Defining Wheat Quality

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I thought it would be appropriate to post a previously published article I wrote for Ontario Grain Farmer magazine. The article explores the definition of wheat ‘quality’ and gives some insight into its ambiguous nature. To be clear, my opinions on the quality of this year’s crop are generalizations based on the information that has been generated from various quality tests. As the article below will explain, wheat quality is often in the eye of the beholder and therefore my comments should be considered to be a very broad overview of this year’s wheat crop.

Defining Wheat Quality

Wheat quality is a term that is often used in a very broad sense to describe the overall potential for wheat to be used in a variety of end products. In simple terms, wheat quality refers to a particular wheat’s ability to consistently produce a flour that will perform well in the production of a finished product. A wide range of data generated from dozens of quality tests often goes into characterizing wheat quality; however, the best quality test usually does not come until the baker actually uses the flour for a specific baked good. In order to save time and money, most end-users will only consider a few quality parameters that relate well to their end-product. Since the processes and end products might differ a great deal from end user to end user, the quality specifications can often vary significantly as well. The variation in each end user’s definition of quality can sometimes create mixed feedback on the overall quality of the Ontario wheat crop. To paraphrase a familiar line, what one end user might consider “trash” could be another’s treasure.

The type of end product being produced will define the ideal quality range for each end user. If you examine the quality specifications for cookies and crackers you begin to see the dichotomy that exists within the soft wheat class. The major difference between cookie and cracker flour specifications is the additional gluten strength that is required to make crackers. The extra gluten strength in cracker flour is necessary because cracker production commonly uses a leavening method which is similar to that used in bread dough. Stronger gluten strength is required to allow the dough to be stretched by the gas produced during leavening and to endure the sheeting process. More gluten strength in the cracker dough flour will also decrease the amount of crumbling and breaking during shipping. As you can see, lower-gluten strength soft wheat flour that makes great cookies might not make great crackers. This difference does not however necessarily mean that the lower strength flour was made from poor quality wheat, but rather that it might just not be suitable for one particular product made from soft wheat flour.

The current quality of the Ontario wheat crop has certainly been suitable for many applications such as cookies and cakes, however; the low-gluten strength in the crop makes it less than ideal for crackers. The inability of the Ontario wheat crop to meet certain specifications has caused some frustration throughout the Ontario wheat industry and has led to many discussions as to how to rectify the issues and meet the entire industry’s needs. Long-term efforts include breeding wheat varieties with increased gluten strength, while shorter-term strategies will include profiling current varieties that have increased gluten strength as well as looking at how crop management strategies such as nitrogen applications impact gluten strength.

Michael Reimer, MSc Technical Specialist, Ontario Wheat, Canadian International Grains Institute 1000-303 Main St.,Winnipeg, MB, R3C 3G7 Phone: (204) 983-1055 Fax: (204) 983-2642 E-mail: mreimer@cigi.ca Website: www.cigi.ca.