It is no secret that we have fallen out of love with white flour.
Some may say we were never really in love at all, that it was just a marriage of convenience. In any case a divorce now, after a century and a half together, would be a very messy affair.
To start with, shunning white flour would mean saying goodbye to some of our favourite foods. But it could also lead us down an even unhealthier, more dangerous path, depending on what we choose to eat instead.
We met white flour, as we know it, towards the end of the 19th century, when the advent of the steel roller mill allowed the endosperm of a wheat kernel to be separated from its bran and germ and ground down into a fine powder, lacking fibre, vitamins and minerals, but heavy in starch and the storage proteins gliadin and glutenin, which form gluten when hydrated by water.
Found exclusively in a few cereal grains and in wheat most of all, gluten forms a unique web of strong elastic bonds, allowing doughs to hold together better. This sturdiness allows them to trap carbon dioxide, rise and remain airy rather than becoming crumbly or stodgy. We mostly know gluten as that evil thing that gives coeliacs crippling stomach cramps and the rest of us bloated bellies. But it also gives a croissant’s puff pastry its puff, bagels their characteristic chewiness, brezels their gorgeous interior sponginess and bread that magical web of crevasses and air pockets providing its inimitable aroma and unique texture.
We may not like it, but white wheat flour, and its sticky, stretchy gluten, has wound itself through our collective food heritage. It’s easy to disassociate other industrial food items, like plastic cheese, from proud traditions and wholesome delicacies. Nobody argues that a slimy square of processed cheese stands beside silky mozzarella, pungent camembert or tangy stilton as a culinary treasure. But it is much trickier to dismiss industrially-produced white wheat flour in the same way. Many of our treasured tastes and cultural icons were created or perfected only since, and thanks to, the invention of the steel roller mill and the availability of refined flour.
The cliché of smiling, hairy-armed Italian men tossing pizza dough around is only possible thanks to white flour’s high gluten concentration allowing the dough to be stretched, slapped and spun in the air.
French baguettes only appeared in the early 20th century, after white flour had made possible their crunchy-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside character
Rustic Italian ciabatta, with its gaping air bubbles held together by gluten, did not even exist until the 1980s.
Michelin-starred restaurants could not offer their creamy, rich, roux-based sauces without the starches from refined white wheat flour, the commonest thickening agent in grandmotherly staples like stews, soups, sauces and gravies.
And it is not just the obvious, European items. There is naan bread, a puffy, floppy patch of white-flour dough now more common than whole-wheat roti in Indian restaurants the world over. Without white flour Mexican bakeries would lose their ubiquitous pan dulce, and ancient Mesoamerican corn tortillas lack the gluten content to stretch around stuffed Tex-Mex burritos like refined wheat ones can. The finest, fluffiest, whitest baozi steamed buns in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore are bound to be made with highly refined white wheat flour. And the long list of classic sandwiches created with white bread includes New Orleans Po’ Boys, Vietnamese banh mi and the all-conquering hamburger.
Still, very few of us see these things as a health boost rather than a treat. We know the detrimental health effects of eating mostly white flour – discarding the bran and germ sacrifices wheat’s lavish smorgasbord of nutrients, including nearly the full spectrum of B vitamins, oodles of dietary fibre, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, healthy unsaturated fats, high-quality protein, calcium, and much more.
What is not so well known, however, is just how hard it is to avoid doing so. Because even when we summon up the willpower to say no to familiar white-flour treats and choose wholesome whole-wheat options, eating well requires a lot more than simply following what crafty food companies put on labels.
There are very few legal regulations around the world controlling when a company can label a product ‘whole wheat’ or ‘whole grain.’ There are plenty of nutritional councils and government guidelines, but these have extremely limited practical authority. This means that products claiming to be whole wheat will frequently contain large amounts of white flour because it is cheaper and it has desirable qualities for attracting consumers.
