The U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked imports of wheat gluten from a Chinese company Monday. The agency identified the company as the source of the tainted wheat gluten that caused a massive pet-food recall last week. Given how much wheat is produced by American farmers, why do we need to import wheat gluten?
Because it's cheaper than buying domestic gluten. We may be the world's largest exporter of wheat, shipping 1 billion bushels to other countries in last year's growing season. Yet we export relatively little wheat gluten. To extract the gluten from wheat, you have to separate it from the starch, by repeatedly washing and kneading wheat flour. But only four U.S. companies go through this process; last year, they produced roughly 100 million pounds of wheat gluten, about 20 percent of the domestic demand.
Almost two-thirds of the more than 400 million pounds we imported came from European Union countries. That's because the Europeans use wheat starch to make sweeteners, which leaves them with a lot of extra gluten. The United States, on the other hand, relies on corn for sweeteners—thus the high-fructose corn syrup in our sodas. Add in Europe's wheat subsidies, and EU nations can sell their wheat gluten for a low price. U.S. wheat-gluten-makers say EU prices are sometimes below American production costs.
In addition to EU countries, Australia accounted for more than 18 percent of imported gluten in 2006 and China 14 percent, according to the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service. Industry insiders say Chinese imports more than doubled from 2005, based on U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Our enormous appetite for wheat gluten exacerbates the wheat-gluten trade deficit. We're the world's biggest consumer of wheat gluten today; American manufacturers use it to produce baked goods. Having the right protein content in dough ensures that it will remain intact as it rises. Without the elasticity afforded by the gluten, bread would collapse, yielding a dense, heavy loaf. Wheat gluten also gives vegetarian "fake meat," like DIY seitan, and pet food a meatlike texture and binds together processed foods like chicken nuggets, turkey burgers, and imitation crabmeat. Gluten even makes its way into shampoo and biodegradable sporks.
Bonus Explainer: We may be the biggest wheat exporter around, but we're also an importer. The United States bought $304 million worth of wheat from Canada last year, and smaller amounts from Mexico, Hungary, and a few other nations.
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Explainer thanks Joshua Lagos at the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, Ronald Madl of the Bioprocessing and Industrial Value Added Center at Kansas State University, and Steve Pickman of MGP Ingredients.