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.)

Recently, Bob’s Red Mill 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.


While technically not a grain (it’s a “pseudocereal” since it’s not a member of the grass family), for our purposes it might as well be. Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is great stuff: high in nutrition; a wonderful, nutty flavor; and great hot or cold. Here’s how to make fluffy quinoa.

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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59 Responses to Unprocessed FAQ: Flour & Grains

  1. Shef September 23, 2015 at 5:34 am #

    Andrew, can you comment on the white whole wheat (newly named ivory whole wheat) vs red? You mentioned no nutritional difference, but I thought I had read/heard somewhere that there could be a difference in the glycemic load/index…I could be wrong. LMK if you know anything about this or the nutritional info on a deeper level. I’m always still researching the flour used for Indian chapattis (a much more common household bread than naan) and those bags are just usually not labeled well. But something tells me it’s much like or the same thing as the new ivory wheat……

    • Andrew September 24, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

      I’m not an expert on glycemic load by any means, and everything I’ve found so far indicates that white/ivory and red wheat are nutritionally similar.. they may not be exactly the same, but it’s likely that any differences are negligible.

      Considering the slightly denser texture of red wheat, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a tiny bit harder (slower) to digest, though, so perhaps that does make a difference on the glycemic load… but I’d be surprised if it’s significant.

  2. Bonnie September 17, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    I read the comment on baking soda and baking powder with interest. It may not be something we would compound at home, but people have been using them for a long time. I think if my great-great grandmother would recognize it as a basic home cooking ingredient I will, too. My daughter-in-law works for a trona mining company; they produce the soda that ends up in much of our bakery goods, as well as industrial caustics. Soda is about as basic a product as you can find made from an ore, much like salt.

  3. Coreen Hart September 17, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

    Is there a reason you do not include whole corn in your very helpful article? We grow and grind Painted Mountain Indian corn for our cornbread, etc.

    • Andrew September 18, 2015 at 8:32 am #

      HI Coreen – Impressive that you grown (and grind) your own corn! This post is meant to cover all grains, but since what is the most common (for flours, at least), I spend a bit more time on it. So there’s no particular reason I didn’t include corn in this post, except that I don’t think I’ve been asked about it, specifically, before! 🙂

  4. Laurel Standley September 16, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    What about things like baking soda or powder? They aren’t something I would make from scratch.

    • Andrew September 18, 2015 at 8:27 am #

      This is one of those that you’ll need to decide for yourself what’s right for you. I personally give baking soda and baking powder a “pass” – as long as they don’t have cornstarch added. I discuss it a little bit in the Unprocessed FAQ for Additives & Other Ingredients, and also a good conversation in the comments here.

  5. Darlene September 15, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    I love cornbread. Can I make cornbread with any cornmeal?

    • Andrew September 18, 2015 at 8:35 am #

      Yes, I believe so — but double-check the ingredients and make sure it’s just corn! I’d also recommend Organic if possible.

  6. Lisa September 15, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    I am actually looking for guidance on baking with whole flours. I typically use sprouted whole spelt flour, but my muffins are kind of “too healthy” for the kids and a little dry. Do you have any tips to help us use the whole flours? Thanks!

    • Andrew September 18, 2015 at 8:34 am #

      I’d give white whole wheat a try. Sprouted whole spelt flour is going to be quite a bit more dense — the white wheat has a somewhat lighter flavor and texture.

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

    • Lisa September 15, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

      Hi Heather! I don’t think there is added gluten in sprouted breads. But there is gluten because wheat is used. Whole wheat and white whole wheat definitely have gluten, and you might want to avoid them if there is sensitivity in your house. Whole spelt bread also has gluten, but some people with celiac report that even they can eat it with no problems. Millet and rice bread would be gluten free.

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

    The healthiest kind of grains is none at all! 🙂

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. Erin September 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    Thanks for the sensible comments on white rice. I have talked with so many Americans who think that white rice is an industrial food introduced to Asia only recently. But it’s actually a traditional food, and I have been in remote villages in Thailand with no electricity where they use mechanical means to separate the bran from the rice.


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