spearheaded discussions with the full wheat chain including wheat growers and millers on this topic. “There’s a leading retailer involved, but other food retailers and restaurant chains are active in addressing and responding to the social consciousness issue posed by sustainability,” Ms. Sanders said. “We also see more consumer interest surrounding this subject, and that will drive bakers’ choices.”


“A good tool we have for dialogue on crop improvement is WQC,” Ms. Sanders stated. “This is a group that talks about quality from a variety of perspectives including the bakers’, breeders’ and growers’ standpoints. Baking performance and quality issues such as absorption and mixability are discussed annually.”

Bakers have become more involved in the council in recent years. Mr. Wands described being invited a few years ago by WQC members to contribute the baker’s voice. The previous chairman, Mr. Walker, who has served on the council for 25 years, brought in Len Heflich, vice-president of quality systems for Bimbo Bakeries USA, Horsham, PA, as the keynote speaker for the 2010 meeting. Mr. Heflich chairs ABA’s FTRAC. ABA also delegated Theresa Cogswell, principal of Bakercogs, Olathe, KS, who has vast and respected technical baking experience, to participate on its behalf at WQC meetings.

“Bread manufacturers are the end users of the product,” Mr. Wands explained. “The council has millers and grain companies, and we bakers need to communicate with them. Millers and grain companies can take our message to the breeders, but it’s best for the bakers to voice their needs themselves to the breeders.

“On a positive note, we have certainly established a better line of communications with breeders,” he added. “We feel that the breeders know what we want.”

Ms. Sanders agreed. “Talking with breeders is very important to communicating the bakers’ wishes for acceptable wheat traits,” she said.

Mr. Wands reported an uptick in representation of the commercial baking community within WQC, noting membership involvement by Pepperidge Farm, Bimbo and Sara Lee, among others. “We’d like to see even more diverse participation, say by tortilla manufacturers,” he added. “Join WQC, or communicate your needs through organizations such as ABA. The more conduits we have, the better the communications we can get.”


With roots that go back to 1938, WQC adopted a broad focus on wheat quality in 1993-94 when the spring wheat and soft wheat groups merged under the council’s umbrella. It organizes the testing, evaluation and reporting on milling and end-use quality of hard winter, hard spring, durum and soft wheats nationwide. Its members include wheat breeders, millers, bakers and other wheat food users, allied companies, associations, universities, government agencies and state wheat commissions.

Although USDA develops and tests wheat varieties, no US government agency regulates wheat quality, other than establishing the broad general classes of trade.

“The situation in Canada is wholly different,” said Ben Handcock, executive vice-president, WQC, Pierre, SD. “There, all varieties are licensed through a government-run program that regulates what can be released. This is not so in the US. Here, WQC is the only group evaluating new wheat varieties for commercial potential.”

“Canada registers wheat classes according to strict rules,” Mr. Walker explained. “In the US, we give the producer choices.”

The result is much greater variety. The council, its technical boards and its cooperators all collaborate. “This is the mechanism for feedback, both positive and negative, on how trends are coming,” Mr. Green said.

The council tries to draw together the various parts of the wheat foods industry. “The wheat breeders are not too bashful about describing their samples!” Mr. Walker observed. “They are proud of their work and should be. They are interested in meeting the needs of millers and bakers, but their front line customers are the producers, the farmers, and that means a competitive yield. The council is here to keep communications flowing with the end users — the millers and the bakers.”


The time it takes to develop a new wheat variety from the first cross into commercial production can consume a decade or more. New technologies adopted from the biosciences involving marker genes and intragenic splicing can speed up cycle times for conventional breeding.

Describing traditional breeding, Mr. Handcock said that by about year No. 8 in a variety development effort, breeders will have three or four bushels of seed to spare. Beforehand, breeders do their own testing at the micro level. Then WQC enters the picture. To standardize results, each new variety is milled at one location. For example, Kansas State University (KSU) mills all the hard winter wheat samples. These flours go to the council’s 15 cooperators, to bake labs at millers, bakeries, pasta manufacturers and the programs at USDA wheat quality laboratories. Each site gets roughly 4 kg per variety to make into pup and 1-lb loaves.

AIB International, Manhattan, KS, is one such cooperator. Theresa Sutton, AIB’s supervisor of experimental baking, described the process her team uses. AIB’s wheat samples first go to the USDA ARS Center for Grain and Animal Health Research lab, also at Manhattan. There, the wheat is milled, and supervising research chemist Brad Seabourn and food technologist Margo Caley run tests for moisture, protein, ash, Farinograph and Falling Number, among others. The small size of the samples, generally enough to bake three or four 1-lb loaves, means careful conservation of materials.

“We take those numbers and mock up a Farinograph test to find out where absorption falls,” Ms. Sutton explained. Those results are compared with a “normal” Farinograph using flour and water only. The team compares measurements and prepares a dummy dough to test the actual flour sample, overrunning it to breakdown. All this leads up to testing of the new flour in optimized 524-g (dough weight) loaves through mixing, proofing and baking. The results are graded according to the WQC scoring form, which ranks grain, texture, crumb color, cell shape and other characteristics on a scale of one to six.

“After that optimized bake, we look at the numbers and determine overall quality,” Ms. Sutton said.

She prefers to blind test the samples. “I don’t want to bias the results by knowing whether we’re testing a check [control] or an actual new cultivar,” Ms. Sutton explained. The control flour is usually the variety most widely planted. Last year, AIB tested for Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas wheats. Each state submits its own check.

The samples come in around Thanksgiving, and AIB starts baking in the first part of December. All cooperators report their results at WQC’s annual meeting, next scheduled for Feb, 16-17, 2011, at Kansas City, MO. Results, available only to WQC members, are published online. The group’s Web site,, offers a sample page showing the type of information reported.

“In February, we all come together to go over what we liked or didn’t like about each new wheat submitted,” Mr. Handcock said. “Then the breeder decides whether to release that variety.” University wheat breeding programs and state wheat commissions also advise the breeder about these decisions. The new seed goes first to certified seed growers to increase the amount available. Several universities are also involved in these efforts, he explained.

“It takes about three years before a new variety can grow on many acres and at least five years before it grows on a significant number of acres,” Mr. Handcock said.

Presently, no bakers are on the list of cooperators, but Mr. Wands would like that to change. “I want to see more thorough evaluation of the different varieties and to get bakers more involved in evaluation of the new varieties,” he said.

Ms. Cogswell confirmed that several major bakeries tested samples in the past. In her experience, 1-lb loaves provided a better test of a new variety than pup loaves.

Current efforts at crop improvement have yielded positive results, but much progress remains. “I definitely see improvement in wheat, particularly in the mainstream for high-speed processes,” Mr. Walker said. “There are things we want but don’t yet have. For example, bakers want more absorption. And they want wheat flours that will meet the demands of high-speed processing.”

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