Composite Flours: A Solution to Skyrocketing Wheat Prices

No doubt, wheat is a good source of calories, but it is considered a poor cereal because it is deficient in essential amino acids, namely lysine and threonine. Despite its lack of certain essential nutrients, wheat is a highly sought-after commodity with some 793 million metric tons consumed in the 2021/2022 market year, according to Statista. Improving the nutritional profile by partially substituting wheat with nutritionally superior non-wheat flour to create composite flours has been identified by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as one of the ways to enhance nutrition for millions of people worldwide. 

FAO spearheaded the global adoption of composite wheat flour as early as the 1960s, but there was limited global adoption reported. A convergence of high wheat prices and a persistent gluten-free trend is renewing interest in composite flours. 

In this article, we will examine the factors behind the resurgence of composite flour in the global baking industry and explore the options available to millers and bakers who want to take advantage of this exciting new trend. 


A Business Case for Composite Flours 

FAO suggests that the use of composite flours can be a cost-effective solution for managing the expenses related to importing wheat flour in developing countries that do not cultivate wheat due to unfavorable climatic conditions. 

Extensive research has indicated that it is possible to create acceptable wheat products by substituting up to 20-40% with purified starches, 10-30% with rice flour, 5-20% with cereal and root flours, or with 3-15% of proteinaceous flours. 

Previously, there was reluctance to adopt composite flours because wheat was relatively affordable. However, the Russian invasion, the pandemic, and a prolonged period of drought have affected global wheat production, resulting in higher prices in the global market. Russia’s refusal to continue participating in the Black Sea Grain deal has further upset the wheat market. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that global grain prices may jump by 10-15% as a result. 

As the price of wheat continues to rise, millers and bakers are now considering the use of composite flours as a strategy for managing costs. FAO estimates that substituting 20% of wheat flour with non-wheat flour for the production of bakery products would lead to an estimated annual savings of US$320 million. At a 30% substitution rate, the savings would amount to US$480 million per year. 

Composite flours also help to address the gluten problem that is associated with every wheat product. Gluten consumption can result in various gluten-related disorders, including coeliac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis (a skin manifestation of coeliac disease), gluten ataxia, and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Consumer awareness of the adverse effects of gluten has led to gluten-free products worldwide. According to Grand View Research, the global market size for gluten-free products was estimated to be USD 6.45 billion in 2022. It is projected to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.8% from 2023 to 2030. Composite flours that are gluten-free present manufacturers with an opportunity to expand their revenue streams by tapping into this fast-growing category. 

The convergence of cost management and health is certainly an attractive proposition for the milling industry. For the African milling industry, in particular, this sustainable approach can provide a pathway to achieving greater independence from the unpredictable conditions of the global markets. It can also help reduce the cost of raw materials and introduce new, functional composite flours with a regional flair. This is a statement that many industry experts agree with. “Whereas the addition of non-wheat flours from local sources used to be seen as a compromise, the new generation of composite flour products will be able to assert itself much more confidently,” says Jannes Peemöller, Mühlenchemie’s area sales manager. 


What Composite Flours Are Available and Viable? 

With the dramatic rise in food insecurity, the food industry has become increasingly interested in the potential of using composite flour to produce affordable bread and other baked products. A significant amount of research has been conducted to investigate the potential of various composite flours in producing baked goods that are appealing to the senses. Composite flours made from wheat and cassava flour were among the first to be explored, with the Nigerian government at one time directing wheat millers to incorporate 10% cassava in the flours they produce. Although the policy was later abandoned in 2017, it proved that it was possible to use locally sourced ingredients to partially replace wheat imports in the production of baking flour. 

While the Nigerian project was primarily government-led, in Kenya there have been efforts to promote private sector-led adoption of composite flours. In the East African nation, a combination of wheat flour and orange-fleshed sweet potato flour appears to be the most popular option. The International Potato Center (CIP) is leading the effort to incorporate Orange Fleshed Sweet Potatoes (OFSP) into baking flours. “We have developed breads in which 45-50% of the wheat flour has been replaced with OFSP puree,” CIP says. “This makes the flour a good source of vitamin A while reducing the amount of sugar and oil that bakers use. It also helps to cut production costs by reducing the need for often-imported flour.” 

At times, a composite can comprise more than two flours. In Ethiopia, research led by Masresha Gebeyehu Ewunetu explored the possibility of using three different types of flour in bread making. The study published in the Hindawi Journal in March 2023 showed that bread of acceptable quality can be produced from a composite flour made of wheat, carrot, and banana. This innovation has the potential to increase nutrition and prevent malnutrition. 

In other scenarios, it is possible to completely replace wheat, resulting in the creation of gluten-free products, which, as discussed earlier, are currently trending. The potential of these products in Africa was highlighted recently during MC Mühlenchemie’s Composite Flour competition. Yusuf Olamide Kewuyemi, a doctoral student at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, was the winner of the Awards, receiving €5,000 for his development of 3D-printed crackers made from processed whole-grain flour derived from African-grown peas and quinoa. The second prize went to Abdulhakim Endris from Jimma University in Ethiopia. His study, titled “Optimizing the Process Variables for the Production of Oat Compound Biscuits,” investigated the ideal combination of wheat and oat flour for biscuit production. 

