I think it’s kind of funny that I have immersed myself into a world in which wheat is controversial.
Most people don’t give it a second thought, really. Well, with the exception of the whole gluten-free craze. I’m so much less cool in the world of alternative nutrition because I don’t play that game.
But I’ve taken my rebellious streak to an even greater extreme these days, it seems. I’ve been committing one of the gravest sins of WAPF-worshippers:
I eat white flour.
Yes. That awful nutrient-deficient, processed commodity responsible for all that is wrong with the health of modern man, according to the haters. I eat it. And I don’t feel bad about that.
I don’t think anyone should feel bad about anything they eat, actually. You should never feel guilt for eating food.
But that’s a topic for another day. Today, I want to explain why the white flour controversy doesn’t have to be so one-sided, and why there are reasons to not fear this less-than-perfect food.
White Flour Pros
Yes, believe it or not, there are actual benefits to the controversial ingredient real foodies love to hate. Hear me out.
When you start feeding a baby solids, what do you give him? A raw broccoli and kale salad?
You blanch, steam, cook, strain, and otherwise pulverize the crap out of junior’s veggies because his little digestive system isn’t strong enough to tackle foods that are that complex without processing them first.
What I’m getting at here is that a processed food isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes the things humans have evolved to do to our food are beneficial. Like cooking. That’s a form of “processing” a food.
The process of making white rice, for example, takes out the bran and the germ of the grain. This can be a good thing, like I explained in this post. Taking out the bran and germ of wheat grains, too, can be beneficial in some ways.
If your digestion is compromised, consuming whole grains can be tough. The fibrous bran can put a strain on your GI system, and the polyunsaturated oils in the germ can be difficult to handle as well.
But white flour doesn’t have either of those things. It contains only the starchy endosperm of the grain. And starch is meant to provide your body with easily-digestible glucose for fuel. (Before you stone me for saying that glucose is a good thing, let me set the record straight. You’ve been lied to. The idea that glucose from carbohydrates like starch causes insulin resistance is 100% false. Read Diet Recovery for more information on that.)
Plenty of traditional cultures have thrived on diets that are very high in starch, and their people have been shown to be extremely healthy. Like the Okinawans, who traditionally obtained 85% of their calories from starch. Or the Tukisenta in Papua New Guinea who consumed 94.6% starchy carbohydrates in the 1960s. Cultures like these were shown to have exceptionally long lifespans and a virtual non-existence of modern illness such as heart disease. (source)
Now, some people might say, “Well I can’t eat starch like that because it spikes my blood sugar!”
If you can’t digest a simple starch like white flour, you have a problem. Bodies are designed to run on glucose. If you can’t do that, you need help. Some metabolic help.
If the issue is gluten intolerance, same story. Gluten is not the problem. Poor digestion is. (Legitimate celiac disease is different.)
Did you ever do that experiment in 7th grade science class where you put a piece of white bread in your mouth and don’t swallow it, and then after a few minutes it starts to taste like sugar?
That’s because the simple starches in white bread are so easily digestible that they start converting to glucose before they even hit your stomach. And this is beneficial, because easy-access glucose is great for your metabolism.
Metabolism doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means. It isn’t the amount of calories you need for energy. It isn’t how easily someone can stay skinny.
Metabolism is the rate at which your cells produce energy.
Think about that. This is of huge importance to literally every function of your body. If your cells aren’t functioning properly and producing the energy your body needs to get things done, your body won’t work right.
Cells need fuel to produce energy. Once again, this needs to be glucose. So, supplying the body with easily-assimilated glucose is extremely important in supporting metabolic health.
Glucose comes from carbohydrates. Of course, there are many other, much more nutritious forms of carbohydrates to supply this kind of energy than white flour.
But if you have a low-functioning or impaired metabolism, will a plate of broccoli best supply your body with the glucose it needs?
If you have a slow metabolism, eating a rigorously strict “real food” diet may actually not be as helpful as eating a diet that includes some more easily digestible, processed foods, such as white flour. You can fix your metabolism by eating more of these types of foods, so that eventually that broccoli won’t be such a digestive burden.
