When most Americans think about flour, probably the first thing to come to mind is the bags of white flour sold in grocery stores. There is an enormous difference between this kind of flour and flour you make by grinding whole grains at home. To understand the differences, it helps to start at the beginning.
What exactly is “Enriched Flour”?
Prior to the 1800s, Americans bought their flour from mills in or near the towns where they lived. Those mills ground the entire wheat kernel or other grain on large stone wheels. The Industrial Revolution led to the development of machinery capable of grinding much faster and in far greater quantities. The trouble is that flour goes rancid due to the oils in the germ of the kernel oxidizing with exposure to the air. Because of this, large milling operations couldn’t get their flour to market before it began to spoil.
To solve the problem, flour began to be produced from just the endosperm through mechanical separation. Unfortunately, the heat generated through the industrialized milling process results in losses of protein quality, nutrient concentrations and flavor. Modern flour processing resulted in losses of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, trace minerals, unsaturated fat, and phytochemicals.
There were voices of dissent even in the late 1800s. One of the earliest was Presbyterian minister Rev. Sylvester Graham, who advocated the use of flour made from the entire grain without alum or chlorine added to make it look whiter. In the 1920s, Dr. Royal Lee became one of the leading critics of commercially produced flours, promoting the use of whole wheat flour instead. A prolific inventor, Dr. Lee developed the Lee Household Flour Mill for home milling, the very first on the market. The mill was redesigned in 2015 and has been in production since the 1940s.
In the 1940s, the USDA began requiring flour makers to replace some of the essential vitamins the milling process removed. The “enriching” process adds synthetic versions of Niacin (vitamin B3), Thiamine (vitamin B1), Riboflavin (vitamin B2), Folic Acid (a B vitamin) and iron. Unfortunately, since they are not in their natural state, these “enrichments” are not considered to be beneficial. In addition, white flour has no bran content; it also lacks fiber.
Dr. Royal Lee was one of the leading critics of the plan to replace the B-complex vitamins removed from flour with synthetic versions of them. With his associate Jerome Stolzoff, he published in 1942 “The Special Nutritional Qualities of Natural Foods,” which includes a chapter explaining why whole wheat flour is nutritionally superior to the commercially produced wheat flours. As Dr. Lee understood, vitamins, minerals and enzymes all work together synergistically, if some are missing or in the wrong state, the metabolic process is thrown off balance. Dr. Lee concluded that the result of eating artificially fortified foods with no natural nutrients is a slow case of malnutrition, a compromised immune system and poor health.
Freshly milled wheat flour has a slightly yellowish hue compared to the pure white color of most commercially produced flours. Many of the flours you see in the grocery store are bleached for purely visual reasons. This is largely due to a consumer preference for light colored flour, which yields light-colored baked goods.
In the old days, flour was lightened naturally by exposure to oxygen in the air, a process that also strengthened the gluten-forming proteins in flour and resulted in breads with higher volume and finer crumb. The entire process, however, took up to 12 weeks. By the late 1800’s, millers were looking for ways to accelerate the process in order to introduce product to market faster. Millers found the whitening process could be sped up and yield a consistent color through the use of chemical bleaching agents.
Today, all-purpose flour is usually bleached with chlorine dioxide or benzoyl peroxide to give it a pure white color. One of the byproducts generated from the interaction of chlorine and proteins in flour is alloxan, a toxin that has been linked to diabetes in laboratory experiments.
What’s not in commercial flour?
Flour is characterized by the extraction rate, or the quantity of flour by weight, compared to the original quantity of wheat. Extraction rates of 75% or lower are used to generate typical white flour. Whole flour is produced at an extraction rate of 100%.
At an extraction rate of 75%, the commercial process of milling flour removes:
The Flour Revolution
Today, many Americans are discovering the superior taste and nutrition of foods made with freshly ground whole grain flours. Because whole grain flour is made from the entire grain or seed, nothing is lost due to processing. You grind only as much as you need, so all your recipes benefit from having freshly ground, nutritious and delicious flour.