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The Next Best Thing to Sliced Bread?

posted on August 25, 2006

Whether it's due to improper diet or lack of exercise -- Americans are getting fatter. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 30 percent of U.S. adults 20 years of age and older -- more than 60 million people -- are obese. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claims as many as 300,000 deaths per year may be attributable to obesity. Health advocates recommend eating whole grain products rather than refined grains to reduce risks of heart disease and other conditions. While adults seem to have embraced the suggestion, young people often are more reluctant to trade in their white bread for whole wheat. Increasingly though, food processors are using white whole wheat in their products. The trend is winning converts in the kitchen and the combine, who think it's the best thing since sliced bread. Nancy Crowfoot explains.

The Next Best Thing to Sliced Bread?

The labels are cropping up in the bread aisle ... on cereals ... pasta ... and crackers. The package may say "whole grain", but the bread isn't brown. It is "white whole wheat" -- first test-marketed by companies like Sara Lee … to win over the staunchest supporters of white bread.

The new version of white bread came out in mid-2005, not long after the federal government revealed its food pyramid nutritional guidelines recommending three servings of whole grain a day.

Don Brown, V.P. Sales of ConAgra Mills, ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Nebraska: "Whole grains have long been touted as very good for you but their products many people don't care for because of he taste and the bitter flavors. What we tried to accomplish was to take a whole grain product that appealed to a broader audience."

To obtain that appeal to a broader audience, food giant ConAgra looked for a different kind of wheat to make flour. Instead of the usual hard red winter wheat, which is processed, refined and may be bleached to look white … the company tested 60 varieties of white wheat over a period of 5 to 6 years.

Through its own patented milling process, the company arrived at 100 percent white whole wheat flour for use by commercial bakeries -- tested, of course, in ConAgra's own kitchens.

Matthew Burton, ConAgra Director of Culinary Innovations: "It's very comparable to maybe an all-purpose flour. You can use it in the same type of applications. The only thing when you use ultra grain in a high percentage, you'll notice you need to add more water to it."

Marketed as ultragrain flour, most companies are blending it with regular refined flour to meet their own baking requirements.

But meeting the needs of the baking industry is just half of the equation. ConAgra had to also find a wheat variety farmers would be willing do grow.

Don Brown, V.P. Sales of ConAgra Mills, ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Nebraska: "The combination of meeting the needs of the baker and meeting the needs of the farmer is something the milling industry has been challenged with forever. In this particular instance we looked at different kinds of agronomics. How do you grow the wheat?"

ConAgra settled on a Platt variety and contracts with 250 farmers to grow up to 45,000 acres of hard white winter most of which is under irrigation. The company pays a grower's premium of 10-cents per bushel plus a protein premium.

But the market opportunities for hard white winter wheat are not restricted to contracts or identity preserved grains. Cereal giant General Mills, for example, discontinued its short-lived contract program and now buys commodity white wheat from elevators like this in northwest Kansas.

Eric Sperber, CEO, Cornerstone Ag elevator, Colby, Kansas: "Really the only aggressive company along those lines has been General Mills of saying, you know, We want to get these acres out. What can we do? We handled about 1.3 million bushels of white wheat and that compared to red wheat, we handled about 12 million bushel of red. So, right around 10 percent of our handle last year was hard white wheat. It looks like it may be down this year, the acres were down."

The 2006 harvest in June, was down from previous years. USDA says production of hard white winter wheat fell by more than 5 million bushels from 2005—to just under 20 million bushels. Acreage planted has been falling, those in the wheat industry say, since the federal government's two-year, $20 (M) million dollar incentive package ended in 2005. Farmers no longer received a 20-cent per bushel premium ... and many stopped growing the crop.

Eric Sperber, CEO, Cornerstone Ag: "I think that's part of that growth process that we almost maybe went too quickly at the beginning. That we developed expectations and, you know, once you take something away then the reaction is, 'well, I'm not happy now'."

Blame wasn't placed just on the loss of a support program. Some farmers had problems with the agronomics in certain varieties of the white wheat they planted. Much of the 2004 crop was plagued by sprout damage, caused by excessive precipitation close to harvest.

Robert Schroeder, farmer, Levant, Kansas: "You know, two years ago we had the sprout problem here but a lot of people have forgot because we cut some red wheat that had more sprout damage in it than our white wheat did."

Robert Schroeder and his brother Leon, have experimented with several varieties of white wheat since 1999. And in 2001, they converted all their wheat acres from red wheat to white.

Robert Schroeder, farmer, Levant, Kansas: "You know, they've got a market for it but we've just got to grow the bushels to get to the market."

Schroeder says he plans to keep growing white wheat ... banking on a continued commercial interest in the commodity.

And so far, the commercial and retail interest is still high. Sara Lee has boasted initial sales of their Soft and Smooth whole grain white bread have outsold the competition. In the first six months on the market, the company said it sold more than 16 (M) million loaves -- totaling more than $30 (M) million dollars in sales.

Sara Lee TV commercial: "Say goodbye to white bread as you know it."

But while companies promote their products as "made with whole grain" -- most are made with a blend of whole wheat flour and refined flour.They are not 100% whole wheat -- which is what the government -- and private -- nutrition experts prefer.

Rocehelle Gilman, Nutritionist, HyVee, Inc.: "Ideally, what we want consumers and people to eat is the 100% whole wheat bread."

However, the experts say, a little whole wheat is better than none.

Rocehelle Gilman, Nutritionist, HyVee, Inc.: "They are getting the health benefits of having that added whole white wheat flour in it but they're also getting used to the taste. You know, I see eventually many of those consumers will start eating and enjoying whole wheat breads."

Getting a nation of white bread lovers used to the whole grain taste will take time, but Omaha-based ConAgra Foods says changing America's food habits on such a large scale is not without precedent. Don Brown compares the transition to the dairy industry's introduction of lower-fat milk products.

Don Brown, ConAgra Foods: "I grew up, drinking whole milk and I've moved from that to 2% to 1% to skim milk. I think you'll find the same thing going on with the consumption of wheat grains in the United States."

The transition continues … as ConAgra has been test-marketing a white whole wheat flour for the home baker.

If consumer acceptance of white whole wheat products continues to grow ... so grows the opportunity for farmers to raise a new crop.

For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture food news nutrition wheat