If I make my mom’s biscuit recipe with unbleached, unbromated wheat flour, home-rendered pastured lard, Real Salt, and organic, grassfed milk, but the flour happens to have all the bran and all the germ sifted out of it, is my resulting biscuit – which will be so fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth smeared with pastured butter that you’ll think you died and gone to Heaven – is it junk food? Is it real food? Or would some even say, “It’s not even food at all!” just because of the refined grains?
I posed a basic question last week on Facebook: White flour…food, non-food, junk food, or somewhere in between?
It generated quite the conversation, and I thought that many of the comments and opinions deserved my own response.
The title of this post is partially a “whole grains” vs. refined grains question but really that whole “grains question,” as in, I’m going to talk about grains through the lens of common sense. All grains: refined, soaked, sprouted, and none at all. (top photo source)
What’s the deal with grains?
What is “Food” Anyway?
I promise that’s not a trick question.
If I’m going to deem something “food” or “not food,” I need to be able to articulate a definition for food.
I can reasonably say that if I can trace something from its origin either in the ground or on an animal, then be able to replicate every step of its processing in my home kitchen without a chemistry degree or any degree of heroics, then it’s actually food.
For example, let’s look at the white flour in question:
- White flour begins on a wheat plant, as the seed. I could grow and harvest that myself if I so desired.
- The seed is then ground into flour, which I could do in my Nutrimill, or, if I wanted a more “pure” definition of food without any fancy machinery, I could always grind flour by hand with a mortar and pestle. That sounds like fun…
- Now I have whole wheat flour with the bran, germ and endosperm of the seed all ground up. Like I demonstrated in my Nutrimill videos, all that’s needed to separate the bran out is a fine sieve, and it doesn’t really even take that long. To separate the germ, I’d just need a finer sieve, but I am fairly certain I could do it in my own kitchen.
- White flour: it may have the most nutritious part of the plant removed, but I don’t see any reason why the part that is left, the refined grain, should be relegated to “not food” any more than peeling a carrot or a cucumber should suddenly change its status to “not food.”
Someone on the Facebook thread stated that the body does not recognize white flour, and I soundly disagree. We’re not talking trans fats here, which have been altered at the molecular level in a lab to create a “food” that is totally new and different from any naturally occurring fats. The body does not recognize that and doesn’t know what to do with it, true, but white flour is just food that’s missing some parts from its whole form.
The body can handle it.
Trans fats start as a food, but the process that makes them “hydrogenated” is not something I can hope to replicate in my kitchen. It fails the “food” test.
Artificial colors made from petroleum (or anything else) are another great example of something that fails the “food” test, this one at the very beginning. There’s nothing that ever grew in the ground or was alive, so it’s not something I want to eat. (Salt and minerals would be one exception to this rule, but I can’t think of any others. Did I miss anything?)
Genetic modification pushes my system a little bit, because the issue happens before the plant is even harvested, in fact before it’s even grown.
Up until very recently, I would have judged GM crops as food, hands down. Messed up food, maybe, but still edible food.
I was, perhaps, not fully using my common sense and was purposely not looking into the issue very deeply, knowing that I was avoiding most GMOs already and not wanting to take any additional time to delve deeper.
I mentioned in yesterday’s Common Sense Monday Mission that I had been reading Laurie Neverman’s Common Sense Health eBook and learned a number of new facts about genetically modified crops that I didn’t know before. I still need to follow my own advice by following her sources, but I’m much more taken aback than I have been in the past. I’m also a lot closer to relegating GM crops like Bt corn to the “non-food” category. More research needed…
Other Issues with White Flour
I’m always surprised how people like to preach about the perfect foods or their perfect diet, but they’re totally wrong.
- You need to soak white flour to make it more nutritious.
- If you have “sprouted” white flour, that’s okay.
- Confusing “white whole wheat” with white refined flour
- That GM wheat makes it so that people should never eat white flour.
