Triple Threat: Three Reasons to Avoid White Flour

Over the past year I’ve been telling people about this real food expedition, one of the most common questions I hear is around white bread: is it really that bad? After all, everybody eats it. Even the artisan bakers at my local farmers’ market question me about the values of 100% whole wheat – isn’t 60% enough?

Vignette of white flour with rolling pin and flour bag

The scientific evidence is clear: whole grains are better for us than refined ones (“refining” being the process by which parts of the natural whole are removed – in the case of flour, the germ and bran are removed from the endosperm). If you follow the general rule that eating foods closer to their natural, whole/unprocessed state is better, you don’t need to know why. But if you’re curious, here’s the sciency answer from the dietitian-run website EatRight Ontario.

“Research shows that people who eat more whole grains may have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers. Whole grains include all three parts of the kernel and are higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals when compared to refined grains and enriched grains. You will get the greatest health benefit from eating whole grains.”

Despite these “benefits” (which are only really benefits compared to our poor white-bread baseline, really) it’s clear few are sold on them yet…and I admit I’ve found my own confidence wavering. If bread is handmade with traditional wild yeast and organic heritage flour, might it be alright to snack on a little bit of white baguette now and again? After all, isn’t white flour basically whole wheat flour with the grainy bits sifted out?

A look at the flour bags in my cupboard got me right back on the natural track, and perhaps you can see why:

Ingredients list for all-purpose flour: wheat flour, benzoyl peroxide, amylast, ascorbic acid, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid.

In its simplest homemade form, white flour would just be sifted whole wheat, like this variety you can buy from Oak Manor Organic. If you were to sift whole wheat flour, use the resulting whitish flour to make bread and eat the germ and bran at another time, I would consider that natural. You’re still eating the whole grain, in the natural proportion, just at different times.

But commercial white flour in Canada is far from such a humble home-kitchen process. Steve Ettlinger, author of a joyous romp through the food industry called Twinkie, Deconstructed, noted that to mill wheat berries (the form wheat comes in from the fields in) takes 70 to 80 mechanized steps even before any chemicals are added. Historically, eating white flour meant you could afford a processed food; you must be very well-off. The whiteness of flour mattered, and still matters. The whiter the better. So most refined flours are bleached as well.

To add insult to injury, all white flour in Canada must be enriched with a mandatory cocktail of vitamins to try to make up for nutrients lost in when the germ and bran are removed. Enrichment is followed by fortification, which differs in that fortification means adding something that wasn’t there in the first place. In the case of flour, it’s folic acid.

1. Enrichment

Since at least the 1800s people in Europe and North America have preferred white flour, and not just for its taste and texture. There are complex reasons why bright white flour and bread were prized, from perceptions of sanitation to racism to the class divide. In ye olde days, the poorer folk (including army recruits) who relied on white bread as a staple food suffered from debilitating pellagra, a deficiency of thiamin (vitamin B1). They didn’t – couldn’t – make up the missing nutrients with other foods.

Pile of white flour

When vitamins were first synthesized (created in a lab) in the 1930s, there was a general outcry to fortify everything. Thiamin, niacin and iron were added to flour. It worked, and deficiencies plummeted…but of course this approach didn’t address the root cause of the malnutrition, which was relying on white bread for the bulk of calories in the diet. It didn’t fix the fact that white bread is nutritionally vacuous, or that the poor couldn’t afford a good diet, or that eating whole wheat bread was seen as sliding down a few rungs on the social ladder. Enrichment ignores the root cause of problems, as the government (and doctors and many nutrition professionals) continue to do today.

“The mandatory enrichment of white flour with B vitamins, iron and folic acid is a cornerstone of Canada’s fortification program aimed at helping to prevent nutrient deficiencies and maintain or improve the nutritional quality of the food supply. Flour enrichment is used as a public health tool because of its widespread use in foods consumed regularly by a large majority of the population.” – Candian Food Inspection Agency

In Canada, the following vitamins must be added to white flour before it’s sold: Bag of Robin Hood brand flour

  • Thiamin (B1)
  • Riboflavin (B2)
  • Niacin (B3)
  • Iron

The addition of vitamin B6, pantothenic acid (B5), magnesium and calcium are optional.

2. Folic acid fortification

The government also mandates the addition of folic acid to all white flour sold in Canada. Folic acid decreases the risk of a specific type of birth defect in pregnant women. It’s naturally occurring in all sorts of foods like spinach and beans. But when women fall short and there is a higher risk of having a baby with a neutral tube defect (NTD), the solution is to sneak it into their diets via fortified flour.

You may think I shouldn’t get upset over such a noble cause, but there’s a good reason to reconsider: it turns out policy-makers were so focused on the benefits of fortifying with folic acid that nobody stopped to consider its potential downsides. There is some evidence it increases the risk of prostate cancer in men, for example. I’m certainly not against taking vitamins when they’re medically necessary. Anti-depressants make you feel better, but I wouldn’t want them added into my food without being able to weigh the pros and cons to my body, myself.

To prevent NTDs 400 mg per day of folic acid seems to be the magic number to reach. White flour is fortified at a rate of 91 micrograms (abbreviated mg) per ¼-cup (291mg per 100g). Whole wheat flour contains 13mg per ¼-cup (44mg per 100g).

3. Bleaching

There are a variety of reasons why snow-white bread is preferred over whole wheat, and it’s not all about taste or texture. The debate has been going on since the time of Plato, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s, when concerns around hygiene (combined with newly available technology) made it preferable for bread to be baked in factories, that the desire for white bread came to a head.

Flour naturally oxidizes and whitens over time, but time is money and to make money the factories had to find ways to speed up the process. In 1904 the “Alsop bleaching process” was introduced and white bread never looked back. We’ve progressed from the original nitrogen or nitrogen trichloride bleaching agents to potassium bromate (used until the 1980s when it was banned due to safety concerns) to the chlorine gas and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) used today. We’ve been told the bleaching reaction leaves no trace of chlorine or dangerous chemicals in our flour, but of course this could also mean we just haven’t found it yet (or looked, as in the case of alloxan).

When I say “used today”, I mean in North America. In the European Union, any form of bleaching is banned.

“The colour of scientific control was white” – Andrew Bobrow-Strain, in White Bread: A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf

The bottom line

Switch to whole grain whole wheat flour to avoid being concerned about enrichment, fortification and bleaching.

(Enzymes are another story, but we’ll get to that on another day…)

White all-purpose flour in a bowl

References and further reading:

 
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