An interest in raising heritage wheat varieties has evolved into extensive sourdough research and future food production for Brian and Craig LaPlante of Fisher, Minn.
The brothers are on their third year of work with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute to develop and market sourdough products — breads, bagels, buns, cookies, cakes, pasta and more. Their goal is to create and market commercially available sourdough products for existing bakeries, market their own heritage wheat flour early next year, and then expand into ready-to-bake and frozen lines. By late 2019 or early 2020, they plan to open a bakery and eatery in the Fisher-East Grand Forks area.
There is wisdom to be gained from studying and redeveloping centuries-old food technologies, such as sourdough, Brian maintains.
And the name of their business venture reflects this: Back When Foods Inc.
The health connection
Brian, a business major with interests in chemistry and biochemistry, and Craig, an agronomist, started talking about heritage and ancient wheat varieties about five years ago as a way to diversify crops on their family’s fourth-generation farm. As Craig delved into research about wheat lines in Europe and Australia, Brian took a detour on another path: helping his son Ethan manage a diagnosis of reactive hypoglycemia.
In winter 2014, Ethan started having health issues after eating carbohydrate-rich foods — a popular diet suggested by coaches of young athletes. He felt tired, couldn’t seem to eat enough and rapidly gained weight. Brian and his wife, Linda, conferred with their doctor and began charting Ethan’s blood glucose levels after he ate. This is when patterns of blood sugar anomalies known as reactive hypoglycemia began to emerge.
RED AND WHITE: Red Fife (left) and Sonora White (right) are two heritage wheat varieties that Craig LaPlante has grown on his family’s farm.
Soon after noting this connection, Brian and Linda began combing published research reports about diets and foods known to control blood glucose levels. They learned from European research that traditional sourdough helped correct blood glucose. Their next step was to research sourdough culture. They decided on an East Coast source for their first culture.
“We decided to experiment with this, and Ethan was our guinea pig,” Brian says.
It took nearly two years of endless formulations to make a sourdough bread that everyone in the family liked. Yet, the tenacious effort was worth it: Ethan’s blood sugar stabilized after eating the sourdough foods, and he eventually lost 65 pounds. Today, he is a high school junior, enrolled in four college courses concurrent with high school studies. He looks forward to attending the University of North Dakota and joining the family’s sourdough business someday.
AURI staff contacted Brian after hearing about the family’s efforts. Since then, AURI scientists have assisted the LaPlantes extensively with research to better understand the effects of sourdough and cereal grains.
AURI also is partnering with the Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council and working with the Alberta Wheat Commission and Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission on a three-year project that examines the sourdough bread fermentation process as it breaks down proteins and carbohydrates in wheat flour. Michael Gänzle, a University of Alberta food microbiologist who is leading the project, hopes to better understand whether this fermentation process is sufficient in reducing adverse effects. Research results are expected in 2021.
“AURI has been an invaluable resource for us,” Brian adds. “Harold Stanislawski, our AURI business developer, has worked tirelessly to further our research needs. He has a unique ability to foster working relationships with researchers, private industry and governmental agencies. Together, they operate as a nimble, focused entity with the singular goal of doing what it takes to lift a heavy load for agricultural entrepreneurs.”
HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE: Consuming wheat-based foods that have gone through the sourdough process has helped Ethan LaPlante (center), shown here with his parents, Linda and Brian LaPlante, manage a medical diagnosis of reactive hypoglycemia.
The wheat connection
In addition to the sourdough angle, Craig says the Canadian researcher also is interested in heritage wheat lines. Over time, as wheat breeders worked to increase drought resistance and cold tolerance — another component in the plant — the carbohydrate fructan has increased. Research from Australia has shown that people suffering from gluten intolerance or sensitivity actually may be fructan-intolerant.
In heritage wheat lines, fructan levels are lower than in modern varieties.
“Our goal with the heritage lines is to look for lower fructan levels,” Craig says.
This past growing season, Craig raised three spring wheat heritage wheat lines: Canus, a 1914 University of Minnesota hard red variety; Red Fife, a 5-foot-tall beardless variety native to Scotland and Turkey that was used as a sodbuster in the U.S. from Montana to Canada and planted until roughly 1950; and Sonora White, a 500-plus-year-old Spanish variety that is very drought-resistant.
Since heritage wheat lines are expensive, Craig is cleaning harvested seed and saving it to increase his lines until they are sufficient for large-scale production and use. He currently has enough seed for his own farm and has been getting calls from other producers who want to grow the heritage grains.
This year’s growing season was dry again, yet the Canus heritage wheat yielded 10 bushels per acre more than his modern lines. Plus, the heritage varieties outperformed in resistance to attack from the wheat stem sawfly.
After seeing how well heritage wheat is yielding and noting the growing interest in these small grains, Craig is expanding into heritage barley and wheat. In addition to these crops, he also raises soybeans.
More sourdough research
The LaPlantes are deep into additional competitive grant research that delves further into two of wheat’s “antinutrients”— fructans and amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATI). Both are being studied to see how sourdough fermentation may degrade or eliminate them.
Fructans are molecules of fructose, Brian notes, and humans have little, if any, enzymatic activity for the digestion of fructose and fructans.
“This research, potentially, could have a significant impact on our current understanding of digestive issues for those consuming wheat,” he adds.
A second research project, to be applied for this November, will look into modern, heritage and ancient wheat lines to identify those with the lowest levels of fructans and ATIs.
“Over 125 years ago, nearly all cereal grain products were made using some form of sourdough fermentation,” Brian says. “It is our goal, coupled with hard science, to reintroduce these sourdough products for consumers.”