Wheat Tastes, Once Local, Are Becoming Global
Bread is the most consumed food on the planet. Every day a new variety appears on supermarket shelves. Wikipedia lists 176 bread varieties — from aish merahrah flatbread in Egypt to Zwieback sweetened bread in Germany. No one knows the total number of bread types. Germany, for instance, produces more than 600.
It used to be that the bread you consumed was determined by where you lived. Regional tastes were based on the types of flour available. Wheat- or rye-based flours served as the main ingredients for breads in much of North America, Europe, North Africa, and western and south Asia; rice in East Asia; and corn in Latin America.
Taste is local, Science is global
But while the taste for bread is largely local, research and development of new wheat varieties has become global, paralleling changes in the world’s economy. As people become more mobile, the types of bread we consume are becoming become more global — though fortunately, not at the expense of tradition — you can still enjoy your local favorite bread plus, say, semolina flour in your pizza dough.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Archeologists believe that humans first began to bake bread from wild grains some 30,000 years ago. The leap from novel food to staff of life has been lost to history, but no one can deny that bread is ingrained in our cultures and culinary traditions. The question of what bread to eat was once simple, if culturally important. As Senay Simsek, an associate professor of plant sciences at North Dakota State University in Fargo, says, “It’s mostly been what’s available.”
Three innovations led to the modern portable loaf we consume today: leavening with ingredients such as yeast to make bread rise and fluffy; refined flour, through milling to create flour without the outer bran and germ layer that can spoil relatively quickly; and mechanized slicing, a 20th century invention by an American jeweler.
“Wheat yields and flour production have become vastly more efficient over the past 100 years, helping fuel the bread bounty we enjoy today. Global research supported by farmers, industry, government and academia continue to create high-yield varieties which are locally adapted,” says David Miller, Research Director, wheat breeding at DuPont Pioneer. “At DuPont Pioneer, for instance, we develop soft winter wheat varieties with improved yield potential, differing time to maturity and winter hardiness — as well as resistance to lodging (bending), diseases and insects.”
Improving taste through science
Researchers are working on developing wheat strains that map to an increasingly sophisticated — and health conscious — palate. The artisan bread movement requires new types of flour, often re-introducing nutritious bran and wheat germ into breads. “I would like to see more fiber in wheat so people can be healthier,” says University of California, Davis, plant geneticist and biologist Jorge Dubcovsky.
Dubcovsky highlights several global research initiatives: greater genetic resistance to disease; more nitrogen absorption; subtle changes in wheat peptide chemistry that can slow the development of gluten intolerance; and altering white fibers in the grain to bolster the nutritional value of white bread.
These innovations will make wheat products even more desirable — and global. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization pegs worldwide wheat production in 2015/2016 at 734 million metric tons, up nearly 12% over four years.
Food tastes are changing. In East Asian countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand wheat imports or production are booming. The palate for wheat-based starch now competes with rice.
And where food tastes aren’t changing, they’re becoming more universal. Take the case of pizza, which uses high-protein wheat that may be grown locally or, in the case of pizza-friendly Durum wheat, imported from North Dakota.
“Pizza is everywhere now,” says North Dakota State’s Simsek, “As we become more global, we have access to more types of food.”