From Wheat to Wonder Bread

I find the changes that take place during baking absolutely fascinating. Starting with what is basically dried and ground grass seeds mixed with water and biological or chemical leavening agents and heated you end up with a flavorsome light bread. Can you imagine how the first people felt when they discovered this? They had probably eaten wheat in the form of a gruel or porridge, but now they had run out of food. In desperation they cooked up some sour old gruel that had been left forgotten in a corner somewhere. Presto! Bread was created. Previously, they probably threw away sour smelling batters muttering that they were “off”? and dangerous to eat.

Before leavening agents were discovered, the wheat products eaten probably were what we now call flat breads. Chapattis, tortillas, and pita are examples of flat breads. The addition of leavening agents, yeast or baking powder for instance, gives the porous light texture we associate with baked wheat products; cakes, breads, muffins. Yeasts are around naturally in the air, even today wine and scrumpy makers use the natural yeasts on their fruits to their advantage. I’m not sure how sodium bicarbonate was discovered; perhaps someone worked out that adding limestone with a little acid caused gas bubbles in their gruel which made the final dish airier and lighter.

Wonder bread is the epitome of food processing in an industrial age. So I was surprised to find that Interstate Bakeries Corp, the company that produces both Wonder Bread and Twinkies (surely an American icon?), was struggling to avoid bankruptcy brought on by the low-carb fad diet, so popular and “successful”? a few years ago. Actually, I think, initially low-carb diets worked because there weren’t any snack foods that were low carb. Cookies, chips (crisps), granola bars, candy, even nuts are high carb foods. Once low carb snack food products became available the diet was less successful. Also people perceived success after starting the diet due to weight loss caused by the loss of water.

To recover from bankruptcy, Wonder Bread has branched out into whole wheat bread and low cal breads. What next? A healthy Twinkie? When I started doing research independently, I used to joke about developing a healthy Twinkie; it is interesting to observe that the food industry might soon catch up with me. In my lab, we studied the potential of flaxseed meal to see if baked products were improved by its addition. Previous researchers had suggested that flaxseed meal may extend the shelf-life of baked products, while improving the nutritional composition. I was hoping that if I showed that flaxseed meal did extend the shelf-life then bakers, such as Hostess or most likely smaller independent companies, would perceive the addition of flax as a cost saving while “value-adding”?. Unfortunately, muffins baked with and without flaxseed meal up to a 5% level were not statistically different. There you go, two years of research in a nutshell. It did get published (see 1 below) – we did more than just taste them – in fact we didn’t taste them as sensory analyses are quite expensive. We checked texture: there is a great instrument called a Texture Analyser, whose motto, my grad student said should be “play with your food”?. Basically the food is compressed and the force required to compress the food a certain distance is measured. It can do other tests too – it even has a probe that will measure the force needed to push toothpaste out of its tube. We also checked color, as my major research interest is the reaction that produces the baked color. And we considered the effect on the batter before baking. Flaxseed meal did increase the viscosity of the batter, and has an interesting attribute of increasing viscosity for the first hour after being added to water, after which the viscosity remains stable. I’m not sure why that happens but my hypothesis is that as the flax gums absorb the water, they swell up forming a network. Not unlike a other gums. They also don’t form as strong a gel as pectin. I have not had the chance to test my hypothesis as I haven’t done any research with flax for the last couple of years, so perhaps the answer is already available.

I started teaching today, I am teaching Food Analysis, and to get the students in the mood I gave them a loaf of the new Whole Wheat Wonder Bread and asked them to design how they would analyze it; to put together an analytical plan. This gave me the opportunity to discuss the factors that need to be considered when analyzing a food product. They thought about pH, texture, taste, color. It did not quite work the way I wanted it to as I had to lead them more than I had hoped. It did help me get a good idea of what they currently understand about food analysis and what I need to tell them.

1 Shearer, A. E. H.; Davies, C. G. A. Physicochemical properties of fresh-baked and stored whole wheat muffins with and without flaxseed meal. Journal of Food Quality 2005, 28, 50-66.