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New Wheat Bread Meant to Taste Like White

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The business news is about bread, by which we mean not money, but bread.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And, Steve, we all know that foods with whole grains are better for you. The problem is how to get consumers, especially children raised on white bread, to choose whole wheat products. Many in the baking industry think they may have found the answer: a new type of wheat that's changing the nation's bread baskets. From Kansas City, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

In Kansas, hard red wheat is king and has been for more than 130 years. Introduced in the 1870s by immigrants who brought it with them from Ukraine, it flourished here on the American plains. But about 20 years ago, some Midwest farmers and researchers became interested in an albino variety, hard white wheat. Kent Symns helped organize a cooperative of white wheat farmers who recently bought a flour mill in Salina, Kansas. At the mill, Symns says the growers thought that because white wheat's bran is light colored and not bitter, it would appeal to both bakers and consumers.

Mr. KENT SYMNS (Organized Cooperative): With white wheat, you could have whole wheat that was lighter in color, you could certainly have whole wheat or partly whole wheat that didn't have any bitter flavor and tasted better, and kids--early surveys showed that kids liked it much better.

(Soundbite of machinery)

ALLEN: For years, Symns' co-op, Farmer Direct, has grown and marketed white wheat. Its customers include three of the nation's largest commercial bakers. But now business is really picking up. In Salina, Symns conducts a tour of Farmer Direct's new mill, which already is working at full capacity, producing 4,400 pounds of stone-ground white wheat flour each hour. In a holding room, Symns points to 50-pound bags of flour and bran stacked on pallets.

Mr. SYMNS: As of noon yesterday, every bag they had on the floor was sold or committed, and we were worrying if we were gonna be able to turn out enough more.

ALLEN: While hard white wheat is relatively new here, it's been grown in Australia for years. In fact, it was demand for Australian hard white wheat on the world market that first attracted the interest of farmers and researchers here in the US. Justin Gilpin is a marketing specialist with the Kansas Wheat Commission. Gilpin says while hard white wheat was introduced as an export crop, it's now catching on with domestic bakers and millers.

Mr. JUSTIN GILPIN (Kansas Wheat Commission): Just within the last year with the new food guide pyramid and the shift in US food trends and the focus on whole grains and the nutrition and incorporating that in the US diet, we're seeing a large increase in companies looking at new products and incorporating whole grain increased fiber into their products. White wheat offers an excellent opportunity for companies to do that.

ALLEN: Gilpin calls it stealth health. ConAgra is among the industry leaders embracing this new wheat, using it to produce a whole grain flour that's already found in a number of products, including a new Sara Lee white bread. Another big company, General Mills, is using the wheat in its Gold Medal flour, and this month, in what may be a watershed moment, the nation's white bread leader, Interstate Bakeries, announced it's using hard white wheat to produce 100 percent whole grain version of its flagship product, Wonder Bread.

(Soundbite of loaf of bread being unwrapped)

ALLEN: At Interstate Bakeries in Kansas City, Stan Osman's office is filled with loaves of bread. Osman, vice president of bread marketing, unwraps a loaf of the company's new 100 percent whole grain white bread, a product that he touts will take Wonder Bread to a whole new level.

Mr. STAN OSMAN (Interstate Bakeries): The color's not exactly white because it's 100 percent whole grain. Hasn't proven to be a barrier in our research. Most get past that. They try it and they're happy, and if you try, you can roll it up into a ball and, just like Wonder Bread, have all the fun you would with Wonder Bread.

ALLEN: I have a slice in my hand here. Let me see if I can describe it. The texture, as you say, is spongy. I don't know if that's a positive. I don't mean to sound like it's a negative...

Mr. OSMAN: We think of it as soft and good.

ALLEN: OK. But it's got the soft texture, and let me take a bite here and see.

(Soundbite of chewing)

ALLEN: It tastes like white bread with a bit more body and flavor. Osman says his focus group showed the consumers who like Wonder Bread, including kids, also like its new version, which is called White Bread Fans 100 percent Whole Grain. Interstate Bakeries is test marketing it here and in five other cities and hopes to roll it out nationwide early next year. If it succeeds, consumers may eventually see white wheat being used as a stealth health ingredient in everything from breakfast cereals to cookies. Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.