Thursday, July 22, 2010

Refined Flour, a Brief History

Refined, White or All Purpose Flour, regardless of the title, it is ground wheat endosperm.

But, you ask, if all the nutrition is in the bran and germ, why would we remove it? That seems foolish. Well, it does in retrospect. But we didn't know it at the time.

Ground whole wheat flour has a shelf life of around 6-9 months, due primarily to the fatty acids and oils found within the bran and the germ. This is pretty long by today's standards, but not so several hundred years ago. I am unsure of where white flour was first produced. But I am fairly certain that it was a relatively recent time like within the last 300 years or so. Perhaps a reader will know for sure! Whole wheat flour, on the other hand, has been made using stones to grind it since prehistoric times. But as the world became civilized and towns and cities sprung up in which people were not necessarily living on the farm where their food was grown, it was difficult to harvest it, grind the flour, transport it, sell it and use it within the 6-9 month period before it went rancid. So producers came up with the idea that the problematic parts of the grain should simply be removed. White Flour will last on your shelf indefinitely, because there is nothing in it that will go bad. I have for the last ten years lived by the mantra that your food is supposed to go bad (even if I don't ALWAYS follow it), so already this sounds like something to eat in moderation.

When researching the history of flour and flour making one name kept popping up, Oliver Evans. Evans is credited with creating an automated grist mill to grind flour and that was in the late 1700's (like the last decade of the 1700's) so I imagine that white flour had been around much longer than that. I wish I had more free time to research more of the progression of flour 'technology', but *sigh* there is a job I get paid to do and I do that one first.

In terms of nutrition (and we all like to compare nutrition) Whole Wheat Flour has a pretty different nutritional composition than Unenriched White Flour. Below is the comparison of some more important nutritional aspects in 1 cup of flour....

Whole Wheat Flour-1 Cup
Calories 407 cal
Carbohydrates 87.1 g
Total Fat 2.2 g
Thiamin .5 mg
Calcium 40.8 mg
Iron 4.7 mg
Magnesium 166 mg
Manganese 4.6 mg
Selenium 84.8 mg
Total Omega 3's 45.6 mg
Total Omega 6's 886 mg

Unenriched White Flour-1 Cup
Calories 455
Carbohydrates 95.4 g
Total Fat 1.2 g
Thiamin .1 mg
Calcium 18.7 mg
Iron 1.5 mg
Magnesium 27.5 mg
Manganese .9 mg
Selenium 42.4 mg
Total Omega 3's 27.5 mg
Total Omega 6's 489 mg

What is in there is just numbers to me. I really only know about a couple things on that list, and it is far less than the total list that I found online. I have provided links to both sets of data, whole wheat flour as well as unenriched white flour, just click the links to see more. What is the most important to the average person is that there are fewer amounts of nutrients in the white flour than the whole wheat flour. When flour is enriched a few items are added back in, but those items are only thiamin, iron, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid. That is really only some of the B Vitamins and the iron. Whole wheat flour is far more nutritious.

People for years have said in passing that white flour is just like eating pur sugar. I never believed them because it just didn't sound right. Well, I have done the research and it is mostly true. Only mostly true because there is a shred of nutrition in white flour as you can see above. But otherwise, sugar is just a loosely bonded molecule of fructose and glucose that break apart when you digest them. The starch in bread is just a long chain of glucose molecules that all break apart in digestion. Fortunately your body does need glucose, so it is not a total waste. The problem is we get very little else from white flour but glucose and most of us on the Western Diet eat FAR more than we need.

So Enriched Flour only adds in some nutrients. Why those nutrients? There are many nutritional deficiency diseases that came up as I researched this topic. Iron Deficiency, Pellagra and Beriberi are all diseases known to result from a lack of certain vitamins in the diet (iron, niacin and thiamin respectively). It was specifically to help stamp out those diseases in the US that manufacturers first started enriching their wheat flour. Any population that turns to one food source tends to get sick. Not having a varied enough diet has caused a multitude of diseases during the course of history. Seasonality builds in variety in the diet when you live close to the food source. Cherries are only in season for a little while, and the same with carrots and sweet potatoes, even meat can't be consumed all year round because all the calves are born in the spring time. On a side note, even human fertility often dips in the springtime because babies conceived in the spring will be born during the coldest and most inhospitable months of the year. I always found it funny that there were more babies born in August than any other month. I thought it was funny because I thought the holiday season must have gotten alot of people in the mood. But no, it has more to do with babies being born around the harvest time when it would be nice and warm for a while and mom would have had enough to eat to nurse them into fat happy bouncing babies. We evolved this way over time because it worked.

It is the same with our food. When people moved off the farm in the Industrial age (and other ages too) we had large populations living off of one or two foods. We see that to a lesser extent today, however we are still getting more of our calories from corn and wheat than virtually anything else. Enrichment has seen to it that deficiency diseases are a rare thing in this country. And they are, No one reading this should be afraid. So many people these days take a supplement on top of what they eat anyhow, it is almost unheard of in the US. But we can do more to eat a varied diet. Today there are certain populations that still don't have great access to fresh foods, but a vast majority of Americans do and still CHOOSE to eat processed refined grains. I think there is alot of misinformation about where our nutrition is coming from.

Modern science may have added back thiamin, niacin, folic acid, riboflavin and iron. But what else is white flour lacking? What else that we haven't discovered yet is not in this enriched flour? There may still be dozens of nutrients that we do not know are lost in the production of white flour. Where do we draw the line? It is no longer 1700, we are able to consume whole wheat flour well within it's shelf life. Will you choose whole wheat next time?

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