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:
- When a natural food is industrialized, it can take a generation or so for the health consequences to be confirmed.
- Another generation is required for scientists to gather enough evidence to establish cause and effect.
- 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:
- Store-bought whole grain flour is always healthier than the white stuff.
- For occasional use, purchase whole grain flour but store it in your freezer or refrigeration. Observe the expiration date.
- 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.