Soaking White Flour
The whole point of soaking grains is to release the minerals in the bran and germ from phytic acid, which binds them and may inhibit absorption of certain nutrients in the gut. White flour has no bran, no germ, and no antinutrients to soak out. Please read my extensive soaking grains research and methods HERE if you need to understand better.
One note: Although basic overnight soaking is totally unnecessary for refined grains of any kind, the sourdough process still may yield health benefits with white flour, making the starch in the refined grain more easily digestible because of fermentation, a pre-digestive process.
Sprouted White Flour?
There’s no such thing as sprouted white flour. To sprout something, you have to start with the whole grain, sprout it, dry it, and then grind it. I suppose one might be able to then sift out the bran and germ, but honestly, I’ve never heard of it. I’m not sure how sprouting alters the size and shape of the bran and germ; it may be impossible to sift them out.
I’m also not quite sure about what would be left: the point of sprouting is to (a) stop the seed’s antinutrient tendencies (aka release minerals from the phytic acid) since as far as the seed is concerned, it’s met its goal in life if it’s beginning to grow, and also (b) sprouting reduces the starch content since the baby plant begins to eat its food source, the endosperm.
That part IS the white flour part, so if it’s already being eaten by the plant…what will left if it is refined?
I’m open to this being possible, because, you know, I want to have some common sense about it all and think it through. I am wrong sometimes (okay, quite often really). But it sounds like a redundancy at best and impossible at worst to me.
White Whole Wheat Flour
“White whole wheat” has nothing at all to do with white flour. They’re completely different, although it’s confusing, I know. When anyone mentions white flour, I guarantee they’re talking about a refined product, a type of wheat flour with its bran and germ removed. White whole wheat, on the other hand, is made from a specific type of wheat berry: hard white spring wheat.
Traditional whole wheat flour that is the “standard” one you can buy in a bag at the store comes from “hard red wheat,” usually either spring or winter varieties. It’s just that the plant itself from which the wheat berries were harvested is different, but there’s little to no difference in nutritional value and zero difference in processing.
There are plenty of different kinds of whole wheat grains that can be made into whole wheat flour: The two mentioned above plus “soft white wheat berries,” aka pastry flour, are some of the most common.
White whole wheat is quite lovely, by the way, for baking muffins and cookies, and it’s absolutely necessary, in my opinion, for perfect homemade whole wheat tortillas.
Genetically Modified Wheat, oh Really?
Genetic modification is really building steam as a hot topic right now, which is great. It’s important to get the word out on GM crops to the widest audience possible so that people are informed about their food and can make eating and buying choices according to their beliefs, as well as vote with their dollar and their ballots (hopefully against GM taking root any deeper in America, but we shall see).
The problem with hot topics is that they tend to be misinterpreted and overblown. Suddenly the problem with every food possible is, “Genetic modification makes that unhealthy.” People begin to throw around the terms in every conversation: “GM is the root of all nutritional evils.” “Oh, you know, genetic modification blah blah blah…”
The fallacy in that is that there are really very few genetically modified crops on the market today. Corn, soy, cotton and sugar are very widely genetically modified, and they’re in just about every processed food (not cotton, obviously, although sometimes it tastes like it), so GMOs do impact our food supply in that way.
However – strawberries, tomatoes, wheat, rice, apples and many, many more foods are not (yet) genetically modified, at least not officially. When people continue to peg GM as the problem with all those foods, it shows their ignorance, in my opinion.
Yes, genetically modified wheat was found recently growing in Oregon. Yes, that’s incredibly scary, and it’s possible that a great deal of the wheat in America has been contaminated by experiments that got out of hand. However, up until just last month (May, 2013), nobody knew that. So all the naysayers preaching the evils of GM wheat before that had no sources to back up their claims.
What common sense says about this new evidence, I’m not sure, but my common sense says this about genetic modification in general: We should not play God, and getting into the genes of any living creature is a slippery slope.
