New staple: Pea flour is being used in bread as people look for a healthier alternative to carbohydrate-rich wheat. Picture: ISTOCK
New staple: Pea flour is being used in bread as people look for a healthier alternative to carbohydrate-rich wheat. Picture: ISTOCK

At a laboratory in downtown Winnipeg in Canada, scientists are trying to revive the fortunes of the bread industry — with peas.

"The biggest challenge is the flavour," because pea bread tends to taste too much like peas, says Yulia Borsuk, a technical specialist in baking technology at the Canadian International Grains Institute lab.

With more people looking for healthier alternatives to carbohydrate-rich foods made from wheat, Canadian researchers are working with Warburtons, the UK’s largest bakery brand.

They are developing dough from pea flour that produces bread that looks and tastes almost like any other loaf but has more protein and less of the carbohydrates and gluten many consumers are trying to avoid.

Substituting pulses — a group of high-protein, low-fat dried seeds that are part of the legume family — for wheat could help revive stagnant sales in a global baked-goods market valued at more than $400bn.

Some shoppers are swapping carbohydrate-and sugar-laden goodies such as pastries and cakes for food items with more protein.

People on the Paleolithic Diet ditch grains and sugar entirely and eat only whole, unprocessed foods that were available during the Stone Age.

"People are going to caveman diets and protein is always a big part of that," says Adam Dyck, a Canadian-based spokesman for Warburtons, which is headquartered in Bolton, England.

"You go talk to any major food company right now and protein is on their radar."

Test loaves are being made at the Winnipeg laboratory because Canada is the world’s largest exporter of peas and lentils traditionally used in soups and curries. But the crops can also be made into fibre, flour starch and protein concentrates that are making their way into packaged foods.

"Protein is the seller," says Ashok Sarkar, senior adviser of technology at the grains institute. "That’s the biggest draw, and there are many side benefits, like fibre, minerals and micronutrients."

While peas are a long way from competing with wheat — the dominant grain for baked goods — the commodity is finding its way into more products. US-based General Mills uses pea protein in its Larabar snack bar, while Nabisco uses red beans in a variety of Triscuit’s brown rice crackers.

Last year, Warburtons introduced a line of protein-packed baked goods made with whole-meal flour and pulses including wraps, rolls and loaves with 8g to 10g of protein. The company is looking for other ways to use peas and lentils in baking.

It provided the laboratory in-kind contributions of equipment including a fermentation tank needed for a three-year research project by the institute that is the largest of its kind.

Researchers are creating a database of flavours and functions of pulses in baked goods that will be shared with farmers, processors and food companies.

Consumers are willing to pay a premium for these products and Warburtons hopes to advance its uses of pulse flours in other areas, such as gluten-free baked goods.

"We weren’t going to do it unless we were going to increase sales and attract a different kind of consumer," says Dyck. "There is great opportunity to bring people into the bakery market."

Bread is "considered more and more to be an unhealthy product", Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kenneth Shea says. "It’s white flour, it’s white sugar — all the stuff that consumers are trying to move away from."

The Canadian government and the farmer-funded Grains Institute have been test-baking pulses since 2003. While they have figured out how to use the crop in Asian noodles and pasta, it is more difficult to create bread that mimics the colour, texture and flavour of wheat.

At the Winnipeg laboratory, Borsuk bakes dozens of loaves a week to test different combinations of flours made from pulse crops such as yellow peas, red lentils and navy beans. The laboratory uses various treatments to alter or mask the pea flavour, including infrared heat.

Another challenge is that pea dough has no gluten, which means it tends to be stickier than wheat flour. That can be a problem if it gums up bakery rollers and processing surfaces. The laboratory uses a texture analyser resembling a guillotine that lowers a blade into the dough to measure how much force it takes to cut in and out.

"For a bakery to incorporate pulses in their processing or their product, they don’t want to have issues on the line because it’s big money," says Kasia McMillin, a laboratory technician, as she scrapes the remnants of some test dough off her fingertips. "It’s a dirty job."

For now, testers are adding some wheat flour — and its gluten — to make the pea dough easier to work with. Researchers use electronic devices to test for properties such as bitterness or soapiness. At the end of the week, workers gather to taste samples.

"It’s fun," said Borsuk, who prefers the bread made with chickpeas rather than red lentils, which she thinks has a slightly bitter aftertaste. "They are all different."


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