A commonly enforced legal principle, particularly in North America, is that as long as the product contains more whole wheat than anything else, it can be labelled as such. In other words, only 51% of the product needs to be whole grains or whole-grain flour. The rest of it, the other 49%, can be refined white flour, chemical enhancers, and many other additives used to attain the texture, flavour and appearance expected of things like bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits and muesli bars.
A few European countries, including Germany, do legally require specific products (mainly bread and pasta) claiming to be whole-wheat to contain 90% or 100% whole-grain flour, so you can feel relatively safe eating these. Only relatively safe, though, because there is one glaring element that regulations for marketing whole-wheat products do not directly take into account: the flour used to make them.
The vast majority of so-called whole-wheat flour used in these products, and that sold to us in stores, is really no such thing. It is made first in the same way as white flour – the endosperm isolated from the bran and germ and ground down separately by steel roller mill – then limited amounts of the bran and, if you’re lucky, the germ are added back in, usually after having been treated or heated, destroying many nutrients.
Removing or heat-treating the germ means its healthy fatty acids will not oxidise and turn the flour rancid, giving it a longer shelf life and therefore making it easier to sell. Also, companies then have three profitable products, rather than just one: in addition to shelf-stable flour, the bran is marketed to us as a high-fibre health food, or sold to farmers as rich animal feed, while the germ fetches good prices from major cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, who can make use of its extraordinary chemical properties.
One obvious solution to the dilemma, therefore, is to split from common wheat flour completely, whether in refined white or supposed whole-grain form. But here things get hazy, and possibly dangerous.
For example, gluten-free imitations of wheat-flour items are seldom the healthier alternative they are advertised to be, since they are usually made with similarly refined forms of other foods (usually cassava, potato and corn) which are just as low or lower in nutrients and usually higher in calories than white flour.
Ancient variants of wheat like emmer, spelt, khorasan, millet, freekeh and farro have been less abused by selective breeding and genetic modification than common wheat so their nutritional bundle, in whole-grain form, is much richer. But the mere mention of these on supermarket packets, bakery shelves and restaurant menus does not guarantee the grain has not been refined in a similar way to common white flour, or mixed with white flour and other additives in order to create something resembling the items our taste buds and eyes have come to expect.
Plus, these alternatives are much more expensive than common, industrial wheat flour, and very few people know how to cook or eat them as readily. So they are often consumed only as a monthly experiment or to impress visiting friends, leaving us with drastically reduced levels of carbohydrate and energy intake normally obtained from cereal grains. Without careful, diligent efforts, we are therefore prone to munching on things even unhealthier than white flour in order to stay satisfied.
And with all these fashionable names of grains floating around, genuine confusion exists over exactly what is and what is not a healthier choice than wheat. A recent study in Australia found that 10% of people believe brown sugar – made in exactly the same way as refined white sugar except for the addition of molasses for colour – is a whole grain and therefore a healthy alternative to white flour.
With white flour, at least we know what we are getting – we are not being fooled. White flour is not perfect, but neither are we. Maybe that’s why we have managed to make this marriage work for a century and a half.
Rather than splitting violently now, perhaps an open marriage is the answer to our current rut. Keep close and comfortable, keep up appearances, but remain open to new things should they arise – a freekeh salad here, some sprouted ancient-grain bread there.
But it’s never too late for people to change, so we shouldn’t rule out a reconciliation with our first love should the sparks fly once again. Not all companies sacrifice health and quality for maximum profit, and thanks to the dedicated efforts of more and more bakers, millers, chefs and producers, we can adapt our wheaty taste preferences without drastically changing what we eat, and the flour we know so well might change too. Sifted, stone-ground white flour, perhaps worked gently into long-fermentation sourdoughs (which break down the starch and gluten for us), or combined with genuine whole-grain flour to create new versions of the things that attracted us to white flour in the first place – croissants, burgers, baguettes, pizzas, bagels, for example – might make us fall in love all over again.
And this time the relationship will be even stronger, and much, much healthier.