Millers consider solutions to the bread-quality wheat shortage

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Wheat Bread

Millers are considering a range of strategies to ensure they can meet bread makers’ demand for strong flour after a bumper harvest created a shortage of high-protein wheat.

The problem is that high wheat yields in the UK have led to low protein content, which forms gluten, the crucial element for good crumb structure in bread. As a result, the price of bread-quality flour is expected to go up as demand from commercial bakers outstrips supply and millers employ a number of expensive tactics to raise gluten content.

Home Grown Cereals Association (HGCA) economist Icaro Rebolledo said: “There is a fixed amount of protein per hectare, so the more wheat in a hectare the further it has to spread…Millers can mix the wheat with high protein wheat varieties but it depends on what they want from it.”

It appears that millers have four options on the table: either use the lower-protein wheat as it is, selling it to bakers who do not require high gluten content, such as cake and biscuit manufacturers; blend it with high-protein foreign wheat, such as American or Canadian; add powdered gluten; or use a blend of wheat varieties boosted with powdered gluten.

It is not only a matter of finding the optimum gluten level, however, but a matter of achieving a balance between good quality and acceptable cost.

Any kind of combination will inevitably lead to higher flour prices and this is expected to have a knock-on effect for local wheat varieties as millers enter into fierce competition for the best quality home-grown wheat.

The powdered gluten difference

When it comes to powdered gluten, head of cereals and milling at Campden BRI Sam Millar told that price varies considerably depending on how much it is necessary to add.

“It is designed to give the same performance if you had that from the wheat indigenously,”​ he said. “It is not worse per se: it is just different. The level of protein in the US or Canada will be significantly higher, so you could be looking to grist some of that wheat together.”

Trade policy director of the National Association of British and Irish Millers Martin Savage said: “Our members are going to be struggling to find good quality wheat…Some millers will be tempted to add powdered gluten but this is not a brilliant strategy as it doesn’t produce such a good result.”

Extending low-gluten flour use

In addition, higher prices may prompt some millers to look at whether they need to add anything to the low-protein wheat at all. With average protein levels in the UK at their lowest in a decade, the use of lower-gluten flour could conceivably extend beyond biscuits and cakes.

Millar said: “Wholemeal bread will need more gluten than white bread, for instance…It is a commercial issue rather than just a technical one, and one for each miller to look at.”

According to results from the HGCA cereal quality survey, the average level of wheat protein across the UK this year is 11.3 per cent.

The optimum protein level for bread making is generally accepted to be between 11.5 and 14 per cent.

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