Monday
Apr042011

flour and the hundred year wars

Some six centuries ago, the ruling dynasties of France and England got into a long-running feud known as the Hundred Years’ War.  Shakespeare wrote a play, Henry V, about it.  That may seem a long time to settle a difference, but it was nothing when you consider the Flour War of our time.  Here are some highlights of this modern conflict:

• A new kind of flour was introduced in the 1880s, made with roller mills instead of the traditional millstones.  The roller mills efficiently removed the bran and germ, yielding flour that was fluffy and sweet but missing most of the nutrients.  Because it was modern, everybody wanted it.

• In a few decades the traditional water-powered stone mills found in most towns were made obsolete.  The roller mills were more efficient and because the flour had a long shelf life (weevils couldn’t survive on it), the nation could be supplied from a few large factories using the railroads.

• A few wise people opposed the new flour, arguing that something vital had been removed.  They were right; scientists would later uncover the role of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients. The health problems that followed were simply bandaged over:

- Enriched flour:  At the start of World War II an alarming number of recruits were not healthy enough to serve so synthetic versions of three B complex vitamins, plus iron, were arbitrarily returned to flour.

- Folic acid:  In 1998 folic acid (a precursor to vitamin B9) was added to reduce the incidence of neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida.  For details look here.

• Over time, a growing stack of scientific studies documented the many health benefits of eating whole grains.  A summary collected by the Whole Grains Council can be seen here.

• As a result, over a century later, concerned mothers and cooks in growing numbers are now shunning refined flour and returning to whole grains.  The government has even seen the light, sort of.  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 calls for at least half of grains consumed to be whole. 

Though it isn’t quite over, we can learn a lesson from the flour war:

  1. When a natural food is industrialized, it can take a generation or so for the health consequences to be confirmed.
  2. Another generation is required for scientists to gather enough evidence to establish cause and effect.
  3. A final generation is required to wean the public off the offending food. 

Do you see our predicament?  In the century it can take to detect, prove, and remedy a dietary error, a multitude of new mistakes can be introduced.  Unless we change this paradigm, things just get worse.  Previously we suggested this rule:  Do not eat new food-like inventions less than a century old. “Wait a minute,” you might say.  “That means we eat what our great-grandparents ate because most of the invented foods turn out to be unhealthy!”  Yes, that’s pretty much how it is; fortunately there are a lot of great traditional foods. 

This brings us back to whole grain flour, which you can now buy from companies like Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour.  I value these companies and their healthy products, including whole grain flours.  However, a reader pointed out that grinding wheat into flour exposes the nutrients to oxidation and spoilage during storage.  The best practice, he inferred, is to grind your own flour close to the moment of use.  My father did this; I remember him setting up a manual wheat grinder each week when he made bread.  I know he got a good workout because he was pretty strong, right up to his death. 

I checked the whole grain flours in my pantry for expiration date and then called the companies to ask how they decided when it was too old to use.   One company sold their flour in a paper bag with a one-year “use by” date.  The other company had a plastic liner in their bag to help protect the flour, which gave a one-year “sell by” date plus six months’ storage in your home.  Then I got a surprise: Both companies told me that flour should be stored in the refrigerator or, better yet, the freezer.  “But that instruction isn’t on the bag,” I rejoined (you’ll recall I had the flour in my pantry).  There was an awkward silence.  I was a little concerned as my flours were about four months old when I bought them so they were currently six months old and had never been protected by refrigeration.    

All this made me even more curious to understand how they decided when flour was too old to use.  Thinking it would help, I explained I wrote a nutrition blog.  Whoops.  That was the end of the conversation; I was routed to a public relations person at one company and a quality manager at the other.  One never called back, the other called back after a week.  I don’t fault them too much; working people often have many demands on their time.  I don’t have the final answer to how they judge when a product is too old to use but was given the impression it had more to do with taste than the viability of the nutrients.  (A bitter taste and rancid odor are classic signs that flour’s essential fats have been oxidized.)  When I learn more I will share it.

