Picking the Healthiest Wheat Flour When Baking
When you start baking, you suddenly realize there is more than one kind of flour. As an American kid, when someone said flour I knew exactly what they were talking about because there was only one kind of flour — all-purpose bleached white flour. But when I started to move away from chemicals and processed foods I realized something I’d long suspected:
“Store bought bread will kill you.”
Now I don’t mean actually kill you, so far as I know Wonder Bread doesn’t have cyanide in it and I grew up on the stuff. But the chemicals, the preservatives, the toxins, oh my! I have a loaf of bread that’s been sitting uneaten on my counter since the day I started eating only bread I’ve baked myself. It has been there a couple of months and it is neither moldy nor stale. Gross.
ALL THIS IN MY BREAD!?
As proof of the grossness of ‘industrial bread’, here is a copy of the ingredients list in a regular loaf of store-bought white bread:
Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid)
High Fructose Corn Syrup – I shudder to think, I’ll be posting about HFCS in the future
Yeast, Soybean Oil, Salt
Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate (Non Dairy) – an organic preservative, made by combining lactic and stearic acid. Lactic acid is normally obtained commercially by introducing a bacterial culture to a milk product, cornstarch, potatoes, or molasses. Stearic acid is produced from either animal fat or vegetable oils.
Calcium Sulfate – You really don’t want to know where this comes from, or maybe you do. Needless to say, it is possible to get this by burning fossil fuels. Read the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_sulfate for more information.
Guar Gum – is from the guar seed.
Calcium Propionate (preservative) is an organic salt formed by the reaction of calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) with propionic acid. No known health risks have been reported.
Enzyme Active Soy Flour
Monocalcium Phosphate (leavening agent) – Phosphoric acid is one of the components used to create this chemical. I don’t know if it has a similar effect, but phosphoric acid can inhibit calcium absorption. Much of it seems to be produced in China, which also concerns me.
DATEM (vegetable) – This is an acronym for diacetyl tartaric (acid) ester of monoglyceride. It is generally recognized as safe with the only concern being that a high amount would put one over the ADI limit for tartaric acid. Breads etc. have very tiny amounts.
Ammonium Sulfate – Why is there fertilizer in my bread? What am I, a plant?
Enzymes (vegetable) – What enzymes are this? Could be anything.
Ascorbic Acid – obviously a bleaching agent, but one that is acceptable.
Azodicarbonamide – Another one you don’t want to know about; inhalation of particles by workers has been suspected of causing asthma, but there are no real studies about the effects of ingestion. This is used in plastic and polymer manufacture. I have no idea what it does for bread.
L-Cysteine – This is a non-essential amino acid. It might even be good for you, however industrially it is often produced from hair, pig bristles, or feathers. It’s also another product often made in China (yes, I know they are working hard to improve their manufacturing, etc. etc.). Another case of an okay product made suspect by industrialization.
And I am neither a doctor nor a professional baker; I just have way too much time on my hands and an obsession about not eating petroleum byproducts or peroxide whenever I can help it. That said, here is a quick primer on wheat flour.
ABOUT WHEAT FLOUR:
Wheat is a grass cultivated to produce flour. Whole-wheat flour uses all parts of the grain: the germ, the endosperm, and the bran. White flour is made from the endosperm only. A germ flour (which isn’t common around these parts) uses only the endosperm and germ, excluding the bran.
Wheat is divided into two general categories, “hard” flour which is high in gluten and “soft” flour which is low in gluten. Hard flour is also called bread flour, since that is its primary use. Soft flour is usually called pastry flour, and all-purpose is a blended flour with intermediate levels of gluten/protein.
Flour is bleached to make it white (unbleached flour being yellow) and also to give it more gluten-producing potential. Maturing agents are also sometimes added to help develop gluten.
BEST FLOURS TO USE:
The best wheat flour to use is, of course, an unbleached organic whole-wheat that is locally grown and manufactured. Sounds complex; a far cry from just flour. This will probably limit the types of things you can bake (if you can find this at all) and some of us just don’t like the taste of whole-wheat, so here are some tips to help you pick your flour. Just do the best you can.
Always try to pick organic over non-organic.
Go for whole-grain over white if you can (and if you enjoy whole-wheat products).
Buy from local distributors whenever possible; this reduces petroleum used to get your product to you.
If you are buying white flour, don’t buy bleached. Flour is bleached with chlorine or peroxide. The only type of flour which only comes bleached is cake flour. If you need cake flour, make sure it isn’t bromated. Potassium bromate is a chemical added to bleach flour, especially in the United States. It is a suspected carcinogen and banned in many countries and the EU. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) works just as well to mature flour and it doesn’t cause cancer.
Flour was originally ‘bleached’ by natural aging, but this was more expensive due to the time involved, so these bleaching agents were introduced. If you can find naturally aged white flour, great!
Don’t be alarmed if you see the ash mass content listed on the flour. This refers to the amount of mineral content left after a sample of the flour was incinerated in a laboratory test. It doesn’t mean ash was added to your flour.
Two brands I highly recommend are:
http://www.kingarthurflour.com — They have tons of wonderful recipes and a truly great flour. Their cake flour is bleached, but not bromated, and they have organic and unbleached options for most of their products.
http://www.hodgsonmill.com – They have awesome specialty flours and grains (like soy flour and flaxseed), and they also have a “50/50” flour for those of us trying to ‘healthsneak’ in more whole wheat flour but who don’t want to bother with measuring things in halves.