Laboratory analysis shows the latest wheat varieties aren't any higher in gluten than ancient grains. And modern wheat varieties are likely a better choice for organic production systems because they carry built-in resistance to diseases and pests.
Those are some of the key takeaways wheat officials are hoping to impart during a first-of-its-kind wheat conference, scheduled at Oklahoma State University on May 15.
The "All You Knead to Know" Grain Workshop is set to challenge some of the urban myths that have grown up around modern wheat, bread and gluten.
With tours of food science labs and agronomic research plots on campus, scientists plan to show off one of the nation's premier modern wheat breeding programs to a diverse group of millers, bakers, educators and influencers who might otherwise never have the chance to see the inner workings of a sophisticated land grant university.
"A lot of the issues we see in terms of the disconnect between farmers and consumers is often just a lack of education. I firmly believe that," said Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, who helped organize the conference and insisted on keeping it as affordable as possible.
"We do try to provide information and education, but to have a platform like this will hopefully allow us to reach out to a larger audience."
"Many people who didn't grow up on a wheat farm don't understand how grain is grown and flour produced," added Rene Albers-Nelson, a milling and baking specialist also involved in conference planning.
"There is negative news swirling around that wheat isn't grown in a way that respects the environment and flour isn't wholesome anymore. This workshop will be very transparent and explain that this isn't true, allowing people to ask questions about wheat, from the field to baking."
OSU agronomy experts, as well as food and marketing specialists, a large commercial baker and an artisan pasta maker, will present the program.
Hosting a conference focused on the end use represents something of a shift for an industry that has traditionally been more concerned with production and exports.
"The market is changing and the consumer is changing," Schulte said. "Millenials are changing the discussion.
"They've already changed the world of retail, and they are going to change the food industry, as well."
OSU chief wheat breeder Brett Carver, who has been at the university since the mid-1980s, is part of a new generation of wheat breeders who give as much attention to milling and baking qualities as yield potential or disease resistance. That emphasis has increasingly put him on the map with craft bakers, as well as large commercial millers and discerning international buyers.
One of the hottest artisan bakers in the country made a visit to Oklahoma earlier this spring to meet with Carver and tour research plots and Oklahoma farm fields.
Graison Gill owns the nationally recognized Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, where he is famous for stone-grinding his own flour from grain he buys as directly as possible from the source.
In a recent issue of Food and Wine magazine, Gill gave a shout-out to OSU's Ruby Lee, a variety wheat breeder Carver bred and named for its distinctive red-tinted chaff.
Bellegarde's sumptuous catalog of unique breads and grains also recognizes Bob Baker, of Alva, as the farmer who grew it.
"It adds incredible flavor to breads, pastries and pastas with its rich auburn color and fragrant nuttiness," the catalog describes in tasting notes more evocative of wine than wheat.
In common industry jargon, Ruby Lee is touted for high protein content, large kernel size and outstanding milling and baking characteristics.
Gill said he is not motivated by industry buzzwords or even consumer preferences when selecting grain, but by his own pursuit of products with integrity and originality.
"It's about what we want to do and what we want support," he said.
Gill added that he chose to work with Carver, Baker and other contacts in Oklahoma because of their open-minded, progressive attitudes.
Schulte said Gill is part of a new food culture that is becoming more prevalent, even in largely rural states like Oklahoma.
"Twenty years ago we didn't have 30 great restaurants in Oklahoma City: We had Spaghetti Warehouse and the Cox Convention Center," he said. "We know the direct market is small, but if 20 or 30 restaurants are looking for something unique to provide to their customers, maybe we've got the makings of a branded program.
"We're already known for growing wheat in this state, so I think you're going to see more of these trends supplied through local channels."
Putting some sheen back on the wheat industry is also important because, as Schulte said, gluten has "taken it on the chin" the last five or six years.
"Some of the research studies we're seeing show that maybe gluten isn't the thing causing all these issues with people and their gut health. That's also why we're doing this conference," he said.
Using the specialized facilities at its Food and Ag Products Center, OSU has done extensive testing on how the gluten in popular wheat varieties stacks up to heirloom and ancient grains and has found they are roughly the same.
"We are also doing a lot of work with cleaner labels, as far as looking at what is actually going into that loaf of bread at the end of the day," Schulte said.
"The industry is moving toward cleaner labels and longer fermentation times in bread making. We've found that by having those longer fermentation times, people who are gluten sensitive oftentimes can eat that bread, and it doesn't create an issue."
Farmers like Bill Steinert, of Fairmont, are more enthusiastic about some market trends than others.
Primarily a wheat seed dealer, he's also started direct-marketing some of his wheat. Last year he sold 11,000 bushels to an artisan bakery in Denton, Texas, and he expects that number to go up.
"We do get a premium for it, and every little bit helps," he said.
Steinert owns several grain elevators, in addition to having 15,000 bushels of on-farm storage parceled out in small individual bins, which makes it possible to ship out identity-preserved wheat in a timely manner.
So far, however, he hasn't raised anything organic — he insists on keeping his fields free of weeds and disease. But after touring Ardent Mills in Wichita as a participant in the Oklahoma Ag Leadership Program, he came away with a deeper appreciation of why millers and bakers of all sizes are becoming choosier about what they buy.
"What they were getting delivered was very poor quality, contaminated with other grains, weeds, even iron and steel, really everything imaginable," he said.