Cassava wheat bread: The alternative to whole wheat?

‘Eat what you grow, grow what you eat.’ This was the slogan in the mind of Dr Ian Thompson, lecturer in Food Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Mona, when in 2011 he made a composite cassava wheat bread as a substitute for regular wheat bread.

His desire to experiment with cassava to make bread was also whetted by the global food for fuel crisis which emerged in 2008 and led to the use of animal feed (corn) to produce fuel.
The wheat bread seen on local supermarket shelves is made from wheat imported from North America. Over 200,000 tonnes of wheat is imported annually, mainly for use in the production of bread.

In 2009, in an effort to reduce the food import bill, the Jamaican government embarked on an “Eat What You Grow Campaign” and the farming community was encouraged to increase production of cassava, among other crops. However, the market was not robust enough to absorb the increased output of cassava which is limited locally to the commercial production of bammy, cassava chips and a cassava-based spray starch. Consequently, Thompson started to think of additional uses for cassava. “I was aware that there was a possibility to produce a flour from the cassava, as cassava is very high in starch. So I did some research on the crop along with a 2011 final year Chemistry student and decided to take up the challenge of preparing cassava flour to make bread,” he said.

A vendor selling cassava at the Merriman Mall
A vendor selling cassava at the Merriman Mall

Thompson was aware of some resistance to cassava consumption due to a perception that it might be poisonous. “Cassava contains poisonous agents called cyanogenic glycosides, linamarin and lotaustralin,” he admitted. But, the plant has a natural mechanism to degrade it. “The act of crushing, cutting or breaking the cassava begins the degradation process. As long as it is processed properly, taking into account the possibility that these agents could cause harm, there is reduced risk of exposure to the toxins,” he explained. The “sweet” varieties of the cassava plant, containing low levels of cyanogenic glycosides, are ideally suited for use in flour production.

Thompson pursued his research with the objective of encouraging people to buy the cassava bread and to stimulate local production. He wanted to make a product that would be acceptable to Jamaican consumers in terms of appearance, taste and texture over an aging (storage) period of seven days. However, evaluation of traditionally produced cassava meal revealed that it could not totally replace wheat as the texture was too coarse. Another option was to reduce the percentage of wheat in the bread by adding cassava flour to produce a composite cassava-wheat flour.
The major objective of the research therefore was to determine the specific level of cassava flour which could be incorporated in wheat bread so that the consumer could not tell that cassava was present. “The challenge was to produce a composite cassava wheat bread which was indistinguishable from the 100 per cent wheat bread. We did not want Jamaican consumers to be able to detect the difference; we were able develop a product which tastes just like wheat bread and potentially having little impact on consumers’ purchase decision based on taste,” Thompson said.

This involved understanding the roles of flour and starch in the bread. “It had to perform in the same way, meaning it had to be leavened or raised by the yeast in the same way, and it had to have the same texture,” he added.

He was able to produce a composite cassava wheat bread, with similar sensory characteristics to that of ordinary wheat bread even in terms of staling.

He also demonstrated that the product was acceptable to the consumer when he displayed it at the Jamaica 50 celebrations in the UK last year. “Those who tasted it could not tell that cassava was present. We also sent a sample to the Colombian Ambassador to Jamaica and he enjoyed it,” he said.

Consumption of bread is an everyday Jamaican custom and the local production of a cassava wheat bread would mean satisfying the need for this staple, while reducing the country’s reliance on imported wheat. “It could reduce our wheat import bill by ten per cent, and instead of supporting farmers in the US, we would be supporting our own farmers, moving towards self-sufficiency and putting our farmers back to work. By re-employing farmers, we would be stimulating economic activity in the rural communities, increasing local commerce (trade) and processing opportunities. We would also be adding value to a raw material which is currently being wasted in the fields,” Thompson stated.

Cost of production
However, pricing remains a major consideration in the marketability of the cassava bread. Thompson found that the cassava bread could not compete with the regular wheat bread due to the cost of cassava flour production. “Because of this, cassava bread is not on the market. At this point, it is a concept. It can be made, but it cannot be made available to the consumer readily because of the cost,” Thompson said.

Consequently, Thompson has commenced investigating improved technologies to convert the cassava root into flour. Traditional technology used to make bammy could not be used to produce the cassava flour for bread as the traditional processing technology relies heavily on manual labour and produces a cassava meal which is unsuited for use in bread. “We are interested in introducing more modern technologies, with a higher level of mechanisation and improved efficiencies to deliver a suitable cassava flour,” Thompson stated.

In this regard, the Department of Chemistry has been holding discussions with CLAYUCA, a consortium of Caribbean and Latin American countries interested in promoting cassava production, backed by CIAT – the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. CLAYUCA supports cassava research and development and has “tried and proven” technology for converting cassava root to cassava flour, suitable for use in bread. CLAYUCA promotes the utilisation of this technology through its member countries which fund the organisation.

In collaboration with the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), the Chemistry Department has also been in dialogue with the Colombian Embassy to explore mechanisms to obtain a pilot plant, with the assistance of CLAYUCA, for the local production of cassava flour and by extension cassava wheat bread. “We approached CLAYUCA, but we need some assistance in trying to ensure that our effort is on somebody’s agenda. We are hoping that CLAYUCA can help,” Thompson said. Reprinted from Mona News, UWI, Jamaica