The type of bread children like best might open up new marketing possibilities for Idaho wheat farmers, according to one University of Idaho researcher.
Samantha Ramsay, assistant professor of foods and nutrition at UI, is leading a study funded by the Idaho Wheat Commission to determine whether children prefer bread made of hard red or hard white wheat. Indications so far, Ramsay said, show that bread made of hard white wheat — which is commonly grown in Idaho — may find new favor with consumers.
"Hard red wheat is what you traditionally see in the market," Ramsay said, referring to the dark whole grain bread most bread buyers recognize.
"Hard white wheat grows in Idaho ... but doesn't have as much protein content," she said. "Without that protein content, white wheat — even as whole grain — doesn't have the bitter or astringent mouth feel that you would identify with hard red wheat."
Ramsay and her graduate student assistants in the child development laboratory of the food science college have performed controlled experiments on 26 preschool-age children. The study involves baking bread made from non-whole grain red and white wheats, and whole grain red and white wheats.
Children are then asked to rank their preferences using the standard of "very yummy, yummy, just OK and yucky."
"So far, we do know that children are preferring to select non-whole grain products overall, but more children have selected the hard white wheat as yummy and just OK. More children identified the hard red as yucky," Ramsay said.
The differences reflect children's natural aversion to astringent and bitter flavors — a trait that most people overcome as they grow older.
But the implication for the wheat industry is that bread made from whole grain hard white wheat might become a preferred choice among consumers looking to put more whole grains into their diets, and attract children and others whose sensory taste receptors reject bitter and astringent flavors.
"For the wheat commission there's an opportunity," Ramsay said. "We can have the benefit of whole grains and have children consume it without an aversion because they're not experiencing a bitter taste."
The need to increase whole grain consumption in the United States is a major concern of dietitians and others, she said.
"People are aware, but we still don't do it," she said.
The wheat commission awarded Ramsay's project $60,000 for research this year. Her team has completed a baseline evaluation of the children in the project and will follow up in the spring with another sampling.
Ramsay will report the preliminary findings to the wheat commission in February.
She is also aware of growing worries about wheat allergies, diseases and sensitivities.
While wheat allergies and celiac disease are diagnosable conditions that can be life-threatening to a small segment of the population, she said the science on wheat sensitivities is still inconclusive.
"How the human body is responding to a product like wheat, there's a lot of variabilities," she said. "We've been consuming grains for a number of years very safely and grains provide a wonderful source of nutrients and a great source of fiber and great source of energy."
Targeting wheat as the culprit in food sensitivities, she said, is premature and not backed up by science.
"The research isn't quite there to identify whether we're seeing increased incidents or whether we're seeing increased identification," she said. "Twenty and 30 years ago people didn't talk about this. When celiac disease started getting more attention, now people are more aware of food than they were before. Whether (the increase in reported food sensitivities) is because we're truly having more cases or whether we're seeing a greater incidence of reporting — it's really hard to tease out at this point."
Wheat critics often point to modern techniques of raising wheat as a possible reason more people are experiencing sensitivities. Ramsay said modern agricultural methods are used on other grains as well, and wheat can't be targeted as the only reason some people are having problems.
Before people start eliminating something from their diets, she said they should check with a medical professional or dietitian to make sure they're not missing something vital to their health.
"I think more people are more aware of their diet now and food and how it affects their bodies," Ramsay said. "That's a good thing. But we also need to make sure we're educated and we don't make decisions about eliminating foods without the science to back it up."