#Unprocessed FAQ: Flour & Grains

Wheat Fields

In today’s October Unprocessed FAQ, I’m going to try to clear up some confusion surrounding one of our most common ingredients: Flours and grains.

“Intact” Grains

Although you probably won’t hear “intact” very often when it comes to grains (it’s not common on labels), it’s the best word I’ve found to describe them. The idea is that it’s the whole grain, completely intact as nature made it — it hasn’t been cut, ground, or pulverized in any way. When you buy a bag of whole kernels of barley, wheat, rye, farro, kamut, spelt, teff… all that’s been done to it is that it’s been harvested, cleaned, and dried (and, if it’s not organic, probably sprayed with pesticides). You could do all that at home (though it’s probably not worth the effort!), so those totally pass the kitchen test.

“Whole” Grain

Anything that includes the entirety of the grain — the bran, germ, and endosperm — can be called “whole grain,” even if it’s been ground up (or even separated and put back together). Steel-cut oats, for example, would be whole grain, since they start with intact oats, and then cut them with steel blades. (Here’s more on oats and oatmeals.)

Here are some of the things to watch out for on labels when you’re shopping for whole grain products.

“Whole Grain Flour”

This is really just taking the grain and grinding it down even more, until it’s a fine powder. For it to be called “whole,” it still needs the bran, germ, and endosperm — though technically, it’s legal to separate all the components and then put them back together.

In a previous October, Cassidy from Bob’s Red Mill shared a very informative post about flour — it’s well worth the read.

Jars of Whole Grains

Refined Flours, or simply: “Flour”

It’s safe to assume that anything called “flour” without the word “whole” preceding it has been refined — it’s lacking the nutrient-rich germ and bran. It might be called “All Purpose Flour,” or “Unbleached Flour” or simply, “Wheat Flour.”

By law in the United States, unless it’s certified organic, manufacturers are required to add back in some vitamins, because the refining process strips them out. In Canada, even organic flour must be enriched.

Theoretically, you could grind your own grains at home, and then take the resulting whole grain flour and pass it through finer and finer sieves, until you’ve sifted out all the bran and germ, leaving just the light endosperm. You’d probably never do it, but in theory you could.

To bring this back to the Kitchen Test, then: Strictly speaking, “unbleached, unenriched flour” will pass the test. (That does not mean I’m suggesting you eat it.)  But if it’s been bleached or enriched — two things you wouldn’t do at home — it doesn’t pass the test.

Watch out for the “Wheat Bread” trick that many companies and restaurants play, trying to make you think it’s healthier than any other bread. All it means is that it’s made with wheat flour, which is most likely refined. Your best bet is to get “100% Whole Wheat Bread,” and short of that, seek out “Whole Wheat Bread.”

White Whole Wheat Flour

“White Flour” and “White Whole Wheat Flour”

This is very confusing. Most flour (whole or refined) these days comes from a species of wheat called “red wheat.” If you buy a bag of white flour, it’s probably been milled and refined (and bleached) from red wheat. However, “White Whole Wheat” refers to whole wheat flour that comes from “white wheat,” a different species.

So regular wheat flour probably comes from red wheat.  “White Whole Wheat Flour” actually comes from white wheat.  Got it?  (If not, check out this on Wikipedia.)

In updating this post, I noticed that Bob’s Red Mill has rebranded their “Organic Hard White White Whole Wheat Flour” (pictured above) as “Organic Ivory Wheat Flour” – I’m guessing to help reduce some of this confusion.

Matty and I prefer using White Whole Wheat Flour at home, because it’s a little bit less dense than the red wheat, so it makes a slightly lighter loaf of bread (or pizza crust!).  Both Red Wheat and White Wheat have effectively the same nutrition, so that’s not really a concern.

Sprouted Wheat Berries

“Sprouted” Grains

Grain kernels are actually the seeds of a plant–so sprouted grains are simply seeds that are starting to grow (nowadays, that means they’ve been deliberately germinated). They’ve become popular recently because they’re more easily digestible and nutritious. I’m not convinced there’s a huge health benefit–but I also don’t think they will hurt, and may indeed provide at least some benefits. I’ve also found that store-bought breads that promote the fact that they’re made with sprouted grains are more likely to be healthier overall and pass the kitchen test (such as Ezekiel 4:9 and Alvarado Street Bakery), so I usually pick those up from the shelf first.

