There is a gluten crisis hanging over the baking industry as several factors converge in a slow and insidious manner, making it difficult to clearly identify.

Wheat quality is one factor. The protein quality and quantity in wheat has been dropping for the past 40 years. Average hard red winter wheat patent flour from Nebraska 40 years ago had 12% protein, 60% absorption, 0.45% ash and a farinographic mixing stability of 25 minutes. Today, we are lucky to get 10.5% protein, 58% absorption, 0.6% ash and a farinographic mixing stability of 8 minutes. The change has happened so slowly that many bakers haven’t noticed. But those numbers should be a call to arms.

Bakers have adjusted by reducing the absorption of their doughs and adding increasing amounts of gluten, emulsifiers and enzymes to maintain finished product quality. This came at a cost. Bakers didn’t use enzymes 40 years ago, and the level of gluten and emulsifiers back then was significantly lower. The pressure for clean labels is now driving bakers to remove emulsifiers, which will put more emphasis on wheat quality and drive up gluten usage even further.

The industry also has allowed the ash content of patent flour to creep up over the years. Ash is the combination of bran and aleurone layers from the wheat kernel ground up finely. These fine particles of bran and aleurone absorb water in the dough; it looks like absorption, but since ash produces no strength in the dough, the absorption is false. It takes energy to grind the wheat fine enough to allow the inclusion of bran and aleurone particles, which increases damage to the starch granules in the flour. Damaged starch granules absorb water in the dough, while undamaged granules absorb almost no water. What’s left looks like absorption, but it produces no dough strength.

The result is that we are using more gluten today, and even using it in products where it wasn’t needed before. For example, almost all of today’s white bread contains gluten. Vital wheat gluten is a byproduct of the manufacture of wheat starch, tying the availability of gluten to that demand. In the United States, vital wheat gluten is mostly imported from areas with an abundance of wheat or that which is not useful for baking bread. Adding gluten is costly, but it is also risky. Some of us remember the vital wheat gluten shortage that occurred in the late 1980s, when bakers had to scramble to find new sources of gluten.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to the farmer and the baker. Farmers currently are motivated by yield because they generally do not get paid for producing higher quality wheat. The result is that they grow wheat on marginal land or as a rotation crop. They do not apply fertilizer or other inputs that could improve crop quality. We need a mechanism to drive the production of higher quality wheat. Andrew Hoelscher, founder of Farm Strategy and president of Farm Strategy Consultants, is developing a program that provides incentives to farmers based on the quality of the wheat they deliver. This type of program could be the game changer. The industry needs a vision to inspire a wheat crop that farmers want to grow. And avert a crisis.