Think Bomb

Monday, July 31, 2006

Wheat: It's What's for Breakfast

Sponge cake. Spaghetti. Coco puffs. French loaf. All of these foods are certainly very distinct from one another (I know I’ve got to be in a particular mood for any one of 'em) yet they are all primarily a product of wheat. How does something so simple and seemingly homogenous as wheat come to make such vastly different foods?

Well, that's why wheat is only seemingly homogenous. Each strain of wheat has its own unique characteristics, much like the different breeds of dog. There are hundreds of kinds of wheat and wheat breeders are constantly trying to find a better wheat for the types of foods they're interested in producing.

It can be frustrating to know which strains to breed and running a trial all the way through to the market is quite costly when you consider the amount of energy gone into milling and processing. This is where my friend, food scientist Kameron Pecka, comes in. Kam works for the USDA Western Wheat Quality lab in Pullman, WA, where he, to put it bluntly, measures wheat hardness.

Measuring "hardness" is more complicated than it seems. First, Kameron must photograph the rectangularized wheat endosperm and take its dimensions. Then, using a TA-XT2 (photograph at right), Kam measures the stress and stain on the wheat. Next comes the number crunching: Kam uses graphs and equations involving the stress and stain to determine Young’s modulus, which indicates the elasticity of the wheat, and the total failure energy and force. All these figures come together to give an indication of hardness.

"My work is more physics than biology," says Kam, who’s found himself faced with a calculator most days.

Putting Kam through all these calculations is not just an instrument of undergrad torture, though. Hardness is an indicator of many things that are extremely useful to wheat breeders. The texture of the wheat gives clues about its nutritional content, how much work must be put into milling, and what sort of foods it should be used for. Soft wheat typically goes into cookies, hard into certain breads, and durum is used to make pasta.

Currently Kam is busily working on a paper that will hopefully begin peer review in October. He’s excited by the possibility of being an undergraduate co-author.

As for "cracking wheat all day," Kam says his job is "monotonous, yet frighteningly satisfying."

The Drink!
: Kam is enjoying a Hefeweizen, a German wheat beer which has not had the yeast filtered out. It’s extremely tasty when served with a slice of lemon.

Image sources:


  • fucking Kam. I saw him at the Plant teh other day... 'cept he didn't remember me.

    By Blogger The Fist, at 1:31 AM  

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