At our time in history, we don’t yet know the ramifications of genetic modification on the environment or our bodies, but we do know that the GM crops can, through cross-pollination, take over other crops. To fiddle with something that can get so out of our control and which may quickly enter into the realm of immorality (if we begin to experiment on human beings, for example) is dangerous and irresponsible.
The decisions made about genetic modification now are going to impact generations to come, and I’m firmly opposed to it.
But What About White Flour?
Food vilification is pretty rampant in some real food circles. We’ve already established that yes, white flour IS a food. It may not be the most nutritious food possible, but those who demonize it as an “anti-food, a poison, and potentially dangerous” are stretching the truth.
White flour has 455 calories per cup, including some protein and fat (although mostly the bad polyunsaturated fats), and it even has 3.4 grams of fiber. Not much, but at least some. When people are starving, they can survive on white bread. They may not thrive, but they are not poisoned. Good grief. (sources: 1, 2, 3)
White flour may have quite an undesirable glycemic load, it may be high in starch with little fiber to slow down that starch’s trip through the digestive system, and it may be lacking in nutrients, but it’s not going to poison most healthy people. (Yes, some folks should never eat wheat of any kind, and some, like diabetics, are definitely harmed by eating refined grains. But it’s not the white flour that is the real problem, it’s that body’s ability to utilize it.)
White flour is a food, not a poison, and it may very well have a place in a healthy diet.
To Soak or Not to Soak?
A few years ago when I was looking into the soaking grains issue in depth, I said that people would know the series was over when I posted an article called “To Soak or Not to Soak” with my final recommendations.
After a while, I realized a few things:
- The research was very conflicting.
- I probably was not qualified to really make an informed recommendation on the entire issue, because of the point above, the shifting of research as the years progressed, that I’m not a professional researcher or scientist, and the fact that I was running out of time and motivation.
- There’s no perfect answer for everyone. Some people need to soak or sprout their grains because they feel badly if they don’t. Some people’s bodies don’t do well with any grains. And other people actually feel better if they just eat refined grains.
Then our family discovered a probable gluten sensitivity, and my energy and efforts really needed to be devoted to learning about baking gluten-free and grain-free, so I sort of dropped the subject of soaking.
People would email and ask over the years if I ever made a final decision, but I never got back to the series. I just didn’t know where to go with it.
I’m still not qualified to make any recommendations or final decisions, but I can share my opinion and what we’re doing on a regular basis in our family.
- There is some research, both anecdotal and scientific, to show that soaking grains does positive things to make grains nourishing.
- Soaking doesn’t take very much more time – sometimes just a few minutes here and there.
- In our family, we’ve cut down on grains in general quite a bit, which is probably the best way to deal with the issue.
- We do soak oatmeal and brown rice, and I soak homemade rolls and tortillas when we eat wheat at all.
So my answer to “to soak or not to soak” is to do what works for your family. If people’s guts hurt after eating unsoaked whole wheat bread, you should make a change. Whether that means soaking, sprouting, sourdough or avoiding wheat/grains is up to your personal test kitchen and family laboratory.
There’s no perfect answer.
In our house, I’m not going to freak out if we eat unsoaked whole grains, but I prefer to soak whenever I can, which is easier because I already had the habit formed. I do think I notice that unsoaked oatmeal feels heavier in my gut, but I’m willing to admit that it may be a psychological thing too, happening because I’m watching for it to happen.
I’m also trying to use more common sense and not freak out if we’re presented with white flour products or white rice, which may be even healthier and safer than whole grains, depending on who you ask.
I still believe, as I did when I started the series, that sourdough is the healthiest way to consume whole grains. In reality, though, I haven’t had a sourdough starter going for over two years since we started avoiding most gluten – but it’s on my list to get a gluten-free starter going, and I even have the recipe printed. Sometimes, life gets in the way.
Finding the Balance
The whole issue of grains has become quite sensitive and personal for many people, and there are definitely vehement supporters of any perspective, especially the grain-free proponents.
