The search for better bread: Baking methods and wheat breeding may hold key for wheat industry
The University of Minnesota has been researching the effects of dough fermentation and wheat variety in creating bread that is easier to digest.
Why are some people who have trouble digesting wheat products able to eat sourdough bread?
Or why when some of those people travel to Europe or Asia are they able to eat products made from wheat and other grains without a problem?
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For clues, University of Minnesota researchers are studying the fermentation of sourdough bread and the wheat varieties used in making dough in hopes of making a better bread.
The research was inspired in part by Brian LaPlante of Crookston, who grew up on a farm in the heart of the spring wheat growing region in northwest Minnesota. He and his wife started making sourdough bread for their son, who as a young boy was having health issues they felt were diet-related.
By using sourdough and other recipes that relied on a long fermentation process, their son dropped some unneeded weight — 75 pounds — and his health improved.
What I really get excited about is when people will say, ‘you know, I couldn't eat any other kind of bread.' The best news I can hear is when people who couldn't eat bread before can now eat this bread.
LaPlante even started a business called Back When Foods, which has developed recipes relying on longer fermentation to make “slow food” that he says is healthier.
Their son does not have celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population, making people gluten intolerant. But he is among the population that is wheat sensitive.
When eating wheat, some people may have a lot of gas and feel bloated and irritated, “similar to celiac disease, so people just don't want to eat wheat,” said George Annor, a professor of cereal chemistry and technology at the University of Minnesota.
The problem, Annor says, are FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) and ATIs (amylase/trypsin-inhibitors), which had been identified in wheat as causing digestive problems.
While there has been anecdotal evidence and some research on the topic, Minnesota researchers tried to quantify the benefits of bread fermentation.
LaPlante helped in the research by handling the fermentation of different dough samples for different lengths of time — four, eight and 12 hours — and sent the samples to Annor to analyze.
In a research paper published in November, the University of Minnesota showed that long fermentation periods — 12 hours — can dramatically reduce the FODMAPs and ATIs in sourdough.
“There is evidence to document that sourdough processing or fermentation in general is able to reduce these FODMAPs and ATIs,” Annor said.
But another question the university is asking is: Could the wheat varieties used to make the flour and dough have an effect on digestibility? It is an important question for wheat growers and the milling and baking industry.
“So kind of the motivation for me as a wheat breeder to get involved in this research is kind of the wheat sensitivity issue,” said James Anderson, University of Minnesota wheat breeder.
Anderson says he believes people who say they feel better after cutting wheat and gluten out of their diet, but is gluten really the issue?
“There's got to be something else,” Anderson said.
“So we wanted to ask a couple of questions. One is, is there variability among wheat varieties for FODMAPs and ATIs, something that we could exploit in breeding?
“And the second question that I had was, has breeding over the last, say, 100 years increased levels of these (FODMAPs and ATIs)? Because wheat sensitivity seems to be getting worse.”
So the University of Minnesota grew samples of about 200 different varieties both at Crookston in the northwest and in St. Paul.
On the second question, researchers plotted out FODMAP and ATI levels with the year the wheat variety was released.
“We didn’t really see any change,” Anderson said. “So that was kind of a relief for me because that kind of told me at least breeding per se probably wasn't to blame for this,” Anderson said.
On the first question, researchers did find some variability in the levels of FODMAPs and ATIs, which Anderson says suggest that wheat breeding can contribute to reducing this problem.
But not all the news is great.
“Unfortunately, FODMAPs and ATIs are not real easy or cheap to screen for,” Anderson said.
While researchers were able to identify some wheat varieties that should be easier to digest than others, Annor said there were no clear genetic markers.
Some of those varieties were ancient grains such as Einkorn and Emmer that are forefathers of modern wheat. Also studied were more modern varieties, such as the popular Linkert.
The University of Minnesota will soon be publishing a paper on that part of the research.
LaPlante sees two big takeaways:
One is to be able to start breeding wheat with low FODMAPs and ATIs. “So that even commercial operations that do not do fermentation can still bring to the consumer something that is very low in reactivity,” LaPlante said.
But while being able to breed wheat for those factors will help, he said it is how the bread is made that is key.
“What's happened over time is that food is made faster and faster and faster and faster,” said LaPlante, an advocate for what he calls the slow food movement. “My hypothesis on all this is that 120 years ago, almost everyone did sourdough. They did it at home. It was just a common fact of life.”
But he says faster made it harder for our bodies to digest.
Annor agrees that making sourdough or other slow-rising breads can help those who are wheat sensitive. But the modern milling and baking industry relies on the sped up processes, not only for bread, but in things such as a frozen pizza crust and other convenience foods.
So the goal would be to breed wheat with better digestibility so the food industry doesn’t have to slow down.
“We want them to keep those processes as much as they can,” Annor said.
Some of the wheat varieties that are low in FODMAPs and ATIs are some of the ancient grains, but some more modern varieties showed potential for low reactivity, too
Any new variety also needs to try to retain the qualities that modern wheat breeding has brought out in varieties developed over the last 50 years, such as high yield, high protein, disease resistance and stalk strength.
And wheat breeding takes time.
Prabin Bajgain, who is part of the University of Minnesota research team, explains that even just by crossing two of the best wheat varieties, it would take seven to nine years to release the progeny coming from that cross as the next wheat variety.
“So that's assuming you're, you're crossing the absolute best to the absolute best,” he said.
It would take even longer if you are trying to bring back some desirable traits from some of the “ancient” strains.
“It gets a little complicated when you bring in these sort of more non-traditional — even kind of wild species — in because you'd have to then work a little harder to throw out all the traits that you are not after,” Bajgain said.
There also needs to be more research to add to what the University of Minnesota has found. Its research only used varieties of spring wheat. The university is looking at partnering with other universities or other partners in other regions to broaden the research to winter wheat.
“The outcome is also quite interesting in the sense that, you know, it affects people's choices of what kind of food products they want to buy off the shelves,” Bajgain said. “Maybe in eight to 10 years, the FODMAP study we did right now will affect the future varieties.”
For now, some people may want to try more slow foods, like sourdough.
Loni Larson of Fargo, North Dakota, fell in love with baking sourdough and has turned it into a side business, Sour House Breads, selling at farmers markets and filling orders from her home.
“What I really get excited about is when people will say, ‘you know, I couldn't eat any other kind of bread,’” Larson said. “The best news I can hear is when people who couldn't eat bread before can now eat this bread.”
While the Minnesota studies have been funded by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, he says the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to help further the research.
“We need the Department of Ag to realize wheat is not as dominant as it used to be, but it's really important in the diet, and we have to find out what's going on,” LaPlante said.