White Flour is, at the same time, one of the most coveted ingredients for baking in the world and the nemesis of health-conscious eaters everywhere. White flour is the ever-present ingredient in processed foods and, probably, the single most consumed processed food in the United States (although high fructose corn syrup might give it a run for its money). Andrew asked me to explain how white flour is made, why it might be bleached and enriched, and why whole grains are a far superior choice for your health.
First, a short history lesson
What’s the deal with white flour anyway? How did we end up eating solely nutritionally deplete flour? White flour first appeared in appreciable quantity in the late 1800s with the industrial revolution. Whole wheat flour has a short shelf life; after all, it contains the germ and bran which can cause rancidity. Steam mills came with the age of industry, allowing a lot of flour to be produced quickly and transported all over the country. At the time, “flour” meant whole wheat flour, which will last only about 6 to 9 months before spoiling. To solve this short shelf life problem, millers began sifting out the germ and bran to increase the life for their flour.
In the beginning, white flour was a food of the elite. It was consumed by those with money and those in urban areas. As industry made it cheaper to produce, it became cheaper to buy. Lower income consumers imitated the wealthy and, within a few short years, white flour was the standard for everyone.
If you know that white flour is made from wheat, you’re one step ahead of a lot of people — truly, I’m not joking. White flour is made by separating the bran and the germ from the endosperm of the grain of wheat. That’s not really as complicated as it sounds — it is simply ground (typically on a high-speed, steel roller mill) and sifted to remove the fluffy white from the heavier brown. The sifting repeats until all that is left is white, fluffy flour. Fine flours, such as cake flour, are sifted more heavily. For a more in-depth description, check out this awesome video from Discovery: How It’s Made Flour.
Bleaching, Bromating, and Enriching
Often you see two types of white flour — unbleached and bleached. Bleaching is done quite simply to make flour that is truly white. Without it, white flour has a slightly off-white color. When white flour was hitting its peak, bleaching was popular to make the whitest cakes and whitest bread possible. While bleaching has become far less popular, it can still be found in many large flour brands and in most processed food.
Potassium Bromate is an enrichment added to help develop the gluten (protein) in baking. It strengthens the dough and encourages rising. Most manufacturers of flour no longer use this enrichment because research has indicated it to be a carcinogen. While it is outright banned in the United Kingdom, the FDA has not banned bromate from use in the United States, though they strongly discourage bakers from using it. Today, most manufacturers of white flour add Malted Barley Flour to bolster their flour. Malted Barley Flour is quite simply barley that has been sprouted, dried and ground into flour.
Other enrichments required by law for conventional white flour include folic acid, niacin, iron, thiamin and riboflavin. These vitamins were originally required by law (circa 1940) to help solve health issues caused by diets deficient in these essential nutrients. These nutrients are naturally found in whole wheat flour and are removed when the germ and bran are removed. Funny, isn’t it? That the government requires us to add enrichment to flour that would have been just fine had it been left whole. With so many Americans relying on white flour, though, it was necessary to help prevent things like neural tube defects in unborn babies.
In the United States, you cannot enrich organic flours — so if you want to skip the added vitamins, go organic. Alternately, in Canada all white flour must be enriched — regardless of its organic status.
Go whole grain, but know before you buy
Many of the giant flour manufacturers in the United States do not grind whole wheat flour from the whole grain. Instead, they separate all three parts of the wheat grain and re-combine them to produce whole wheat flour. It’s far cheaper to produce this way because the majority of their business is in white flour. This is completely legal in the United States and qualifies to be called whole grain. Investigate the source of your whole wheat flour before you buy.
That’s the short version of a very long story about how America became reliant on enriched white flour. For your good health, start switching to whole grain flours such as whole wheat and spelt in your baked goods, choose pasta made with whole wheat flour and pick brown rice over white rice. The nutrients naturally found in whole grains make enrichment unnecessary. Whole grains are packed with fiber and offer variety in flavor and texture. A cookie made with whole wheat pastry flour tastes as good, if not better, than one made with white flour and your conscience can rest easy knowing you fed your family something healthier.
100% Whole Wheat Bread
Homemade bread is so delicious and when it has healthy twists to it, it only adds greatness to the taste of these amazing recipes.
Makes 2 loaves.