King Arthur referred me to a good study on the benefit of using fresh-ground flour at this site (please ignore the plug given to the wheat grinder used, it’s not our intention to endorse any product).  Bread was baked using two kinds of whole flour: freshly ground and store-purchased (older, but age not given).  The result?  The fresh flour rose faster and tasted sweeter than the older flour, which had a “bitter tang”.   Taste was reason enough to use fresh-ground flour but I had read earlier how yeast was used to study the action of vitamins.  From this work it made sense that whatever made yeast grow better might also be more nutritious for humans. 

This is probably the end of the flour posts, so here is the bottom line: 

  1. Store-bought whole grain flour is always healthier than the white stuff. 
  2. For occasional use, purchase whole grain flour but store it in your freezer or refrigeration.  Observe the expiration date.
  3. For regular bread making, grind your own wheat.  If you don’t have your own grinder, work out a solution with your friends.  (Women are so good at this!)

I didn’t see this at first, but here is a last thought:  Refined flour was a mistake but the Industrial Revolution that caused it also brought us the solution: affordable wheat grinders we could use in our own home.  (It’s quite convenient: your ancestors likely spent half-a-day each month or so hauling their wheat to the local mill and had to give 10% to the miller as a fee.)

Please share your experience with home-ground flour.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (30)

My husband and got a wheat grinder from his mom when we got married (4 years ago) and I LOVE it. We eat pizza once a week and there is nothing like grinding wheat, making whole-wheat dough, and sitting down to a veggie-packed pizza - all in one day. Talk about a fresh and tasty meal! we grind new flour about once a week, but it somehow tastes extra good when eaten the first day! Our favorites uses for fresh ground wheat are waffles (on days we don't eat oatmeal) and pizza crust. Thank you for this post. It is further motivation to grind in small batches, use whole wheat more often, and use the fridge and freezer to store.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I grind my flour in my blendtec blender. I know the vitamix also works as I used to have one. It is so easy and convenient, I always grind it fresh the day I am using it. It takes me about 5 minutes to have enough flour for four loaves of whole wheat bread. I can grind it as coarse or as fine as needed. And, if any women in my neighborhood read this blog and need to borrow my blendtec, you are welcome to it!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

I guess I'll be adding wheat grinder to my Christmas list :)
Here's a recipe from my sister-in-law that uses a blender. Very yummy esp. with apple syrup.

Whole Wheat Blender Pancakes
1 cup hard wheat kernels
1 cup milk
add milk and wheat to blender and blend for 2 minutes then add

2 eggs
1/2 cup oil (i use olive)
2 T. honey
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 T. baking powder (Rumford brand is Aluminum-Free)

Blend well for 2-3 minutes. Add more milk or water if need to thin.

For apple syrup recipe click here: http://myyummyfood.blogspot.com/2011/01/have-i-really-not-posted-this-apple.html or go to myyummyfood.blogspot.com and find it under the Breakfast tab.
Thanks for the scoop on flour!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

I wish I had my own grinder, but for now, my mother-in-law lets me use hers. There's nothing like a fresh batch of whole wheat bread out of the oven. I've found that the flour I grind myself is finer than the stuff at the store. The loaves turn out nice and fluffy, not like the dense, bitter loaves I remember hating before. I never used to like wheat bread until I started making it myself!

Thanks for the cool blog! My husband and I actually have a lesson on the Word of Wisdom this coming Sunday. Too bad we're teaching 7-year-olds. Most of this stuff would be over their heads. :)

