The Next Bite: The Seeds
Science makes bread taste better
Renegade bakers and geneticists develop whole-wheat loaves you’ll want to eat
By Veronique Greenwood
Driving up through the rolling farmland north of Seattle this July, I was thinking about my next meal. I arrived in the small industrial park, home to the Washington State University Bread Lab, for a gathering of wheat geneticists and other grain professionals. I’d missed the explanation of the items on the buffet tables, made by attendees. I loaded my plate with about a pound of cookies from the dessert end and steadily consumed the lot. They were soft and nutty, with a rich ruddy color and a delicate crumb. I wiped buttery crumbs from my fingers. I went back for more.
“What are these?” I asked the volunteer by the coffee pots, brandishing a blondie bar. “I’m not sure,” she said. They must be made from some delicious heirloom grain, or something, I thought, surreptitiously loading my pockets.
They’re whole wheat, the lab’s head, Stephen Scott Jones, later told me. One hundred percent. That was a surprise; whole wheat baked goods are often eaten more out of obligation than pleasure. They are not known for their can’t-stop-eating flavor. And yet, the Bread Lab is making its name by doing something that is almost unique in the industry: Breeding wheat — especially wheat for whole wheat flour — for taste. They and their collaborators across the country have quietly launched an effort that they hope will create something new — a whole wheat loaf that people would actually like to eat.
Wheat breeders who develop new strains for the global market aim for traits like the right height for mechanized harvesting, the right texture for mechanized baking, and a high yield. As odd as it sounds, flavor more or less faded from breeders’ awareness somewhere along the line. Jones says that for most of his decades-long career as a breeder, it was not discussed. At the same time, knowledge of the importance of whole grains has been on the rise: Eating whole wheat and other unrefined grains correlates with better heart health, healthier weight, and even longer life, according to epidemiological studies.
So maybe the time is right. At the Bread Lab’s headquarters this summer, a plucky group of about 40 bakers, millers, breeders, and others met to test-bake a loaf they’ve been discussing and fine-tuning for the last two years. They call it the Approachable Loaf.
The loaf they’re all dreaming of has a simple recipe. Start, first of all, with the right wheat for the job. The lab grows thousands of newly generated strains of wheat every year to test them. Steve Lyon, the Bread Lab’s head technician, took me out to one of the experimental fields this summer, where the stalks stood in a patchwork of yellows and tans, all different heights and shapes. The researchers make the same basic test loaf from the freshly milled flour — whole wheat goes rancid quickly, so using fresh-milled is important — and then they taste it. They have identified one new wheat, which they’ve dubbed Skagit 1109, that makes a reliably tasty whole wheat bread. For the moment, a bakery making the Approachable Loaf will likely have to use commodity wheat, but ideally, they’ll develop better options.
The story of bread as we’ve known it is the story of our food system as a whole: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the advance of technology on farms, in mills, and in factories allowed the mass production of foods from an ever-longer list of ingredients, both natural and artificial. The Approachable Loaf symbolizes something else — the possibility that, through the application of science, even a food as humble and maligned as whole wheat bread can be both simpler and tastier.
Nutritionally, whole wheat flour is better for you than white. The germ and the bran, the portions of the wheat kernel with the most fiber and other nutrients, stay in whole wheat flour when it’s milled, giving it its distinctive dark color. But they usually curb your desire to put it in your mouth. Compared to the seductive quality of a good white sourdough — tangy and just a little stretchy — or even the gentle squish of a soft white grocery store loaf, melting seamlessly into a slab of grilled cheese, the ashy, faintly bitter whole wheat loaf is no competition.
The battle between light and dark in the matter of bread is longer and weirder than most people realize. While many might assume the rise of whole wheat bread as a health food started with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, anthropologist Aaron Bobrow-Strain traces it back far earlier. Over thousands of years, the color of bread has carried various meanings, he writes in his book “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” Hearty dark loaves were better for building a society than wimpy white ones, Plato argued in “The Republic”; Socrates, on the other hand, felt whole-meal bread was essentially animal food.
By the 19th century in the United States, activists claimed whole wheat would bring people closer to God, and thus to health. One influential obsessive was Sylvester Graham, the New England minister who gave his name to the graham cracker. A sickly child, he eventually turned to vegetarianism as an adult. Today, he might have started a blog about clean eating. Eating foods in their most natural form, like whole wheat, was what God intended man to do, Graham argued in lectures that caused riots in Boston and New York, and anything that was wrong with you could be taken care of with whole wheat bread and water.
Grahamism had adherents of all stripes: Educational reformer Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” founded a farm commune northwest of Boston to live in the manner prescribed by the movement. It lasted only seven months. Louisa May, who was 10 at the time, later lampooned the endeavor in her satire “Transcendental Wild Oats.” She noted that the vast majority of the labor fell to women and children, while the men sat around discussing the philosophy of food. “About the time the grain was ready to house,” she wrote dryly, “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.”