Doesn’t require soaking or special preparation
Many of us in the real food realm of nutrition contend that whole grains are great, with one very important caveat — they must be properly prepared. Traditional methods of grain preparation involved soaking, sprouting, or fermenting the grains to make them more digestible and to neutralize the anti-nutrient phytic acid present in the grains.
But, phytic acid is found in the fibrous outer shell of the grain — the bran. Without the bran in the mix, white wheat flour doesn’t need special treatment to get rid of the mineral-binding antinutrients.
This isn’t to say that you couldn’t include white flour in a soaked bread recipe, or even make sourdough out of it (which is quite tasty), you just don’t have to, according to these principles of proper grain preparation. You wouldn’t be able to sprout white flour, though, because it doesn’t contain all the parts necessary for germination.
Doesn’t go rancid easily
Food manufacturers figured out a pretty important perk of processing flour down to just the starchy endosperm — its ridiculous shelf life. White flour doesn’t go rancid the way that whole grain flour does, because it doesn’t contain any of the polyunsaturated oils found in the germ of the grain.
And as we know now, polyunsaturated fats go bad really easily, and rancid PUFAs are pretty toxic.
Buying whole wheat flour that’s been sitting on the bottom of a shelf at the store is a bad idea because of this. Even if you have the freshest whole grain flour possible — by grinding it yourself at home — you have to freeze the unused flour within days to prevent it from turning rancid.
So, white flour makes things a little easier on you since you don’t have to consider that possibility. It’ll keep for a very long time, and can be more economical since you can buy it in bulk.
White Flour Cons
Don’t get me wrong, though, guys. I’m not saying that white flour is a perfect food. The anti-white-flour argument does have some merit, especially since most white flour goes through some pretty extreme processing methods that involve a whole lot more than just removing the bran and the germ. Here are some things to consider and watch out for.
“Fortification” with synthetic vitamins
Because most of the vitamins and minerals in wheat live in the bran and germ which are removed in white flour, manufacturers decided it would be a good idea to replace the lost nutrients by “fortifying” the white flour with synthetic vitamins added in.
I really think it’s a bad idea to be consuming synthetic vitamins of any kind. Especially the low-quality vitamins dumped into most white flour. For this reason, I do recommend avoiding “fortified” white flour.
Common processed white flour also contains chemical residue left over from bleaching the flour to its stark-white appearance. The flour is put through a chlorine “gas bath” which uses toxic chemical bleaching agents to whiten and “age” the flour. The EPA defines chlorine gas as a “potent irritant” that can be lethal to inhale.
But the problems with chemical bleaching don’t end there.
Certain proteins in the flour produce an oxidizing chemical reaction with the chlorine gas which forms a very toxic byproduct known as alloxan. Alloxan does serve a good purpose, though. They actually use it to induce diabetes in lab rats so they can test treatments for the illness in clinical studies. It’s so effective in giving the rats diabetes because the beta cells in the pancreas which produce insulin are destroyed from the extreme amounts of damaging free radicals that alloxan provides. Diabetes is imminent in that kind of a scenario.
I don’t exactly think humans are immune to the pancreas-destroying effects of alloxan in chemically-processed flour. Pretty scary stuff.
Extreme amounts of pesticides
Wheat undergoes more pesticide application than most fresh produce items by far. Before they are even planted into the ground, conventional wheat seeds are doused with chemical fungicides and pesticides. Then, they continue to receive heavy applications of several different chemical pesticides as they grow, some of which are known carcinogens as well as xenoestrogens, which are estrogen-mimicking chemicals that are linked to hormone-related illnesses and cancers, such as breast cancer.
They even apply straight-up synthetic hormones such as cycocel, to act as “plant growth regulators.” And we thought growth hormones were limited to meat and dairy products!
Once the toxin-saturated wheat is finally harvested, the chemical assault doesn’t end there. Since the grains are usually stored for long periods of time before they’re ground into flour, the collection bins are thoroughly sprayed with pesticides and the upper-most section of the grains are completely soaked in a chemical cocktail to prevent bugs that may enter from the top. Then, before processing, the grains are sampled, and if there is even one tiny insect found, the entire thing is fumigated with even more chemicals to “maintain a toxic concentration of gas long enough to kill the target pest population.” (source)
With a chemical pesticide load this extreme, I have no doubts that significantly harmful amounts of these toxins remain in the finished product.