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

I have a hand crank grinder which I love and I can also roll my own oats with it. And I have a blendtec blender that I use to grind my wheat. I mostly use my blender, but I am glad that I have the hand crank one too, if ever the circumstance arrives that we don't have electricity.
We love making whole wheat pancakes with pure maple syrup or sometimes strawberries and fresh made whip cream, so yummy! When I am baking, I usually substitute at least half, if not all of the white flour for fresh ground wheat flour, and we always gobble it up.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Here's what I've been wondering for some time: what was baking like before the 1880s when white flour was not available? For example, did baked goods that we eat now that are pretty hard to replicate with wheat flour (donuts, cakes, cookies) exist? Or did all those treats follow as a consequence of white flour? What I'm really getting at is that I love to bake traditional sweets, but I also love whole grains. Though I've found a few exceptions, most attempts at making a cookie recipe "healthy" is not even worth trying. The end result is never half as appealing as the white flour version. I'm wondering if there are hidden recipes, techniques, or ingredients that allow for whole grain baked sweets. Or were sweets before the 1880s just totally different from now?

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenae

So timely! I actually just experienced grinding my own flour last weekend. Went to a Sunday brunch and was put in charge of the biscuits. The best part was learning how easy and do-able it is. I've just always assumed that type of cooking was out of my skill range (like cultivating a garden). A vitamix will now be on my wish list. ;)

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda Joy

I don't think most people realize just how easy and convenient it is to grind fresh flour. I taught a class a few weeks ago about this topic, and when I showed the women exactly what was involved (pouring in wheat, scooping out flour), most of them were amazed! I walked around the room to let them smell it and feel it, then I whipped up a batch of pancakes while they watched. I told them that I do this nearly every day, and they all wanted to come over for breakfast.

Grinding flour is just so logical. Grain is such a well-designed food. It already has a very long shelf life--you don't have to be too clever about it, people have been storing grain in their homes for generations. But once the grain is prepared in some way (ground, rolled, soaked, etc), it starts to decompose. People used to know and accept this fact.

My wheat grinder was given to me used, about 9 years ago when I got married. It only cost around $200, and they don't cost much more now. It's just as essential as my fridge or oven, and I can't imagine functioning in the kitchen without it!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

This may seem odd to put on a Word of Wisdom blog, but a coffee grinder is a great wheat grinder! Ours cost $30-$40 dollars purchased at the local grocery store and we've had it for at least 3 years with no problems. It grinds quite quickly too. Hope this helps!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeeAnn

I have to say that we are pretty spoiled nowdays to be able to use electric wheat grinders to grind our wheat! I know they're expensive, and I complain that mine is loud, but after reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, The Long Winter, I've been so grateful for my wheat grinder! During a particularly bad winter, the Ingalls family was relying on the coming of a train to bring new supplies. Their own supplies were down to nothing but a bit of whole wheat that they spent all day every day grinding--with a coffee grinder--in order to make enough bread to stay alive! I try and remember the Ingalls family when I groan about having to open a white food storage bucket to retrieve my wheat and sequester the kids in a bedroom so they don't have to wear earplugs while I grind the wheat! We are blessed to be able to grind wheat once or twice a week, and use it to bake the weekly batch of whole wheat bread (three loaves to feed our family of 6--although I probably need to increase it to 4 loaves a week.) I make sure to grind enough wheat to have some left for biscuits, muffins, cookies, or any other baked goods I plan on making during the week. Thank heavens for wheat grinders! Incidentally, we also own a hand grinder for emergency purposes. I pray we never have to use it for survival but am grateful to own one just in case... ;-)

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Where does one get wheat to grind on one's own?

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

I've been meaning to pull out my electric wheat grinder and a pail of my food storage wheat and start learning how to bake a great loaf of bread. Thanks for the encouragement.

For those in Vegas who worry that our buckets of unopened wheat will only last so long...a gal in my ward sadly lost her grandmother several years ago. Her uncooled garage was stuffed with buckets of 15 year old buckets of wheat that had been stored through summer and winter year after year. Her family thought they were goners but she bravely took one home, opened it up and made a loaf out it...yep, good as new. The heat didn't bother it a bit. She took all the buckets and quadrupled her storage I believe. I think wheat is a lot hardier than we think.

And Stephanie, check your local Costco. That is where many of us find our buckets of wheat. Good luck!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAli

This may be a dumb question but what do you grind to make the flour? Wheat kernals?

