Grain enthusiasts pursue healthier flour, healthier bread with help of Washington State Bread Lab

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Washington State University’s “approachable loaf” contains at least 60% real whole grain flour, with no preservatives added, and is priced at $6 or less to make it widely affordable. The goal of WSU’s Bread Lab is to formulate healthier recipes for baked goods and to breed wheat, rye and other grains with better nutritional properties and more distinctive flavors. [Bread Lab photo]

The American affinity for fine, white flour and soft, bland bread has led to deficiencies of fiber and other nutritional compounds, something heritage grain advocates are hoping to fix by bringing more diversity to everything from crop mixes to bread dough.

Greater appreciation of traditional grains and milling techniques could provide a healthy source of nutrition while creating unique opportunities for rural and cultural development, according to an international panel of experts who appeared during a free public forum hosted by the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Grain School in April.

The online event was co-hosted with the Bread Lab at Washington State University, which prioritizes nutrition and flavor in its plant breeding program.

Speakers across a broad spectrum shared research showing whole grain flours and bread products are more nutritious, and sketched out a vision for how the country could reclaim its former grain diversity through the revival of lesser-known crops, such as rye.

While wheat and other grains in their natural form are strongly associated with many health benefits, fluffy white flour is not such a positive story, according David Killilea, a research scientist from northern California who kicked off the symposium.

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Grains have the potential to provide significant fiber, phytochemicals, macronutrients, and micronutrients, including zinc, which has been in the spotlight during the pandemic for its important role in immune function.

But getting those benefits is seldom achieved through typical American consumption patterns. Federal dietary recommendations urge Americans to “make half your grains whole,” but that threshold is only achieved by about 8% of adults and 3% of children, he said.

It’s estimated that somewhere around 40% of Americans get little to no whole grains at all, he added.

In commercial parlance, “whole grain” technically refers to products that retain the bran, endosperm and germ in the same relative proportion that occurs in nature. But there’s no enforcement of that standard on product labels. To use the “whole grain” seal, for example, food manufacturers are only required to use 51% actual whole grain.

“For me, this was a very startling discovery,” he said.

Killilea teamed up with Community Grains in Oakland to do some testing on bread labeling accuracy. Analyzing for biomarkers, they found little to no germ in many products advertised as whole grain.

The germ component of the wheat is the grain’s embryo, incredibly nutrient dense and packed with very high quality protein, Killilea said.

“We know there’s an assumption of whole wheat being associated with protection from diseases and better longevity,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily true with the products currently being labeled as such. And there’s really no independent testing, so that’s something we’re working on.”

Traditional stone mills, which crushed the grain but otherwise kept the components of the kernel intact, gave way to modern industrial milling sometime in the 1850s, a process that has been shown to remove half of the B vitamins and much of the vitamin E.

When the germ and bran are removed to make fine, white flour, much of the nutrition is stripped away too, Killilea said, and has to be added back.

“North Americans consume 165 grams of white flour a day, but it is not whole grain,” added Stephen Jones, who directs the Bread Lab at Washington State. “We eat about half of the fiber we should, and for those who are lower income, it is even less than that.”

Americans in general have acquired a taste for soft, white, sweet flavored bread. They are also used to buying it at a low price.

Those factors tend to work against the availability of heartier, healthier bread. The Bread Lab, with talented bakers on staff, set out to counteract those challenges by developing a simple sourdough loaf that was flavorful and affordable. They call it “the approachable loaf.”

It has to be at least 60% true whole grain, contain no more than seven ingredients, including no chemical additives, and priced at $6 a loaf or less. Since it contains no additives or preservatives, the shelf life is limited to 5 to 12 days, Jones explained.

That innovation led to forming the Bread Lab Collective, a network of commercial bakeries in 25 states and six countries, that now churn out more than 4 million “approachable” loaves every year in an effort to make healthier bread more accessible.

During the pandemic, the Bread Lab teamed up with King Arthur Flour to bake and donate 6,000 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread to area food pantries.

The bakery at the Bread Lab is also experimenting with other ways of making healthier baked goods that taste good, such as cookies from coarsely milled rye or buckwheat — two grains with resistant starches that prevent blood sugar spikes — sourdough waffles featuring longer fermentation times and tortillas containing whole grain rye.

“Rye has 15% fiber, and wheat has 10,” Jones said.

Lauri Valli is one of four graduate students who work in the lab at Washington State. She is originally from Estonia, and brought with her to the U.S. a preference for rye. The grain is more common and more popular in Eastern Europe and the Scandinavian countries.

“Americans aren’t very keen on eating rye,” she admitted.

In 2020, the U.S. harvested 110 times more wheat than rye. That’s 300,000 acres of rye versus 37 million acres of wheat.

“Rye is even considered a noxious weed in Washington,” she lamented.

But with more specialty baking and craft brewing and distilling becoming common, and the growing interest in cover cropping, she’s hopeful rye acreage will increase.

“Let’s grow and eat more rye,” she said.

Since Jones established the Bread Lab decades ago, he has gone against the grain of most conventional wheat breeding programs.

“We’ve had this program in place since 1984, and since then, no one has asked us to breed wheat for nutrition or flavor,” he said during the webinar.

That hasn’t stopped him from doing it anyway, based on the belief that plant breeders have an obligation to do more than just follow the whims of food marketers seeking to appeal to complacent consumers.

“The job of a plant breeder is dietary intervention,” he said.

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Among the projects he is working on now is breeding blue-tinged wheat that contains twice the zinc and three times the iron as traditional golden colored grain.

“These are the kind of targets we have in our breeding program,” he said.

The UCCS Grain School continues in April, with another free forum on Saturday, April 3, set to discuss grain production as an agent for strengthening communities economically, socially and culturally.

“Community, not commodity,” is the slogan of the Colorado Grain Chain, a collaborative effort to grow the heritage grain movement in the state. The nonprofit association was incorporated two years ago, with Andy Clark, owner of Moxie Bread Company of Louisville, currently serving as president.

Members of the Grain Chain will discuss ongoing developments and activities of the group during Saturday’s seminar. Information on how to sign-up for the final month of Grain School, or for Saturday’s free forum, is available at ColoradoGrainChain.com.