A Glimpse Into the Promising Future of Wheat

CC BY 2.0. jypsygen

One food scientist is on a mission to save the world's most important food and bring back the delicious, nutritious, wholesome wheats of the past that we've lost to industrial production.

It has become easy to source locally grown meat, vegetables, fruits and, to some extent, dairy. But when it comes to wheat, it is a much bigger challenge. Wheat production has evolved from local, regional growth along the coasts of the continent in the 18th and 19th centuries, to heavily centralized production in the Midwest. Almost all of the wheat we consume comes from huge mono-crop farms and is processed by only 200 mills in the United States – a drastic drop from the 23,000 mills that once serviced the country in the mid-1800s.

Wheat has lost the nutritional value it once had. Stores are filled with limp, preservative-soaked, plastic-wrapped loaves of sandwich bread made from anonymous chalk-white flour. They are a far cry from the crusty, moist, flavorful, and nutritious boules of sourdough that they could be. Is it any wonder that so many people complain of digestive problems whenever they eat wheat?

Only 6 percent of the wheat sold in the U.S. is whole-wheat, and most of that is roller-milled flour with the bran and germ added back in. While the FDA states that whole-wheat flour must contain native proportions of germ, bran, and endosperm, there is no further verification of products’ composition before they are sold.

Stephen Jones, director the Bread Lab in Mount Vernon, Washington, is on a mission to change this. He believes that wheat, like wine grapes, has “terroir.” This is the idea that a combination of factors, including soil, climate and sunlight, can give wine – or, in this case, wheat – a distinctive regional flavor. Jones wants Americans to return to a healthier, more varied and robust, local version of wheat that tastes unique depending on where you are.

The Bread Lab is described by the New York Times as the “headquarters for Jones’ project to reinvent the most important food in history.” There, he grows varieties of wheat that are suited to Washington’s cool, wet climate; measures and assesses the quality of the flour made from the wheat in his quest to create “entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts”; and bakes loaves that impress the likes of Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery and restaurateur Dan Barber.

This isn’t a radical notion; it is more of a return to the past when home bakers had a personal relationship with the wheat they used. Culinary historian Karen Hess explains, ‘‘Even if you yourself did not grow wheat, you knew that what you bought was local wheat, and you knew its baking characteristics.’

I can relate to that. In recent years, I’ve begun baking with local organic wheat, and it’s an entirely different experience from the store-bought flours I used to buy. None of the measurements or weights line up, and I’ve noticed mostly that the dough requires much less water, since there’s so much moisture in the flour to begin with. It doesn’t stay fresh for as long, but makes fabulous loaves that get gobbled up by my family in no time.

Jones has been highly successful with his breeding program so far. It has been very well received by local farmers and bakers, and has even drawn attention from restaurant chain Chipotle, which wants to partner with him to make tortillas. He can scarcely keep up with demand. According to the New York Times:

“So far the Mount Vernon breeders have produced wheat with higher than typical levels of iron and other micronutrients; grains that are strikingly blue, purple and black; and wheats that imbue bread with maltiness, spice, caramel — a whole palette of flavors most people would never expect. ‘Much as grapes acquire a sense of place, we are finding so does wheat,’ Jones says.”

It is wonderful to know that regional wheat is gaining a foothold in a market long dominated by big mono-crop producers. It is yet another example of the seismic shift occurring across North America in the way people want to eat. Big Ag just doesn’t do it for us anymore; we want real and recognizable food, regional and seasonal food, food that nourishes our bodies rather than fills us up.