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Connecting the wheat field to the table

By Jennifer M. Latzke

Since the time man first combined water, flour and heat and created bread, wheat has become known as the staff of life. It's difficult to improve on a classic.

But Brian Strouts, head of Research and Technical Assistance at the American Institute of Baking, is sure going to try.

Strouts, a research baker by trade, coordinates many lines of research and development at AIB headquarters in Manhattan, Kan.

"We're really trying to do two things," Strouts said. "First, we conduct basic research trying to find new solutions to old questions. Something that would use new technology or even old technology to answer a problem." Second, he added, is that his group looks at the whole wheat chain, from the wheat standing in the field to the bread coming out of the ovens at major bakeries, and at how to continue to increase demand for wheat products.

Strouts' group at AIB conducts a variety of analytical services and applied research for wheat and wheat products. In their labs they may analyze flour quality from bakers who send in samples one day and the next be working with bakers to research new ingredients for use in new bakery products.

Tomorrow's promise

Perhaps the most exciting "blue sky" research the group is conducting, Strouts said, is a project co-funded by Kansas Wheat and Plains Grains, Inc., that aims to create an accurate measurement for analyzing protein quality that can be conducted either in the field or at the elevator.

For years the milling and baking industry has purchased wheat, using protein content as a major component of the contracts, Strouts explained. But that never quite addressed the quality question--how would the protein quality in that batch of wheat flour perform in a bakery?

Strouts said AIB's research teams are looking at Near-Infrared instruments, which are commonly used to measure quantity of protein and other components in flour, as one technology that can be adapted for a new use.

"We're in the process of developing a calibration that looks at the quality of protein in the wheat and the loaf it makes," he said. "There's strong potential there. If we can get this research figured out, we could use existing equipment found in many elevators, or develop an instrument we could put on board a combine or a mobile measurement tool that would measure the quality of protein found in wheat kernels in the field or the elevator. Then, it could be determined if it would make a better hamburger bun or sliced bread, or whether it would be better to ship for noodles.

"There could be tremendous value in this and the impact would cut across the whole chain," Strouts said. "Farmers could be paid a premium for protein identified in the field. Millers could have quality wheat segregated so that they wouldn't have to run a zillion tests looking at their sources of flour and how to blend it for their needs. They could segregate wheat for priority use.

"Ultimately bakers can deal with any quality, but they prefer consistency because it helps optimize the process and reduces waste and increases efficiency," Strouts said. "Technology like this starts to fill those needs."

However, Strouts cautioned the technology is a long way from reality. One of the hurdles they need to overcome in this development stage is in accounting for natural variations in wheat production when finding a mathematical equation. Those variations include soil quality, weather and rainfall, wheat variety selection and other production inputs, he added. The team's been sampling for several years trying to build a database of information.

Strouts said, "We're building our data chain from collecting samples of wheat in fields with identifiable growing conditions as identified by the state weather statistics office." They also gather information from samples collected at the mill and bakery from flour and bread made from those wheat samples.

"We need a tremendous amount of data collected and the more variety we see in samples, the better it is for us," he said. "It builds the strength of the model."

Working with what you have

If bakeries have the goals of efficiency and consistency, the one variable that they can't control so much is the quality of their main ingredient--flour. And that ties back to the mills and the wheat producers. For years the brass ring of wheat breeding has been a combination of wheat yield to keep producers happy and wheat quality to keep bakers happy, Strouts explained.

"As a producer region we need to stay focused on our protein quality and put work into better defining that in test methods and ways to identify that for end users," he said. He explained that AIB regularly takes samples of wheat from new varieties from seed companies, mills them into flour and bakes those flours into white breads. AIB then gives quality assessments at the Wheat Quality Council's meeting in February each year. He said he's seen a disturbing trend in reduced quality in new varieties, and there has to be a balance between breeding for quality and for yield.

"If the quality of protein starts to diminish, I know from a contact who's a large wholesale baker that it makes life harder for them," Strouts said. "We understand as bakers there's a trade-off and there's pressure on breeders and seed companies to try to get wheat producing high bushels of yield, or drought resistance." But that comes at the expense of quality, and that translates into reduced efficiencies at the bakery level.

If flour consistency changes, Strouts explained, even less than 2 percent, that could be more than the baker's profit margin could cover and would result in a realigned baking process in high-speed bakeries.

This year may be challenging for wheat producers across the High Plains faced with weather issues, and mills and bakeries are preparing for that, Strouts said. He added that there are many bakers who go on the Wheat Quality Council Tour and have real concerns about not only the quality but also the quantity of wheat that will be harvested this year. It may put stress on the system, and bakers may not like it but they have ways to work around the challenge, Strouts said.

Ingredient additives can make up for reduced protein to an extent, Strouts explained, but they come at a high cost that reduces the bottom line.

The need for an accurate protein quality measurement method is why Strouts' team is looking to help both farmers and end users.

"If bakers had their way, they really wish they could get dedicated supplies of production from a region or area that they knew would be exactly suited for the finished product they make," Strouts said. "It's a little like designer wheat in that respect."

He predicts the next big bump in efficiency at large bakeries will be sourcing specialty wheats with the quality attributes tailored to bakers.

Trends in the aisle

Strouts' group's research also focuses on trends in the baking industry and consumer demand.

Consumers, Strouts said, seem to have a growing interest in nutrition. The trend for whole grains in bakery products is strong and growing since recently revised dietary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to recognize the need for whole grains in a healthy diet.

"Support from USDA rings strong with consumers," Strouts said.

As for products on the marketplace that use wheat flour, he said there have been improvements to the traditional volume seller of pan-sliced white bread in a bag, as well as introductions of new breads and bakery products that offer convenience to consumers.

"Pan-sliced white bread is still a strong volume seller for bakers," he said. "Bakers still try to maintain their efficiencies there because the profit margin is low. They have to manage their margins by watching their material costs and controlling variations so they can keep production up."

At a recent bakery marketing convention, Strouts said new specialty items like "deli flats"--a hamburger bun that looks flatter and is marketed for portion-conscientious consumers--have brought convenience to the diet dilemma in the aisle.

Farmers and consumers may be familiar with in-store bakeries, but they may not be aware that most of the larger chains have moved to prepared mixes and frozen doughs for product that employees essentially just brown and serve, Strouts said.

"That's how stores continue to offer quality and efficiency--because they may have commissary bakeries that bake at high speeds with high output numbers and then send to stores for them to finish off," he said.

Even the shelf life of baked goods has been extended in the 30 years Strouts has been in the industry.

"When I first started you could get three to five days of shelf life in the store--that's shelf-stable at ambient temperatures," he said. "Today, enzyme technology has helped us maintain softness and the quality and freshness of bread. Shelf life's been extended to 10 to 14 days and sometimes 20 days. Now you don't have to be pulling product out of the store so often, shelves stay full and the product stays fresh longer once it's taken home by the consumer." Those enzymes, which come from other cereals, are some of the ingredients his teams are tasked with researching, he added.

Strouts said AIB is aiming its research at helping everyone in the wheat supply chain.

"We want to continue demand for bakery products and breads," Strouts said. "That's in the farmers' best interests as well."

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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