Wheat gets an image makeover

Pierre Hucl of the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre examines a durum wheat research project Jan. 18.  |  William DeKay photo

Wheat has become a supporting actor on the Prairies, playing second fiddle to the star of the show, canola.

The crop’s status dimmed because demand growth for the staple has faded.

Global oilseed demand soars because vegetable oil goes into almost all processed food and meal feeds the globe’s fast growing livestock herds, while corn rides the biofuel wave.

However, wheat struggles along, limited mostly to bread, bakery and pasta demand tied to population growth.

Researchers think the best hope for expanded wheat consumption isn’t in the factory or gas tank, but right where it has always been — on the dinner plate. What’s needed is a rebranding, or re-emphasis, on the grain’s healthful qualities, and perhaps plant breeding to make it a super food.

The stakes in finding new demand are high.

Without it, consumption growth can be easily met by rising production in the Black Sea region.

In the last five years, global soybean demand has risen at a compound annual growth rate of 4.68 percent, corn is up 3.15 percent and wheat straggles along at 1.35 percent.

However, in the same period, world wheat production’s compound annual growth has been 2.71 percent.

The imbalance of production and use caused a glut, with global stockpiles now at record levels.

Low prices might reduce wheat acres this year and possibly next, but that’s likely not enough to rebalance supply and demand.

Production in the Black Sea region of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan has exploded in the last decade. Russian wheat exports topped the United States in 2015-16, and it will likely be the world’s largest wheat exporter this crop year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a recent forecast.

“Russia will be among the top exporters for a long time, especially given the potential advances in productivity there,” Tom Basnett, an Australian commodity consultant, told Bloomberg last fall.

Ukrainian production may also climb. The government wants to double the country’s grain harvest by 2020.

Andrew Sowell, USDA global wheat analyst, said Ukraine is unlikely to reach that target, but its cereal output will probably rise with improved farming technologies.

“Added production in Russia and Ukraine could certainly have an impact on the global supply-demand balance,” Sowell said.

“Over the past decade, combined exports for those two producers have roughly tripled. Since both countries are major exporters … further growth in production would likely have a major impact on (wheat supply).”

Sluggish world demand and soaring Black Sea exports are worrisome for Canadian growers.

Canada is a major player in the global wheat trade, but farmer enthusiasm for the cereal is fading, partly because of weak profitability.

Saskatchewan Agriculture’s crop planning guide for the dark brown soil zone ranks spring wheat’s return over variable expenses down at 12 on a list of list of 16 crops.

Unless there are successive years with weather wrecks, demand growth increases will be needed to cut oversupply and lift prices. Otherwise, wheat will be mired in its secondary role on the Prairies as a rotation crop with canola.

Neil Doty, a grain industry consultant and former wheat scientist at North Dakota State University, said one segment of the population is the likeliest source of new demand for wheat: health-conscious consumers.

“What the (public) wants to know is … that what they’re consuming has high levels of something,” said Doty, who wrote a 2012 report on value added and alternative uses of wheat for Minnesota farm groups.

“The consuming public is moving much more in the direction of nutrient dense foods, versus just tasting good.”

Can wheat become a ‘healthy’ food?

In his report, Doty considered a long list of possibilities for new and enhanced uses of wheat:

  • biodegradable plastics from wheat starch
  • meat substitutes from wheat
  • wheat beer
  • composite materials from wheat straw
  • wheat conversion to ethanol
  • wheat based cat litter
  • waxy wheat, which are varieties with higher levels of starch in the form of amylopectin rather than amylose

He concluded that most of those uses offer limited or little promise.

The real opportunity is promoting the health benefits of wheat and improving the crop’s nutritional characteristics.

“Three things (protein, fibre and antioxidants) have emerged in nutrition awareness in the North American public and also worldwide,” Doty said.

“(They) appear to be big drivers in the food industry right now. Fortunately (for) both wheat and barley, they’re excellent sources of all three.”

Doty is especially excited about antioxidants: molecules that prevent cellular damage and thwart diseases such as cancer.

“(Farmers) are growing wheat varieties that are antioxidant powerhouses,” he said in the report.

“Most consumers are unaware of the tremendous nutritional benefits obtained by consuming whole wheat, wheat bran, wheat germ, and aleurone flour products.”