- 2 Tbsp Active Dry Yeast
- 1/4 cup Warm Water 110 degrees
- 1/4 cup Honey + 2 Tbsp
- 1-1/2 tsp Sea Salt
- 3 Tbsp Oil*
- 1-3/4 cups Warm Water 110 degrees
- 6 cups Stone-Ground Whole Wheat Flour
Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Allow to proof 3-5 minutes.
Combine next 4 ingredients and add to yeast mixture.
Stir in flour, mix well. Knead 10 minutes. Let rise 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Punch down. Let rise 40-60 minutes until doubled.
Punch down and let rise a third time until doubled.
Shape into 2 loaves and let rise until doubled.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 45 minutes.
Optional: If you like sesame seeds or poppy seeds, roll dough on damp towel and in seeds before putting in pans. * Regarding the oil: The original recipe calls simply for "Vegetable Oil," but most vegetable oils are highly processed. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Virgin Coconut Oil, Butter, or Peanut Oil may all be good options. Give it a try and let us know how it turns out!
About the Author
Cassidy Stockton writes and publishes a blog on behalf of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, a distinctive stone grinding miller of whole grain natural foods. Bob’s Red Mill offers the widest selection of whole grain, natural, organic and gluten-free flours, cereals, and baking mixes. And, of course, they’re a sponsor of October Unprocessed 2015! You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
I’m curious as to which (U.S.) manufacturers are known to reconstitute their whole wheat flour from its parts rather than grinding the whole grain. How would the average consumer know or find out about their processes? Do you think most companies are open about manufacturing processes?
Very informative article. Thanks!
Hi John- We have two great posts on how to make that transition.
Cooking with Whole Grains: http://www.bobsredmill.com/blog/2011/01/03/integrating-whole-grains-part-1-%e2%80%93-cooking/
Baking with Whole Grains: http://www.bobsredmill.com/blog/2011/01/04/integrating-whole-grains-part-2-%e2%80%93-baking/
Both will have helpful info for integrating whole grains into your regular recipes. Hope this helps!
My local grocer has a machine in their healthy foods section that my wife has come to love – an automatic flour grinder. There’s a tub full of whole grains (they have two different kinds – wheat and… something else), you put a bag under the spout, press a button – and you end up with a bag of fresh ground, whole grain flour! It’s wonderful! Some of our friends tell us that they want to switch from white flour to whole grain, but the challenge they face is that they don’t know how to bake with it. It whole grain flour bakes differently than white flour, and the end product tastes very different and has a noticeably different texture. These friends were taught to bake by their parents who use white flour, so they don’t always know how to adjust their methods and recipes. I think it would be… Read more »
Sorry, “In case there are any lazy bread-makers”…
In these are any lazy bread-makers reading this, I am one and buying a bread-maker really helped me after my husband’s heart attack. We were suddenly watching salt and I have had fun playing with whole grains.
Hi Debbie: Because this recipe makes two loaves- 2 Tbsp is the correct amount of yeast. You can always cut back on it if that’s how you normally make bread.
Mike: Most of the gluten free flours that we produce are whole grain and stone ground. Flours such as white rice flour can be substituted for whole grain versions, like brown rice flour. With tapioca flour and the other starches, they are rather hard to do without when gluten free baking. Picking arrowroot starch or tapioca starch would be preferable over, say, cornstarch, as they are less processed. Hope this helps!
Definitely interested in this. What’s your thoughts on gluten-free bread? And any recommendations on gluten-free flours? Is the process similar to milling and all?
Oh, ps. Is that recipe correct? 2 TBSP of yeast? Should that be 2 tsp? That would be a lot of yeast. I usually only use a 1/2 tsp to 1 tsp depending on how long I can leave it to rise
Wow this is so interesting. I didn’t realize the process of some flour grinders to not actually grind the whole wheat grain! I’m going to be checking out King Arthur. Does anyone know if they are one of the ones that grind their whole wheat that way?
And thanks for the info on what barley malt is. Never really knew that either.
I’m a huge fan of Bob’s Red Mill products. I use a lot of your flours for baking bread and muffins. Thanks!
I love this recipe. If I want something with a little more texture I replace the water and some of the flour with Bob’s 7 or 12 grain cereal mix. Just make the cereal like normal, and then add the other ingredients. It takes a little trial and error, sometimes adding more flour or water, but the result is a delicious multi-grain, whole wheat bread! Another good addition is flax seed or sunflower if you want a little extra “seediness” to your bread.