Today, the benefits of eating more whole grains are among the rare things that virtually all nutrition experts agree on. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends that half of all grains should be whole. But 2015 numbers show that almost nobody eats that way.
Past efforts to make virtue a little tastier have achieved the opposite. The food historian Maria Trumpler visited the Bread Lab recently and demonstrated whole wheat bread recipes from the 1970s and ’80s — an era when adding molasses, powdered milk, and other substances to try to hide the whole wheat was in vogue.
“They were just absolutely horrible,” says Jones, nearly awed by the badness. “If you have a bread book from the ’70s, you should burn it! I’m not into book burning, but, God — you should just get rid of it.” There must, he and colleagues think, be a better way.
Wheat breeder David Van Sanford, a professor at University of Kentucky, recalls when he first learned of Jones, who had become fed up with the situation and helped found the Bread Lab in 2011. I’ve gone to scads of meetings, Jones had told a reporter, and never heard the term “flavor” used once. “That really resonated with me,” Van Sanford says. Wheat flour can, in fact, have a taste: For a good bread wheat, “the words we use are nutty, chocolate tones, and a bit of spice tone,” Jones says. A wheat used for cookies and pie dough has a different, more mellow profile.
When most wheat breeders assess the outcomes of their efforts and decide what to do next, however, they evaluate what the wheat is like without the bran and germ. The bran and the germ are what give whole wheat much of its taste. As a result, a wheat that’s bred for an inoffensive-tasting white flour might make a whole wheat flour that’s depressingly like sawdust. When no one is breeding for a whole wheat that tastes good, Jones argues, it is not all that surprising that it winds up bad. Jones’s savvy as a scientist and his conviction are persuasive; his lab has relationships with well-known companies such as King Arthur Flour, Clif Bar, and Chipotle.
If a whole wheat loaf has a good flavor, is affordable, and meets the needs of those who don’t frequent artisanal bakeries — which have a dedicated but small clientele — it wouldn’t be nearly so hard for people to eat more of it, think the people behind the Approachable Loaf, many of whom have attended annual gatherings at the Bread Lab over the last few years.
One of them, Louie Prager, who runs the Prager Brothers bakery in Carlsbad, Calif., has noticed that some of his own employees prefer a soft brown supermarket loaf. It has no holes for mustard to leak through, it’s good for sandwiches for packed lunches, it doesn’t go bad very quickly, it’s familiar, and it’s inexpensive, something you can’t say about some artisanal loaves. But it often has many stabilizers, colorants, and dough conditioners that artisan bakers avoid, as well as a surprising amount of sugar.
Other than better wheat, the only other ingredients in the Approachable Loaf are sourdough starter, salt, small amounts of oil and sugar, and water. Using starter to leaven the bread gives it a longer shelf life than a standard yeasted bread; the sugar and oil give the bread a flavor and texture that’s closer to the supermarket loaf.
Experience and skill on the part of the baker helps in getting a good product, of course: Those bizarrely delicious cookies I tasted at the Bread Lab’s headquarters did involve a good choice of wheat, but the flour was also probably freshly milled and the bakers knew what they were doing, notes Van Sanford. The loose network of people testing and fine-tuning the Approachable Loaf includes professional bakers in Washington, California, and Vermont, working to bring their technical knowledge of artisanal bread making to bear on something closer to the supermarket loaf. Jones estimates that at least eight bakeries are currently making some version of it.
Can the Approachable Loaf go big? Bringing together breeding, farming, processing, and food production to make something that both satisfies the consumer and is nutritious is not a simple process, says Tim Griffin, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who collaborates with Bread Lab researchers. But for the past year and a half or so, he and colleagues have been discussing it in the context of the Approachable Loaf. “We’re seeing bread as our first test case for that,” he says. “What would the system have to look like if we successfully used whole grains?” They are investigating what businesses would need to exist, how the supply chains for bread would need to change, and other logistical barriers to a loaf that’s both nutritious and legitimately attractive.
If the bakers can come up with a tasty loaf, then the millers will need to come up with a procedure to mill large quantities of whole wheat flour while keeping it from going bad, and farmers will need to learn to grow and profit from breeds of wheat that make whole wheat worth eating. These are the kinds of challenges he’s considering.
In Montana, wheat breeder and Flathead Valley Community College professor Heather Estrada has her eyes on the near term: using wheat she and her students have grown to bake the Approachable Loaf together. “We were able to clean all our grain and it’s ready for milling,” she said gleefully when I spoke to her October. The loaf is a way for her students to see all the pieces of the food system they’ve been studying all semester, from field to lab to kitchen, come together in a way that’s more than glancing. “There’s a lot of cultural depth,” Estrada says, “to the story of bread.”
Editors Dante Ramos, David Scharfenberg, and Alex Kingsbury
Design and development Elaina Natario
Design Director Heather Hopp-Bruce
Audience engagement Heather Ciras
Illustration Cristina Martín Recasens