There is already a significant market in the US and Europe for waxy maize starch, used in applications such as gums and stabilizers. Yet whereas the diploid structure of maize has made it easy for breeders to develop waxy varieties, wheat's hexaploid structure- meaning it has three full sets of chromosomes- has meant wheat has presented more of a challenge.
Waxy wheat was first developed in Japan around 15 years ago. Since then, breeders around the world have made their own crosses and developed their own waxy wheat varieties. In the UK, leading agribusiness Syngenta has been working on a high amylose wheat variety, as has Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
In the US, Craig Morris, a cereal chemist at the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has spent over a decade developing a new waxy wheat at the ARS Western Wheat Quality Laboratory.
The new variety, called Penawawa-X, is currently pending a plant variety protection certificate from the USDA, and could be available on the market in coming months, said Morris.
The 100 percent amylopectin starch forms a paste at significantly lower temperatures than regular or partially waxy wheat starches. It also absorbs more water and can freeze and thaw repeatedly, said Morris.
"Some of these characteristics could confer unique textures to food products. But waxy wheat is something that manufacturers have until now not had access to. As they find uses for it and develop innovations, it will take off like a rocket. In the next few years I can guarantee that we will see food products on the market with it," he said.
Wheat breeders at Farmer Direct Foods have also developed a 100 percent amylopectin waxy wheat, which they claim could benefit manufacturers of foods including baked goods and Asian noodles by potentially increasing shelf life, improving mouthfeel and even reducing the need for certain enzymes.
"We also believe the use of this wheat variety could improve the rollability and flexibility of flat breads such as tortilla and pita bread," said Kent Symns, the company's president.
Indeed, an independent industry expert told FoodNavigator-USA.com that the partial replacement of regular wheat flour with waxy wheat flour could replace the need for certain enzymes that react with starch in baked goods in order to deliver a softer product, resulting in significant economic advantages.
Another advantage is that this is a 'natural' ingredient, and can be labelled as such, he said.
"The ability to manipulate the starch within wheat is a breakthrough. For too long breeders have been looking at wheat's structural components in terms of protein, without looking at the 70 percent starch content," he said.
"This is quite a big area for exploitation, and could well present new opportunities in baked products, especially cake," he added.
Dr Paul Sieb, a starch chemist in the grain science department of Kansas State Unversity, agrees that one potential use for waxy wheat is cake, especially 'sticky cake'. Another possible application is puffed snacks, he said.
"There is currently a lot of speculation as to what waxy wheat can be used for. It has largely been developed out of lab curiosity, and it is not yet immediately obvious where it will find its niche. But if an immediate uncontested use was discovered for it, then there would be a big rush," said Sieb.
Morris agrees, adding that although he has developed a waxy wheat variety, he feels "no compelling urge to convince people it's useful. We have tried to make it available so that people can play around with it and make their own discoveries as to what it can be used for."