Growing the right grain

RESEARCHERS, WHEAT BREEDERS AND PROCESSORS HAVE TEAMED UP TO FIND A WAY TO MAKE WHOLE WHEAT MORE APPEALING TO CUSTOMERS

healthy and whole wheat are two terms often used interchangeably with consumers these days. The trend to eat whole grains because it’s healthier is popular, but consumers are resisting whole wheat products and processers want to know why. To answer that question, processors and end users of Ontario wheat have teamed up with researchers and breeders. This unique collaboration will determine how to make whole wheat products more acceptable to consumers while making sure Ontario wheat farmers have the opportunity to produce the right wheat varieties for the marketplace.

overcoming consumer resistance
Processors and end users like Kraft and Kelloggs are buyers of Ontario wheat and are incorporating the whole wheat trend into many of their products. However, while consumers like the health  attributes associated with eating whole grains, they don’t like the change in taste or darker appearance that is characteristic of whole wheat products. “A decade ago whole grain products tasted like cardboard,” says Koushik Seetharaman, associate professor and cereals chair, Department of Food Science with the University of Guelph. He believes that the negative consumer perception of whole wheat hasn’t changed. 

Seetharaman views himself as the bridge point between the breeder and processors and one of his projects in this collaboration is to determine why consumers are resisting whole grain products through sensory research.

Consumers are right, there is a difference in whole grain products, what they don’t know is the difference could be as simple as red and white wheat. White wheat can deliver what consumers want; the health attributes of whole wheat without the recognizable brown colour and taste difference. So why aren’t processors only using white wheat in their products? The problem is, there isn’t enough white wheat and farmers are hesitant to grow it.

novel solutions
This hesitation at the farm level is well founded. Farmers know that white wheat is prone to Fusarium and sprouting. That’s why Seetharaman is relying on Henry Olechowski, cereals research and development leader with Hyland Seeds, a division of Dow AgroSciences Canada. Olechowski’s team at Hyland is developing a lighter shade of red wheat that has the more favourable production qualities that growers desire and contains the white wheat attributes consumers want while still delivering the nutritional qualities of whole wheat.

Hyland is breeding soft red and white winter wheat to develop a lighter shade of red wheat. The seed coat of red wheat, or the bran, makes the brown colour associated with whole wheat and according to Olechowski, studies have suggested that bran colour is associated with bitterness. In efforts to lighten and control the seed coat colour, Olechowski’s team at Hyland is creating one, two, and three gene red wheat varieties. These new wheat varieties are provided to Seetharaman for analysis to determine if red wheat can be used interchangeably with white wheat for specific purposes.

As part of the collaboration of end users, researchers and breeders, Seetharaman is working with Olechowski’s team to  identify the sources of undesirable attributes associated with whole wheat. Once this chemistry of flavour is identified he can determine if a process modification could alleviate the undesirable attributes or if they must rely on breeding of new wheat varieties to provide the desirable outcome of making whole wheat more appealing to consumers. Seetharaman is also taking his research one step further and is developing a profile of Ontario wheat – analyzing the health attributes such as fibre, antioxidants and nutritional value – to determine if wheat has regional differences.

a better whole wheat product
Hyland’s wheat research centres on soft wheat for production in Eastern Canada and is focusing on breeding wheat genetics to produce the highest yielding, most suitable variety for farmers. The objective of Olechowski’s team is to take Hyland’s wheat breeding research and identify the most preferred attributes for processing whole wheat products. “We are excited about this project,” says Olechowski. “We are lucky to live in an area where farmers receive input from the processing industry and give us a chance to help everyone produce the best of what they grow or make.” The Hyland team has been involved in collaborative research  for many years and says this project started with a simple conversation that has now resulted in breeding new wheat varieties, consumer research and an industry team dedicated to developing and producing wheat and processed wheat products for consumers.

As consumers turn to more whole wheat products, processors want to make sure they aren’t turned off. Research and breeding will help end users determine if new varieties or manufacturing processes will make the taste and appearance of whole wheat more acceptable to consumers. And, through this unique collaboration, the whole wheat revolution trickles down to farmers, because together everyone is working to make sure Ontario’s wheat farmers are growing the most suitable wheat varieties for the market.

Funding for this project has been provided in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program (CAAP). In Ontario, this program is delivered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council. An additional portion of the funding for this project has been provided by Grain Farmers of Ontario. •