“The submitted research projects demonstrate the enormous potential of composite flour to make the future of our food production sustainable,” said Dr. Lutz Popper, the scientific director of MC Mühlenchemie and chairman of the jury. “They demonstrate that with intelligent and innovative methods, we can reduce our dependence on wheat without having to give up taste and quality.” 

In East Africa, the international potato center has developed breads in which 45-50% of the wheat has been replaced with ofsp puree. This makes the flour a good source of vitamin a while reducing the amount of sugar and oil bakers use.


Baking with Gluten-Free Flours Is Not Easy 

Despite the growing trend of eliminating gluten from baking recipes, baking is more of a science than an art. The removal of gluten from cereal-based baked goods has a negative impact on the process of making bread and its sensory characteristics. It also presents technological difficulties in producing high-quality leavened bread. The utilization of non-gluten raw materials alters the rheological characteristics of gluten-free dough, potentially leading to variations in processing efficiency and the resulting bread’s quality after baking. Gluten-free bread tends to have poor visual texture characteristics, low nutritional value, reduced mouthfeel and flavor, as well as a shorter shelf life. 

Due to the lack of gluten, alternative ingredients must be used to preserve the texture, volume, satisfactory crumb, shelf life, and sensory quality. These include the use of hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, sourdough, and enzyme preparations. 

Emulsifiers, such as lecithin, mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, and esters of fatty acids with lactic acid, are used to facilitate the processing of dough and to make the crumb softer. Milk, egg yolk (except for bread), soy protein, sunflower, and lupine flour can also be used for this purpose. Hydrocolloids, on the other hand, swell and form a gel that thickens the dough, creating a structure for gas bubbles and preventing the loss of gas released during whipping, leavening, or from raising agents. After baking, hydrocolloids stabilize the crumb structure, bind water, and prevent rapid starch retrogradation. 

The addition of fiber affects the quality of the bread through its hydration. Studies have shown that, in addition to its beneficial health effects, fiber also improves texture, specific volume, apparent viscosity, consistency, sensory quality, and shelf life. This is due to its ability to bind water, form a gel, and thicken. 

Even with all of these additional ingredients, the formulations must be correct in order to create products that meet the required standards. Even for companies specialized in flour treatment, the process of determining the right formulation can be highly complex, as each non-wheat flour has different product attributes. Stefan Creutz, the strategic applications development manager at Mühlenchemie, faced a similar challenge while developing solutions to improve flour for composite flour. “The high starch content of cassava shortened the shelf life of the bread,” Creutz said. “Certain varieties of millet produced a very intense taste, and in some cases, the use of maize flour resulted in a yellowish or granular crumb structure.” 


Africa Makes More Inquiries about Composite Flour 

As baking with composite flour can be challenging, millers and bakers in Africa are turning to flour improvement specialists such as Mühlenchemie to ensure success in their first bake. Having worked with composite flours for decades, flour improvement specialists have developed products that make it easy for millers and bakers to switch to composite flours. Take Muhlenchemie, for example, which, after many trials, has managed to develop mixed enzyme systems that allow for the inclusion of up to 20% of non-wheat flour without compromising on processing characteristics or product quality. 

Muhlenchemie further notes that its new enzyme systems, known as Compozym, deliberately exclude the use of vital gluten in order to minimize the cost of flour treatment for the mills. “Compozym offers an excellent means of compensating for the poor viscoelastic properties of the wheat substitutes,” Creutz said. 

Globally, there are other solutions available. In North America, Arva Flour Mills, based in Canada, has recently introduced a line of gluten-free products under the Arva Flour Brand. This move is aimed at keeping up with the growing demand for gluten-free flour. Washington-based Continental Mills Krusteaz offers a gluten-free all-purpose mix that includes rice flour, whole grain brown rice flour, whole sorghum flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, cellulose, xanthan gum, and a blend of vitamins and minerals. This mix is designed for the production of cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins, quick bread, and pancakes. Among other composite mixes available in the market, there are Measure for Measure Flour from King Arthur Baking Company and Antimo Caputo Gluten Free Pizza Flour. 


Commercial Success Stories 

It’s true that many products that were highly successful during the research and development phase never make it to the market. This reality also applies to many products made from composite flour. Bakers can, however, have confidence in the commercial viability of this trend, as there are a significant number of success stories that are dotting our supermarket shelves. South Africa probably has the most success in this field with Woolworths, one of its leading supermarkets, stocking over 22 different baked products made from composite flours, including breads, scones, and crackers. In our home market, Kenya, baked products made from composite flours are also very common. Thanks to the work by CIP, the OFSP-wheat flour composite has gained considerable market acceptance. Naivas, Kenya’s largest supermarket by number of stores, even stocks own-label breads produced using this flour. 

The presence of these products on our shelves proves that products made from composite flours are commercially viable. It’s only a matter of time before alternative grains become mainstream, as wheat prices continue to rise and bakers struggle to keep the prices of their products affordable for consumers. Liezel Huysamen, a flour improvement specialist at Mühlenchemie, has already observed this trend. “We are receiving more and more inquiries from customers about how to replace part of the wheat with starch products from local sources,” Huysamen said. 

This feature appeared in the June 2023 issue of Healthcare Middle East & Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE