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Wheat’s Rise Bites Bakers

Higher Prices Force Bread Makers to Tighten Their Belts


It is a bad spring for baguettes.

Wet weather is preventing farmers in the Northern Plains from planting the spring wheat crop, prized for a high protein content crucial for baking bread. Growers in the southern Plains and western Europe have had the opposite problem, as drought cuts output in the other major regions where high-quality wheat is grown.

The result is that bakers such as Joel Karinen, owner of the Luna Bakery in Colorado, are focused on cheaper items.

For Mr. Karinen, who is paying nearly 40% more than a year ago for a 50-pound bag of flour, gone are the specialty breads with cheese and fruit that he typically sells at farmers’ markets.

Baking More Buns

Instead, he is baking more buns and putting off plans to hire a new employee and buy a new oven.

“I just have to streamline my operations,” said Mr. Karinen, who has been making bread to order for restaurants and grocery stores for four years. He has raised his prices about 10% in the past year, but “it really hurts my customers so I don’t want to do [more than] that.”

The damp weather is keeping farmers from planting hard red spring wheat in Minnesota, North Dakota and parts of Canada. That is fueling specific concerns about global supplies of high-quality wheat that can be milled into bread flour.

Last week, futures prices for hard red spring wheat hit the highest point in more than two and a half years at the MGEX in Minneapolis, where that variety of the grain is traded.

Prices have surged for hard red winter wheat, which is also of the high quality needed to make bread flour, as a prolonged drought in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas damaged the crop.

Futures prices for hard red winter wheat at the Kansas City Board of Trade are about 90% higher than year-earlier levels and are climbing back toward the two-and-a-half-year highs reached in February.

Conditions for planting spring wheat look poor heading into June, as rains will keep fields soggy, according to meteorologists. Farmers in North Dakota, the biggest spring wheat-growing state, had only planted 34% of the crop as of May 22, well behind the five-year average of 85%.

Dave Clough, a farmer in central North Dakota, had only seeded a third of his crop by Thursday, when he normally would have been long finished. In an attempt to plant as much as possible during a brief break in the wet weather, he downed an energy drink for the first time and worked in the fields past midnight.

“I want to produce bushels. I will try, but there’s a point where you have to give up,” the 65-year-old farmer said.

Incentive for Farmers

The high prices give farmers plenty of incentive to sow as much land as they can. Yet, few believe the number of planted acres will expand 5% from last year to 14.4 million acres, as projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in March.

The North Dakota Wheat Commission projects at least 500,000 acres will go unplanted because of the weather, while some analysts predict that one million acres or more will be left idle or shifted to other crops.

Fears about tightening supplies around the world, in part because of bad weather in Europe and Canada, have increased foreign business for the U.S., the world’s top grain exporter. Exports of hard red spring wheat are estimated at a 15-year high, while domestic use is forecast to be the second highest in the past decade.

“If you look at the prices, that definitely indicates there is a shortage of supply,” said Erica Olson, marketing specialist for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

In other commodity markets:

CRUDE OIL: ICE Brent crude for July delivery declined 35 cents, or 0.3%, to $114.68 a barrel. It was the second decline in a row and the largest in both percentage and dollar terms since May 23. U.S. commodities markets were closed on Monday in observance of Memorial Day.

Write to Tom Polansek at Tom.Polansek


Whole Wheat and Health

The health benefits of wheat depend entirely on the form in which you eat it. These benefits will be few if you select wheat that has been processed into 60% extraction, bleached white flour. 60% extraction-the standard for most wheat products in the United States, including breads, noodles and pastas, baked goods like rolls or biscuits, and cookies-means that 40% of the original wheat grain was removed, and only 60% is left. Unfortunately, the 40% that gets removed includes the bran and the germ of the wheat grain-its most nutrient-rich parts. In the process of making 60% extraction flour, over half of the vitamin B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber are lost.

Since 1941, laws in the United States have required “enrichment” of processed wheat flour with vitamins B1, B2, B3 and iron in response to the problems created by 60% extraction. Since not nearly as much of these B vitamins and iron are replaced as are removed from 60% extraction flour, “enriched” seems an odd word to describe this process.

If you select 100% whole wheat products, however, the bran and the germ of the wheat will remain in your meals, and the health benefits will be impressive! Our food ranking qualified whole wheat (in its original non-enriched form) as a very good source of dietary fiber and manganese, and as a good source of magnesium.

The many benefits of whole wheat products are being recognized more and more by consumers. Even though many health-conscious individuals have been cutting back on their intake of total carbs and refined wheat products (by about 10% between 1997-2007), the demand for whole wheat products has actually increased during that same time period.

Refined Flour

Refined flour is used in conventional white breads found at most large supermarkets.  In refined flours, the bran and the germ have been separated from the endosperm.  This produces a finer, whiter flour but also removes the vast majority of its nutritive substances.  The Food and Drug Administration requires that all bread flours that have been refined must contain added niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, and iron.  Since these four substances have been removed by the refining process, manufacturers must add them to the flour all over again!

Most refined flour used in breads available in conventional supermarkets has been bleached and bromated.  Natural bleaching occurs as the flour sits in storage and ages.  We want flours to bleach (or age) because this process produces a richer, more mature flavor and it makes the gluten become stronger.  But it takes time.  Conventional flour manufacturers have found that they can speed up the process by adding artificial ingredients.  Refined flour for commercial breads contains most of the following ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, chlorine dioxide, and acetone peroxide. These substances destroy the Vitamin E that occurs naturally in wheat.  They are also potentially hazardous to our health.

Manufacturers have also learned that adding certain oxidizers like potassium bromate makes a finer-grained flour that produces a springier, softer textured dough.  The FDA has approved bromating bread flour but the substance has been banned in California and Germany because it may cause cancer.

So what can you do to avoid eating such chemically-laden and nutritionally deficient flour?  Look for whole wheat bread and check the label to make sure it is actually made from whole wheat flour.  If it just says ‘wheat flour’, then it is not truly whole wheat.  It is more likely to be white bread with added coloring (more chemicals!).  If you are buying your own flour to make baked goods, look for flour that is unbleached and unbromated.  There are good white flours out there if you take the time to read the packaging.  There is also a product called ‘white whole wheat’ that is supposed to be just as good as whole wheat flour nutritionally, but more closely resembles the white flour that we are all used to eating.

White Bread Chemicals

Alloxen, one of the chemicals that are added to white flour to make it look clean to the consumer, destroys beta cells that are located in the pancreas. This chemical is often given to laboratory rats to induce diabetes. Even though the connection between alloxen and type 2 diabetes has been founded, the FDA still allows for its use.

White Flour

In the process of making flour white, half of the good unsaturated fatty acids, that are high in food value, are lost in the milling process alone, and virtually all the vitamin E is lost with the removal of wheat germ and bran. As a result, the remaining flour in the white bread you buy, contains only poor quality proteins and fattening starch.

But that is not the whole story as to the loss of nutrients. About 50% of all calcium, 70% of phosphorus, 80% iron, 98% magnesium, 75% manganese, 50% potassium, and 65% of copper is destroyed. If that is not bad enough, about 80% thiamin, 60% of riboflavin, 75% of niacin, 50% of pantothenic acid, and about 50% of Pyridoxine is also lost.

These numbers are from a study by the University of California, College of Agriculture.