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By Amanda J. Spoo, USW Communications Specialist

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to travel abroad with some U.S. wheat farmers to learn more about the world wheat market and see how those markets use U.S. wheat. We visited many end-product manufacturers, and as we reviewed their various products, most of our conversations circled back to consumer demand. In the United States, the consumer’s relationship with food is becoming increasingly sophisticated — following new trends and seeking out convenience and information on where it came from. The fuel for this change comes from increasing disposable income, television networks dedicated to food and the growing number of online platforms like food blogs, Pinterest, etc. Although products and taste preferences vary from market to market, the demand for food that is high quality, creative and has a story, is universal.

Here in the United States, I recently had the chance to participate in an event that represents a potentially successful way for the global milling, food ingredient and wheat food industries to tell their stories to consumers. It was the National Festival of Breads, a biennial event held in Manhattan, KS, hosted by the Kansas Wheat Commission and sponsored by King Arthur Flour and Red Star Yeast to showcase bread, U.S. wheat and the art of baking. At the center of the festival on June 17 were eight people selected as finalists in a baking contest, the only U.S. amateur bread-baking competition in the United States. They prepared their original bread recipes live for festival visitors and were judged on creativity, healthfulness and taste to determine a grand prize winner. Judges selected the “Seeded Corn and Onion Bubble Loaf,” made by Ronna Farley of Rockville, MD, as the 2017 National Festival of Breads Champion. The champion recipe and all eight finalists’ recipes are available at https://nationalfestivalofbreads.com.

The festival also featured diverse educational baking demonstrations focused on the versatility of bread, baking tips, convenience and health. The more than 3,000 festival visitors joined in hands-on children’s activities, bread tasting and a trade show featuring the baking industry and a well-rounded look at the  U.S. wheat supply chain, including wheat farmers, milling companies, research and extension, and those in product development.

Prior to the festival, the eight finalists also went on a farm-to-fork tour of central Kansas, which included a flour mill, a wheat farm and the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center. On the Kejr family wheat farm, the finalists rode along in the combine to actually participate in the wheat harvest, which one finalist said helped complete the story of the bread into which she put so much of her own care and hard work.

What was advertised as a fun, family-friendly festival for baking really serves as an opportunity to learn about what is important to the consumer and, in return, share information on the role of wheat in their diet — and why bread is so important in so many cultures. My experiences on my trip overseas and at the National Festival of Breads had many parallels, most importantly that listening to the consumer and creating product advantages and stories around their desires is an effective model for success.

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By Dr. Senay Simsek, Bert L. D’Appolonia Cereal Science and Technology of Wheat Endowed Associate Professor, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND

With the global demand for wheat remaining quite strong, there is a continual need to develop new varieties that have resistance to the latest disease threats, as well as improved yield, agronomic and end-use qualities. The varieties available today are improved over historic varieties, yet their basic genetic structure is essentially unchanged. In the Northern U.S. Plains during the past century, there have been many improved wheat cultivars, including many public varieties developed by breeders at North Dakota State University (NDSU).

Those of us involved in wheat research, production and processing fully accept that flour from HRS and other wheat classes as well as semolina is healthy and very nutritious for the vast majority of people. However, this has not prevented opposing points of view, and serious attacks against food products that contain gluten.

Celiac disease is a real and serious autoimmune condition that has gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Reputable medical organizations have determined that celiac disease is prevalent in about 1 of every 100 people worldwide. However, the over-simplified explanation that “gluten causes celiac disease” has likely hurt the reputation of wheat and wheat foods. There is a subtle but significant difference that demonstrates gluten alone does not cause celiac disease and, as our study showed, that new wheat varieties are not responsible for increased cases of celiac.

The gluten in wheat, which is essential for the elastic texture of dough, is composed of two separate proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin and gliadin are divided into distinct compounds, which in turn are made up of specific peptides (compounds of two or more amino acids in a chain).

A genetic predisposition to celiac must exist in individuals before the presence of certain gliadin and glutenin peptides may trigger an immune response that results in damage to the lining of the small intestine. These peptides are therefore considered “immunogenic.” Previous studies have found that α-gliadin proteins in wheat have a high number of immunogenic peptides.

