Hold the Gum and Pass the Flax: Function May Be Nutritional’s Ticket to Ride

Ever since 1998, when I visited the Natural Ovens of Manitowoc bakery and its founder, the late Paul Stitt, I've been a big fan of flax seed.

Situated a couple of miles inland from Lake Michigan in southern Wisconsin, Natural Ovens was in the vanguard of the whole-grains trend; more than that, it was a darling of a healthy-eating crowd that looked more like a cult at the time than a consumer trend. To be in supermarkets’ bread aisles at the time, companies usually paid slotting fees. An exception was Natural Ovens: its fans demanded that stores stock its breads and bagels, and even major chains in Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis capitulated.

A biochemist by training, Mr. Stitt became an industry pariah with the publication of “Beating the Food Giants,” his story of life as a food professional that includes a chilling recounting of his experiences at a major cereal manufacturer 40 years ago, when he worked at the firm’s R&D center in Barrington, Ill. Soon out of work and in a funk, Mr. Stitt was rejuvenated after a guest spot on a Manitowoc talk-radio program. That led to several more opportunities to discuss healthy eating and, in 1976, the purchase of a floundering local bakery. He immediately reformulated the white-bread recipe and soon introduced the Midwest’s first 100 percent whole-wheat bread without preservatives and using honey instead of sugar.  and its conversion to whole wheat breads without preservatives. When the health benefits of the omega-3 in flaxseed was recognized, he started up Enrico, a firm that imported flaxseed from Canada for milling and roasting. Trailing his car to the mill, I got a kick out of his vanity plates: “Flax Man.”

Some of the health claims made for flax back then matched the absurd claims for pomegranates today. Could any grain actually shrink cancerous tumors? Omega-3’s benefits, on the other hand, are more grounded, and omega-3 was the darling at November’s Supply Side West, a trade show that straddles the worlds of food and pharma and dietary supplements, the point in between. Omega-3 from fish, dairy and every other imaginable source was well represented at the Las Vegas show, more so than non-GMO ingredients, probiotics, prebiotics and “the healthy halo of protein,” as one exhibitor described her firm’s wares. Enrico was part of the mix, under the banner of Grain Millers Inc., the Eden Prairie, Minn., company that acquired Enrico last year. The takeover followed in the footsteps of the buyout of Canada’s Pizzey Milling, a major flaxseed miller which Glanbia bought in 2007 to boost its omega-3 footprint.

At the Grain Millers booth at Supply Side West, I chatted with Glenn Pizzey, whose non-compete agreement with Glanbia had expired, allowing him to join up with his erstwhile competitor’s new owner. I was commiserating about flaxseed’s slow slog toward mainstream consumption when he told me about the grain’s emergence as a hydrocolloid. It’s old news to bakers, but prices for guar gum have gone through the roof in recent years. Last year was particularly volatile: wholesale prices almost tripled compared to 2011. The increases were driven by unprecedented demand from U.S. oil and gas producers. Halliburton and Baker Hughes are the big buyers: they convert guar into a gel to carry sand down a well under pressure to crack shale formations and free hydrocarbons. In other words, fracking has increased the cost of the binder bakers use to hold their muffins together.

Both Glanbia and Grain Millers are seizing the moment to promote flax-based binders as a lower cost and more-reliable-supply alternative to guar gum. Prices for guar have abated from their spring 2012 peak, though this functional ingredient appears destined for roller-coaster swings, dictated by demand from hydraulic fracturing. Bakeries and other food processors will decide if flax delivers comparable function and flavor, but guar highlights the vulnerability of food companies to raw material pricing far beyond their control. Just as ethanol production drove feed prices through the roof and created havoc for poultry producers last year, demand from outside the food industry distorted guar prices and made life tough for purchasing agents at bakeries. As global trade and interdependence increases, these types of events and the uncertainty in both supply and pricing will become more frequent.

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