I was disappointed that so many on Facebook took a stance of food elitism and vilification. I do appreciate opinions, but far more important to me is exploring all sides and presenting a balanced perspective. I’ll leave you today with some nuggets of wisdom from the community on Facebook.
I really appreciate what this reader said:
“I know people have twisted the phrase Everything in moderation to be an excuse for eating garbage, but I think that once you get out all of the truly non-food and overly processed stuff from your diet, everything in moderation makes sense.”
On the flip side, it is rare that anyone is eating an ideal diet 100% of the time, and I feel that it’s detrimental to others to act like you are.
Making people feel stressed out about their choices isn’t helpful. Plenty of people have consciously evaluated the way their family reacts to whole grains vs. white flour and found that they hurt after eating whole grains, even “properly prepared,” and do not after eating white flour.
There’s another group of people who have fewer choices because of their socio-economic status.
Please don’t tell those folks that white flour is going to poison them.
I tend to use the lens of traditional foods, which makes common sense to me – that foods that people have been eating successfully for hundreds if not thousands of years should have prime place at the table. Foods and “foods” that have been around for less than a century are treated with great skepticism and usually avoided.
It may surprise you to learn that the idea of mixing white with whole wheat flour may actually be closer to what traditional cultures ate than 100% whole grain bread. Read more in 3 Expert Takes on the Value of White Bread.
Butter Believer also has a great post finding the balance: Is White Flour Really All That Bad? She says:
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.
Most of the gals in the KS community are similarly infused with common sense and balance. I loved these two comments on the Facebook thread (and so did a bunch of other people as demonstrated by a plethora of “likes”):
I used to think it was poison. I used to think sugar and regular noodles and almost everything else unhealthy was bad or dangerous. Until I started living again. I still try to make better choices but nothing will happen if I use white flour once in a while. I am sane. My kids do not have a crazy momma anymore. The kitchen cabinets are now stocked with everything and my kids don’t go crazy anymore when they are out of the house and see candy, white bread and junk cereal. It’s all food. We have to choose the healthier of the foods, but it’s still food! Live and make the best choices you can. Stress and fear of everything is sometimes just as bad as occasionally eating the crap.
I have a tendency personally to go overboard on stress a bit, so I need to bring myself back to center and remember that my kids need to see a balanced mommy, too.
I find it so sad that people will use terms like “less then ideal” in reference to a topic like this because that seems like the diet of that person must be 100% correct when I would bet its not. What is it with people being on a high horse about this topic?
White flour is food, and I think some people need to be focus on being thankful they have the budget, accessibility, etc, to make the choices they male for their family… Instead of looking down their nose at everyone about their choices. I would much prefer someone uses white flour for homemade things as opposed to premade mixes… And while we are at it, let’s mention that not everyone is as fortunate as some of us who can make the choices we want for our family.
Also, in an emergency, would you classify white flour as a non food? I highly doubt it. If we want to educate and empower others to make “better” decisions, well I think we need to focus on the benefits of one thing over the other, i.e. the positives, instead of it being a chance for someone to pat their own back about the way they do things while looking down at others.
I think I’m going to bake a loaf of my favorite oatmeal honey bread today, using yeast, and unbleached white flour (gasp), I guess to some its not better nutritionally then the alternative of going to the store to buy a loaf of white bread. Whatever. I will enjoy it with some raw honey drizzled on top.
With that, I’m off to make pancakes for my family. They’re grain-free this morning because I forgot to soak buckwheat flour last night. After all this conversation, I’m tempted to make white flour pancakes, but we’ve kind of maxed out our “80/20″ living (20% junk as long as 80% is nourishing) over the weekend. Plus, I’m not sure where my bag of white flour is.
What’s your take on white flour?
Stay tuned for more common sense this week, including sun exposure, evaluating new diet plans, “How Much is Too Much?” and more!
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