Not many nutrients
Aside from being a great source of easily digestible, metabolism-supporting starch, white flour doesn’t have a whole lot more going on with it, nutritionally. The majority of the nutrients found in wheat are in the bran and germ.
Whole grains, on the other hand, are a great source of many vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Especially when they are prepared in traditional methods, through soaking, sprouting, or fermentation, whole grains can be an excellent source of many nutrients. So eating white flour exclusively means that you’re missing out on a lot of them.
Solutions to the cons
Those are some pretty good reasons to watch out for highly processed white flour, but are they enough to outweigh the pros? Should you just avoid white flour entirely?
I don’t think that’s necessary.
Don’t stress and just eat it
If I’m at a restaurant, and there is bowl of fluffy, white, crusty bread, I will not hesitate to eat it. If I’m at a friend’s house, and they offer me a cookie, it goes in my mouth. And even if I get a sandwich or a burger while I’m out, I usually opt for white over wheat bread and buns because at least the flour won’t have gone rancid. And it just sounds better to me.
I don’t think it’s worth freaking out over every exposure to white flour. If you are a healthy person and eat a mostly healthy diet, I truly don’t think a little conventional white flour — and yes, even a little bit of the toxins that accompany it — every now and then is going to really hurt you.
Stress is so much more damaging than just about any “bad” food we can eat. Really.
(Or don’t eat it)
I’m not here to say everyone should be eating white flour. If you don’t want to, don’t. If it doesn’t make you feel good, don’t. If for whatever reason you aren’t going to be eating white flour, that’s okay, too. Just like it’s okay that some people do eat it. (Can I make a request that we don’t wage the War on Gluten or debate the merits of eating “paleo” in this post?)
Buy organic, unbleached, unenriched flour
Even though I don’t stress over the white flour I eat outside my home, the flour that makes it into my kitchen I am a lot pickier about.
I’m most concerned about all the chemicals and toxins in standard white flour — the synthetic vitamins, bleach, alloxan, and pesticides. So, getting organic and unbleached flour solves most of those issues. Unbleached, organic flour is fairly widely available in many health food stores, but unenriched flour is a lot harder to come by.
Thankfully, there are some great options for quality flours from the companies here at the Village Green Marketplace. One offers a flour that is made of einkorn wheat, a traditional, heirloom variety of wheat that is lower in gluten and hasn’t been hybridized the way modern wheat has. There is a type of einkorn flour available from them that is 80% white flour, and 20% whole grain, which is a great compromise, I think. Depending on what I’m baking, I opt for the einkorn flour, organic unenriched white flour, or sprouted whole grain flour. They’re all good for different things.
The only unbleached, unenriched organic flour I’ve found from mainstream stores is this kind available on Amazon and at some health food stores.
Make your own
You can actually buy your own wheat berries (available here), grind them yourself in a grain mill (available here), and then sift out as much of the non-white stuff as you’d like. This is just the way that flour was traditionally processed for many, many years before it became such a giant commercialized commodity. Yeah, believe it or not, people have been making and eating white flour for centuries. It’s not as “modern” as we make it out to be.
Mix it up
With many baked goods, using 100% whole grain flour can kinda ruin the taste and texture. There’s really nothing wrong with using a blend of whole grain and white flour to suit your and your family’s tastes. And that way, by adding in some properly-prepared whole grain flour, you’ll be getting in a lot more of the nutrition — vitamins and minerals — that the white flour won’t provide.
Eat a nutrient-dense diet
I don’t care that there aren’t many nutrients in the white flour I use to bake my cookies or banana bread with, because the rest of my diet provides plenty of nutrition. It’s important to remember that we cannot live on vitamins and minerals alone—we need both nutrients AND energy from the food we eat. Eating both nutrient-dense and energy-dense foods are keys to a healthy diet. White flour’s lack of nutrients is no reason to cut it out entirely. As always, balance is everything!
Do you think white flour is okay to eat?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!