Meeting quality parameters
Dec. 9, 2013
by Peter Böhni
In general, wheat mills use selected wheat crops to produce a range of flour types of specified quality for the baking and pasta industries.
Flour sales representatives are trying to meet the purchase requests of their customers regarding consistent product quality, accommodating all kinds of packing sizes from household to bulk, as well as taking into consideration just-in-time delivery and, of course, the best possible cost/performance ratio.
What is product quality?
The definition of flour quality differs in the understanding of the flour producer (miller) and of the food company producing elaborated products based on flour (e.g. the industrial bakery).
The miller, on one hand, puts all his efforts like selection of appropriate wheat varieties and their origin in the wheat blends of his choice. He is interested in a highly sophisticated cleaning process of the wheat and an adapted milling process using the best available milling equipment. And most of the time, when the business is running smoothly, the flour mill is delivering to the customers a very limited range of flour types showing a fairly consistent performance. Occasionally, there may be a difference of quality in the raw materials — caused by new harvest or the sourcing of new crops — which the miller has learned to handle without major problems.
Purchasing managers or production managers of industrial food companies, on the other hand, do not place the same priority on wheat flour as millers do. The milled products only form a small part of their business. Although these products may constitute a large quantity, they do not represent a large part of the value. The food companies use the very limited number of flour products to produce a wide range of highly specific baked goods, pasta and other flour-based products.
Production managers expect their raw materials (in this case wheat flour) to fulfill the requirements of their production processes and to achieve the desired characteristics of their finished products, but often without telling their flour suppliers about these specific quality requirements. In addition, the standard flour specifications — on the basis of which flour is purchased — mainly comprise such parameters as humidity, ash and protein content. However, these data do not really give an indication of the right flour functionality for the customer’s purposes.
At the end of the day a convincing product quality will result from choosing the right solution for a specific application in a consistent and reliable process. But how can a mill achieve this target?
Supporting quality of wheat flours
As mentioned above, a miller may avoid risks by cleaning the raw material from collateral material and spoiled kernels, or use an impact mill to inactivate the precursors of bugs. He can run the mill under hygienic conditions to produce flour with less than the normal total plate count of 105 counts/g, which will later be destroyed in a heating process. But in the following we will focus on the quality parameters a miller may provide regarding the functionality of the flours supplied to industrial customers.
1. Make sure to supply the right flour for the intended application. There is no all-in-one product solution for all possible applications of flour. A so-called all-purpose flour will always be a compromise unable to exactly fit a specific application. Flour suitable for wafers will not produce good pasta and cake flour will not generate good long-fermented ciabatta.
A quality-conscious miller will collect information referring to the characteristics of a customer’s final products and its production processes. This will enable him to adapt, for example, the enzyme activity and the gluten properties of his flour to the specific dough-making and fermentation process in the bakery.
2. Be consistent in the supply of the agreed flour quality. A prerequisite of a long-term, mutually beneficial business relationship between a bakery and its supplying mill is an agreement on the designated application and defined parameters, accurately describing the functionality of the flour to be supplied. These parameters are usually measured by flour analysis using physical and chemical methods. The most basic characteristics for wheat flour are:
Water content (humidity) — no functional impact concerning flour quality.
Ash content — describes flour type according to conventional classes.
Protein content — for dough and baking properties.
But these parameters describe only a part of the final baking performance and do not ensure the consistency of flour functionality. More sophisticated methods are actually available to define the quantity and quality of the crucial constituents of wheat flour. Useful information is, for example, gained from the analysis of wet gluten content, the elasticity/viscosity determination of the wheat protein part, or enzyme degradation and water uptake referring to the starch and non-starch-polysaccharides.
To avoid problems such as potential differences of the analytical results from a customer’s quality control and from their own laboratory at the mill, it is important to agree upon the quality parameters as well as the exact methods for their determination.
In order to react to naturally occurring fluctuations in the wheat crop’s functionality, the miller should regularly discuss with his customer the possibility of maintaining a consistent baking performance by adding safe functional ingredients permitted by law.
3. Take your chances in critical market situations. Millers buying from the grain spot market experienced difficult times in the past years and the future does not look much brighter. Recurring extreme weather conditions tend to impact badly on the quantity and quality of harvested crops. Shortage in the supply of quality wheat caused a dramatic price increase of wheat and other crops.
Thus, millers supplying to industrial customers (bakeries, pasta producers and others in the food industry) with fixed price contracts and fixed quality requirements faced, and are still facing, serious problems. Increased raw material costs to sustain agreed flour quality reduced margins significantly.
Although the customers are aware of the overall situation in the grain market, they are quite reluctant to accept the miller’s reaction of passing on all increased costs.
But food companies might be willing to contribute, if innovative mills are able to communicate that they might be able to compensate the majority of the referring price increase by undertaking knowledge-based changes regarding sourcing, processing and improving of wheat.
This innovative approach supported by external know-how might even create some new business advantages. Great potential to increase existing flour sales will emerge when the miller is able to communicate and prove to target customers that he is ahead of competition either in quality or in price.
Dr. Peter C. Böhni is managing director, Nutrition Solutions, for Uzwil, Switzerland-based Bühler AG. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.