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWhistlepea

Whistlepea, yes, wheat kernels; some call them wheat berries. They are available at most health food stores, like Whole Foods or Henry's. The berries keep for a very long time but once ground they should be quickly used or put in the freezer, as noted in the article.

April 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thank you for this post. Just yesterday I was hoping you would do a post on flour soon. I have been slowly weaning my family off of all purpose flour and this has encouraged me even more. I'm definitely going to have to look into a wheat grinder.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Would Kate be willing to post her whole wheat pizza crust recipe here? I have been looking for a tried and true recipe since I have never made it before.

Also, would Michelle, Sacha, Amy or Stephanie be willing to share their bread recipes? I don't want to spend all the time it takes to make bread and have it turn out yucky and inedible. I have never made my own bread but have been wanting to for the last 2 years. I just need a recipe that comes highly recommended and then I will make the leap!

Also, I have the same questions as Denae. Were pies, cakes and pastries, etc. made with whole wheat flour in the 1800's before the white fluffy flour became common?

Goodness! I have a lot of questions! What about the difference between red hard wheat and white winter wheat? Does it matter which one I use?

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShanna

Ah the joys of wheat grinding. Wheat can be bought in buckets or #10 cans online as well as from many stores that carry bulk (not just health food stores, it's becoming much more popular these days) and we buy ours from our church. I love opening a bucket and throwing a few cups of wheat into the Vita Mix. We also have a wheat grinder for doing large batches of wheat and a small hand crank one for emergencies. It has taken a long time but I finally converted my husband to 100% whole wheat pancakes and he noticed that he stays fuller longer while at work. He only likes the Hard White Winter Wheat though, as the Hard Red Winter Wheat is definitely denser (and harder to rise). However, there is no difference in nutrition. Also, when I bring home our bags of wheat, I store them in the freezer for 72 hours to kill all chances of a weevil outbreak (it happened once and I vowed never to let it happen again, it ruined almost our entire pantry). When I grind wheat, I do enough to last us a few days but store it in the freezer. As long as you get freshly ground wheat into the freezer within 3 hours of grinding it will maintain it's nutritional value. Wheat that has been stored in and out of heat is usable as one commenter said about inheriting her grandmother's wheat but it provides very little nutrition. But, if you are trying to stay alive for any reason, then it's better to have wheat to eat than none at all! We do make cookies and baked goods with whole wheat but I will cheat sometimes and do half and half whole wheat and UNbleached enriched flour. I made chocolate chip cookies tonight with 100% whole wheat and chickpeas and they were great! My kids are picky and ate them up without any complaints!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

I grew up on whole grain products (except for for chinese food, which just doesn't taste the same with whole grain rice) but the one thing I just couldn't stand was whole wheat pasta. Now I'm inspired to try to make my own whole grain pasta and see if freshly ground wheat makes a difference when it comes to the taste and consistency. After all I do have a coffe grinder (usually used to grind nuts or old bread), a pasta machine and wheaat kernels, all I need is some time. Thanks for the inspiration!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

My recipe is adapted from the "whole wheat pizza crust dough" found in my Breadman Ultimate Plus recipe guide. The original calls for some bread flour, but I just use all whole-wheat flour.

1 cup water
2 TBS oil
1 TBS sugar*
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp yeast

*I haven't yet tried omitting this to see if it makes any difference without it, but I plan to try it as we are further limiting our white sugar intake these days.

I use the pizza dough cycle on my breadmaker, but I'm sure you could knead all ingredients in a stand mixer and then let it rise 30 minutes or so. It is easy to roll out. This makes 1 pound, which we use for 2 thin crusts. We also use it for thin-crust calzones. And last night I made apple pockets for dessert with the same dough. It was a perfect butter-free crust, and baked so well!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Right now my mom grinds wheat for me and I store the flour in my freezer. I do have a Blendtec blender and I have been meaning to try and grind some wheat with it. I'm glad to hear that others have done so successfully.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle T.

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