Those who love Oreos may not be too interested in the fact that the Ohio wheat breeding program just got a grant for new harvesting equipment, but they should be -- it could lead to improvements in cookies and the other wheat products we enjoy.
Ohio is recognized around the world for growing high quality soft red winter wheat that is used for making products like crackers and cookies (including Oreos). The hard red wheat grown widely in the western U.S. is better suited for making breads.
“The big difference between a hard wheat and a soft wheat is that the hard wheat flour absorbs a lot of water and holds it and the soft wheat flour does not hold much water,” said Clay Sneller, who heads up Ohio State University’s wheat breeding program.
The resurgence in the interest in the dietary value of whole grain has added a new twist to the traditional uses of these two different types of wheat.
“Everyone should be eating whole grain because it is good for you, but we are having a bit of a problem making whole grain soft wheat products. If you’re making whole grain bread, you’re using hard wheat and you’re making a flour that absorbs and holds a lot of moisture. As you add the bran back into the flour to make it whole grain, you further increase the capacity of that flour to absorb water,” Sneller said. “When you’re making bread that is great, but when you’re making cookies or crackers, increasing that water holding capacity by adding the bran is actually bad for making products with the right shape, texture and size. Adding the bran for whole grain makes less desirable soft wheat products.”
While consumers are interested in eating more whole grain, no one is going to buy a misshapen Oreo with a funny texture. For this reason, Sneller is looking for a soft red winter wheat variety that does not hold as much water, which would allow it to be used for making whole grain cookies and crackers. In addition to this trait, the wheat variety would also need all of the necessary characteristics to be profitable for Ohio’s wheat farmers to produce. Finding such a variety is daunting, at best -- akin to locating a very small needle in a very large pile of straw.
This numbers game involves screening a myriad of wheat varieties, selecting some, growing them, and evaluating them for possession of the necessary traits. This process takes years of screening and testing, though it has been sped up in recent years with technology using molecular markers to narrow down the list of potential varieties to plant in test plots. From there, the new harvesting equipment will come into play.
“The Oho Small Grains Marketing Program and the Ohio Seed Improvement Association have awarded us a grant to buy a combine for our research station up in northwest Ohio. With that combine, we can increase the lines of wheat that we can test. The combine we will be buying has an automatic weigh unit so one person can combine a plot and it measures how much grain, the moisture and test weight and puts that information in a computer and dumps the grain. One person can do well over 1,000 plots a day with this combine,” Sneller said. “When they’re done harvesting, the data is already colleted in the computer. Right now we have four people up there, and they can do about 600 plots a day. Now we can send one person and they can do 1,200 in a day, if not more. The benefit of this, of course, is that we can look at more lines of wheat, which gives us a better chance of finding new varieties and it will make us more competitive with getting grants.”
In short, the new combine increases the odds of finding the right wheat variety for making a healthier Oreo.
“If we can allow the industry to make these whole grain products better, cheaper and more acceptable to consumers, then the consumers will eat more whole grain, and that is good for them,” Sneller said. “So maybe someday they will be able to eat a whole grain Oreo that tastes just like the original Oreo and is good for them. I don’t think there is much we can do for the white icing inside, though.”
Matt Reese writes for Ohio’s Country Journal and lives in Baltimore, Ohio. For questions or comments, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was brought to you by Ohio’s agricultural organizations.