(Sidenote: Watch out for raw alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts, like you’d find on a salad bar – unfortunately they’re now a common source of food poisoning. That’s not an issue with grains, which you’re going to cook anyway.)

White Rice and Pearl Barley

White rice is a common question — it’s basically brown rice that has had the outer layers of the grain removed, or “polished.” The question then becomes, can this be done at home, at least in theory? I found this forum post that shows someone doing it at home, and you can even buy a countertop rice polisher on Amazon (looks like they all ship directly from Japan, which sounds about right). I think the process is similar for pearl barley. So I’d say that this does pass the test… of course, from a nutritional perspective, I think we’re better off eating brown rice instead.

Gluten-Free Flours

Last year Carrie Vitt wrote a guest post outlining many of the gluten-free flours and grain-free flours that have flooded the market in recent years, so definitely go check that out if you’re wondering about those.

Applying This Info for the Challenge

100% Whole Wheat Flour (or 100% Whole [Insert-Grain-Here] Flour) and unbleached, unenriched flour both pass the kitchen test. Bleached and/or enriched flours do not.  So read the labels, and eat accordingly!

Did I miss anything? Help us out in the comments!

Photos used under Creative Commons License:
Wheat © 2014 Brad Higham.
Jars of Whole Grains
 © 2014 Annie Corrigan/WFIU Public Radio.
Bobs Red Mill Organic White Whole Wheat Flour © 2009 Sarah Gilbert.
Sprouted Wheat Berries © 2010 Veganbaking.net.


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46 Responses to #Unprocessed FAQ: Flour & Grains

  1. Lindsay September 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    Question – on the October Unprocessed Guide, there is a link to make your own sourdough starter. I used to have a starter (that I let die) and wanted to make a new one – but the given instructions call for all purpose flour. Is it possible to use white whole wheat flour instead??

    • Nancy B October 1, 2013 at 12:58 am #

      Yes! You can make sourdough from practically any grain… there are some rather geeked out sites that give different water to grain ratios for different grains… in general I have luxk surfing Pinterest when I want to expeeiment making new starters.

  2. Maureen September 17, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Re: whole wheat flour, you should look for the caveat, “wheat germ included” on the bag (KA and BRM both have this). In the US, the regulations allow for flour to be called “whole” if it contains +/- 4% of the original components.

    So here’s the technical breakdown: 83% of the wheat grain is endosperm (white flour). 13% is bran. 3-4% is the wheat germ. So if a company is selling you their flour by breaking into parts, then putting it back together by percentage, you see that they are allowed to leave out the wheat germ and still call it whole. (**sigh**).

    The claim is that flour will go rancid if they leave the wheat germ in. Not true. It’s actually good as long as 18 mos. If you leave it on a sunny windowsill for a year, well then ….. maybe not!

    Final suggestion: look for those wonderful words, “wheat germ included” for a true whole grain.

    • Andrew September 17, 2014 at 9:37 am #

      Great info. Thanks, Maureen!

      • Maureen September 17, 2014 at 9:47 am #

        quite welcome. I thought this might help your readers while shopping.

  3. brittany September 17, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    The healthiest kind of grains is none at all! :)

  4. Heather Bee September 17, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    I love Ezekiel bread (especially with lettuce, tomato, avocado, sprouts and mustard – but I digress!). But I thought I had seen “gluten” in the ingredients. Not true? We have possible sensitivities in our household to gluten, plus it didn’t seem to fair to call it unprocessed, so I’ve been making our own. It would be nice though if there wasn’t added gluten…
    Thanks for the info about the white (aka ivory :>) whole wheat. I’ll give that a try with my bread recipe!

  5. Dana @ 3boysunprocessed September 30, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Grains and labeling are so confusing sometimes, even for people who are already living a mostly unprocessed life. The words wheat flour always get me, I have to go back and think to myself “Hey that’s refined!” I use whole wheat white flour ALOT in baking, to me it tastes just like refined flours. We also do a lot of whole wheat pastry flour, oat flour, and spelt. The more you eat it, the more you hate the refined stuff! Thanks for sharing!


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