To capitalize on the opportunity, the wheat industry needs to hype the value of antioxidants in grains, Doty said. As well, research is needed to develop varieties with consistent levels of antioxidants.

Another promising opportunity is aleurone flour. The aleurone layer lies between the bran layer and the endosperm of wheat kernels.

Ardent Mills, maker of Robin Hood flour, produces aleuronic flour and promotes it as a nutrient-rich ingredient for other food.

“Nutrition scientists have confirmed that isolated aleurone is preferable to full bran because it contains higher levels of almost all the whole wheat nutrients,” such as vitamin B6, vitamin E, potassium, iron, calcium and zinc, Ardent Mills says on its website.

Nancy Ames, an Agriculture Canada research scientist who specializes in the functional and healthy properties of cereal grains, said the European Food Safety Authority has developed a health claim for aleurone flour. A similar claim in North America could push demand significantly higher.

Doty said Ardent Mills is one of many companies that can produce healthy food from wheat, but the firms haven’t touted the products to food companies or consumers.

Popular spring wheat varieties are already full of nutrients, but they can be improved.

Plant breeders could modify the starch to increase fibre content, or develop starch that digests at a slower rate in the small intestine, Ames said.

However, someone has to fund research into wheat with more antioxidants, more vitamins and healthier starch.

“If you really want to have a boom in the (wheat) marketplace, you need to look at varieties that eliminate coronary heart disease and solve male pattern baldness,” said Paul Hetherington, president of the Baking Association of Canada.

Hetherington was joking, but to make a point.

Health and wellness is a driving force in the food industry and farmers cannot ignore the trend.

A new and improved “super wheat,” chock full of fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, might be needed to arouse public interest.

“To get consumers excited you have to look beyond the yield aspect of your (wheat) varieties,” he said.

“Can we increase the nutrition value in our grains? Subsequently, how do we take that to market?”

Others aren’t convinced that new and healthier varieties are the answer because the public is already bombarded with health claims for cereal crops and oilseeds, such as flax, oats and barley.

Rex Newkirk, formerly vice-president of research and innovation with the Canadian International Grains Institute and now a University of Saskatchewan associate professor, said marketing wheat as a traditional food might have more impact than yet another health claim.

“The bread that your mother made … I think that has more potential than selling on the fancy antioxidant stuff.”

Hetherington said it’s tough for wheat to stand out in the extremely competitive food market because it isn’t shiny or new.

Koji, a fermented rice and a trendy food, is more intriguing than a loaf of bread.

“Baking happens to be a 30,000 year old profession,” he said.

“Bread is bread.”

Whole grains & more whole grains

The gluten-free movement, which may have hit its peak around 2014, definitely cut into demand for bread, bagels and other baked goods.

Wheat advocates fought back with initiatives such as the Healthy Grains Institute and the Whole Grains Council to counter the “gluten is poison” rhetoric.

The message likely had an impact, but many consumers aren’t budging from white bread.

“If you look at sales of pantry breads … the largest category of breads, the percentage of the market that’s whole grain really hasn’t changed in probably 10 years,” Hetherington said, adding that whole grain represents about 20 percent of the pantry bread market.

Ames said survey data shows that only 15 percent of people buy whole wheat bread.

“It’s really surprising to me,” she said. “There are (entire) conferences on whole grains.… Why can’t we get people to eat more?”

Hetherington said it’s pretty simple. Many people dislike the taste, and most consumers prefer Ritz crackers to Ryvita.

“I know medical people who refuse to eat whole grains…. They don’t like it.”

That may be correct, but industry forecasts show the market for whole grain food is expanding rapidly. According to Statistics MRC, a market research firm:

  • The global market for whole grain and high fibre food was $29.4 billion in 2015.
  • The market is expected to grow at 6.6 percent annually, reaching $46.2 billion in 2022.
  • Strong growth in baked goods in Asia may drive much of the growth.

Farmers in the northern U.S. Great Plains and Canadian Prairies are well positioned to satisfy that demand because they produce the best wheat in the world, Doty said.

The growth in whole grain consumption, combined with a new “healthy” reputation for wheat, should move the needle on global demand.

“They (wheat groups) have to keep hammering away at this until the message (sticks),” Doty said.

“I think eventually the consuming public (will) take that high quality wheat message into their thinking.”

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