The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

US Wheat: A Global Staple

US Wheat: A Global Staple

The Food Journal

March 18, 2014

Breeding Wheat:

Both whole wheat flour and all purpose (white) flour are made from kernels of wheat. Oklahoma State University Ag Facts explains wheat in the simplest terms: “A wheat kernel is divided into three major parts—bran, endosperm and germ. All purpose flour is made from only ground endosperm. Whole wheat flour is made by grinding the entire wheat kernel.” Hybridization develops new varieties. At the University of Nebraska, Agronomy and Horticulture Professor Stephen Baenziger, makes 1,000 crosses a year in wheat, with every cross he makes having four traits: winter survival, protection from stem rust, good agronomic performance, and good end quality use.

According to Professor Baenziger, for transgenics or GM wheat to come into play, breeders need two reasons to change their methods. “Greater efficiency and novelty (doing something we could not do before). We have a lot of resources we can use to make genetic modifications as breeders but for those traits that we do not have adequate variation is where biotech would have its biggest impact.“ Regulations are also expensive. “Breeders shouldn’t consider GM if they have natural occurring variation for the trait, because the GM trait could cost them 100 million dollars or more to get through regulation,” says Baenziger. “Growers don’t need to use GM or transgenics where they already have the traits existing in nature.” Interview with P. Stephen Baenziger

What the wheat growers need:

Jim Palmer, CEO, National Wheat Growers Association, confirms the farmers in the Pacific Northwest have profitable wheat crops and increasing yields and quality. Being able to meet the worldwide demand for wheat and continue to be competitive to international customers can be achieved “with more funding for wheat farmers for research - not just to develop a better seed - but new management techniques and technology“, says Jim. “There can be a substantial increase in profit as those technologies come about.” Palmer is also enthused about T-CAP (TriticeaeCAP).  “Researchers are working at 28 public and private institutions in 21 states, and integrating genomic resources into this breeding program with the goal to increase productivity in yield and the impact of climate change, not just for wheat, but for barley producers.” 

Exporting US Wheat:

Rising population in various parts of the developing world combined with strong economic growth have increased demand for both food and feed grains. Of the total wheat produced in the country, 50% is exported, valued at US$9 billion. Spring wheat or winter wheat accounts for 70-80 percent of total production in the U.S., with the largest produced in North Dakota. The U.S. hard red spring wheat crop is exported to over 70 countries each year to the extent of 55%. (Wikipedia). “When you have a customer buying primarily for quality, you are very sensitive to those consumers’ needs and preferences. They could buy from Australia or Canada, but they are choosing the US because of the quality,” says Jim Palmer of the National Wheat Growers. “We are competitively priced – but that doesn’t always mean the lowest price - we have quality, dependability and safety at a competitive price.” Interview with Jim Palmer, CEO, National Association of Wheat Growers

According to the USDA on U.S. Wheat Trade, “Population growth in Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and other developing countries will be the basis of future expansion of world wheat trade.” U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and its state wheat commission members provide samples of U.S. wheat to their customers “to demonstrate milling and baking quality in new markets or markets where wheat food consumption is increasing.” The USW’s March 6, 2014 Wheat Letter reported, “USW and the Washington Grain Commission introduced U.S. soft white (SW) to millers and bakers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia… A large industrial baker who then tested this flour in local breads and sponge cakes immediately saw excellent potential in this product to help his business.”

Science and Health with Wheat

As researchers work to better understand productivity in wheat, scientists look to more complex solutions for health problems. At Iowa State University, Ruth McDonald, PhD, RD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is focused on the gut microbiomes (the population of microorganisms that inhabit the colon), and how food and nutrients interact with this microbiome. “This is a new area of research that has exploded in the last five or six years,” says Ruth. “Everyone has a different microbial population in their colon – the types of microorganisms they have and in what ratios has a lot of influence on the behavior of their gastrointestinal track. There is very good evidence that the gut microbiome plays an important role in the response to wheat and autoimmune diseases like celiac disease which is an inflammation in the colon.  We are trying to understand what the microbes do and how they function to regulate events in the colon so that an optimum microbiome may be achieved.” A Perspective on Consumers and Science: Ruth MacDonald, PhD, RD

Professor McDonald answers consumers’ questions on subjects such as consumption of grain-fed meat for those with celiac disease as an expert at the Center for Food Integrity Food for Thought Blog. 

Wheat consumption at present:

Despite health scrutiny and economic pressures for wheat production, in 2012, wheat flour disappearance increased by 2 pounds per person.  (See USDA, World Agricultural Outlook Board, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates and supporting).  Judi Adams, MS, RDN, President, Wheat Food Council explains, “Of course we can’t estimate how much of a sandwich people throw out, or if they eat the bread heels, but we do know how much wheat flour is milled.”

The Flour Fortification Intiative (FFI) works to ensure grain product fortification in wheat flour with commonly added nutrients to be iron and folic acid, a B vitamin.  Other nutrients are zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and other B vitamins include niacin, thiamine, riboflavin and B 12.  A 2012 study found that 38,417 serious birth defects were prevented in one year due to folic acid fortification in flour.  

“Wheat is about 72% of the grains Americans consume. The typical bag of white flour (95%) is enriched. The most crucial part of enriched flour is the folic acid which is twice the amount you find in whole wheat flour,” reiterates Judi Adams. “All women (from ages 12-50) of child bearing age should be getting adequate amounts of folic acid and the best source is enriched grains.” The Wheat Food Council fact sheet, Grains of Truth - Folic Acid also points out, “A CDC study, estimates that fortified flour used in grain foods may be resulting in a reduction of 31,000 stroke-associated deaths and 17,000 ischemic heart disease deaths per year.” Interview with Judi Adams, MS, RDN, President, Wheat Foods Council

The US wheat farmers, their trade associations and academics enable the US to provide high quality wheat for US consumers and international consumers alike.  They are increasing research to advance traits, farmer profitability and learn more about the nutritional opportunities that lie ahead.