In many ways, simply blaming gluten for celiac has helped spark quite a bit of unwanted attention from bloggers, authors, doctors and others making claims that modern breeding practices have changed wheat protein chemistry. This has resulted in a higher concentration of immunogenic peptides in modern wheat in comparison to historical wheat varieties, and that this is a contributing factor towards increased incidence of celiac disease.

To test this hypothesis, we studied the protein chemistry of 30 HRS wheat cultivars released in North Dakota in the last century. The presence of celiac disease-initiating-peptides was determined using untargeted mass spectrometry, and the amount of these peptides was quantified using a targeted mass spectrometric approach. We collaborated with Dr. Steven Meinhardt from the NDSU Plant Pathology Department and graduate student Maneka Malalgoda worked with us as part of her master’s thesis project. This project was funded by growers through checkoff funds from the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

In the qualitative analysis, we determined the presence of 15 immunogenic peptides. We found that the presence of these peptides is not related to the release year of cultivars and that these peptides appear randomly. In our quantitative analysis, we specifically tracked two prominent immunogenic peptides, PFPQPQLPY (DQ-α-I/ glia-α9) and RPQQPYPQ (glia-α20), and total α-gliadin. The results supported our previous findings. That is, the amount of the peptides varied randomly across the years that were analyzed, and there is no correlation between release year and the number of immunogenic peptides or total α-gliadin.

Thus, overall, our results demonstrate that modern HRS wheat is not higher in terms of celiac disease immunogenicity in comparison to historical HRS varieties.

Our team plans to submit the complete study report to a peer reviewed journal in the future.

Editor’s Note: Capital Press has reported that a researcher is working with the Kansas Wheat Commission at the Heartland Plant Innovations Center in Manhattan, KS, toward a “celiac-safe” wheat. In theory, celiac-safe wheat would still contain the gluten proteins necessary for making bread, but would have none of the immunogenic peptides which trigger an immune response in people with the genetic predisposition for celiac disease, said Chris Miller, director of wheat quality research for Heartland Plant Innovations.

“I think the problem of celiac disease is so big that it won’t be solved by a single group of researchers,” Miller said. “If we can identify the underlying cause of celiac reactivity in the process, and we have the means to reduce it, we should be working towards those types of goals.”

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In 2015, The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) shared the results of ongoing research showing U.S. consumers want more and more information about their food and primarily expect food companies to provide it. Those U.S. consumers surveyed also look to farmers for information about food.

CFI’s research shows being more transparent about food commodities and products builds consumer trust as well as a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the U.S. food system.

USW is sharing this information because in a broader sense, U.S. research can give the world’s commercial flour millers and wheat food manufacturers information about how consumer attitudes may evolve in their countries.

CFI took its 2016 research to a new level with an innovative methodology called digital ethnography. Charlie Arnot, CFI’s chief executive officer, said in a release that the new research offers much deeper insights into distinct groups whose actions about where they buy food, or how they form opinions about products, processes, people and brands, influence the decisions of others.

This emerging influence is why more U.S. consumers are flocking toward the things about today’s food that they believe is more sophisticated and represents “progressive” production, CFI noted. Arnot said this is seen in increased demand for food that is less processed, with simple labels that describe what is in, and what is not in, the products. USW see a relevant example for the world’s millers and bakers in the sponge and dough bread production method, using only flour, yeast and water, compared to “no-time” bread production that requires more additives and conditioners. Innovations in plant breeding may also be a resource for consumer questions.

“Understanding consumer attitudes toward food and how those attitudes influence the conversation allows food companies to more effectively talk with consumers,” said Leigh Horner, vice president, communications at The Hershey Company. “Consumers want to feel good about the products they buy for themselves and their families and want easy access to balanced, useful information to know they are making the right choices. These insights will help food companies build trust … and engage in meaningful conversations about the food their customers buy.”

The Center for Food Integrity is a not-for-profit organization that helps today’s food system earn consumer trust. Our members and project partners, who represent the diversity of the food system, are committed to providing accurate information and working together to address important issues in food and agriculture. The Center does not lobby or advocate for individual companies or brands. For more information, visit www.foodintegrity.org.