It’s common knowledge that whole wheat flour is better for you than white all-purpose flour… but why is that? And what exactly is whole wheat flour, anyway? What’s the difference between whole and white flour? We’ll talk about all these things and more every day this week – you won’t want to miss a single day, so be sure and subscribe if you haven’t already (Should I mention there’s a bonus free gift for subscribers?).
Yesterday, we talked at length about the different varieties of wheat and wheat flour available. Today I’m going to spend a little more time specifically discussing whole wheat flour, and why it’s a better choice for cooking and baking than its white counterpart.
First of all, let’s look at a kernel of wheat:
As you can see it has three parts:
Germ: This portion of the wheat kernel is the “embryo” of the wheat, and is full of different B vitamins and minerals. It is also where the oil of the wheat is stored, which is why many manufacturers remove the germ in the milling process: the oil goes rancid quickly, so it will sour the whole batch of flour within a relatively short time period if it’s not used.
Bran: This is the outer shell of the wheat kernel and contains the majority of the fiber. It also contains B vitamins and other minerals, in larger quantities than found in the germ.
Endosperm: This is the largest part of the wheat kernel and contributes most of the protein and carbohydrates found in wheat flour. It also has B vitamins, iron, and other minerals.
Each part of the wheat kernel is full of nutrients, so the most wholesome way to eat it is in its entirety. This chart by the USDA shows you the difference between flour made from the entire kernel of wheat (whole wheat flour) and flour made only from the endosperm:
Whole Wheat Flour
All Purpose Flour*
Total Dietary Fiber
As this chart shows, white flour has significantly less of every single nutrient found in wheat! Clearly, the whole grain is the more nutritionally beneficial choice when it comes to flour.
This was clearly obvious in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when steel roller mills were introduced, and Americans began consuming large quantities of white flour for the first time in history. Diseases caused by vitamin B deficiency became widespread and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the reason was discovered: it was the nutrient-deficient flour! Unfortunately, instead of returning to whole wheat flour production, companies instead began adding synthetic vitamins and minerals back into the flour after it was milled.
When grain is made into refined white flour, more than 30 essential nutrients are largely removed. Only four of those nutrients are added back in a process called “enrichment.” Using this same logic, if a person were robbed of 30 dollars and the thief then returned 4 dollars to his victim for cab fare home, then that person should be considered “enriched” by 4 dollars, not robbed of 26 dollars. How would you feel in that situation? You should feel the same about “enriched” white flour and bread? Only vitamins B1, B2, B3, and iron are added back. Nutrients which are removed and not returned include 44% of the vitamin E, 52% of the pantothenic acid, 65% of the folic acid, 76% of the biotin, 84% of the vitamin B6, and half or more of 20 minerals and trace elements, including magnesium, calcium, zinc, chromium, manganese, selenium, vanadium, and copper.
So we have established that whole wheat flour is healthier than white flour.
Well. Not so fast. There are plenty of people who believe that the bran is problematic for human digestion. The issues get seriously complicated: read Katie of Kitchen Stewardship’s lengthy series on the topic of wheat, grains and soaking here to get an idea of all the science that goes into studying this question. To sum up, a substance called phytate is present in the bran and is said to bind with minerals and prevent the body from absorbing them. This would mean that eating the grain whole is not nearly as nutritious as one might think.
Many people try to get around this by soaking the flour in an acid solution to activate phytase, which breaks down the phytic acid. Others sprout the whole wheat berries for the same reason. Still others advocate sourdough bread-making methods, and even others actually recommend using white flour if you can’t/won’t soak or sprout the wheat.
And then there’s the camp on the opposite side that believes the phytates actually serve a useful purpose in binding to certain minerals: after all, our bodies typically only need minerals in small amounts . Aligned with them are others who believe that, aside from their tendency to bind to minerals, phytates have other useful services in the body that protect from certain diseases, including cancers. This side of the debate also tends to believe that the typical processes of baking bread (the use of yeast or sourdough, the rising, and the baking) all serve to reduce the phytic acid to the extent necessary for the body to absorb the nutrients it needs. Besides which, they say, this whole thing is only an issue for people whose diet largely consists of grains: if you eat enough fruits, vegetables, proteins and healthy fats, you don’t need to worry about the few minerals you’ll lose in your whole grains.
What do I think? I tend to side with the latter camp. Honestly, the issues regarding wheat and nutrition are complicated and practically require an advanced degree in botany, biology and chemistry… and I am no scientist. I don’t think there are definitive answers for one side or the other. But after reading information from all sides of the issue, I am satisfied that the normal process of cooking and baking, combined with the body’s digestion process, is sufficient to make use of the phytic acid, and to accomplish its job both in the wheat itself and in the body.
However, I also tend to agree with those who suggest that in its unaltered state, whole wheat can be difficult to digest, and that traditionally, the bran has been largely sifted ou t. The resulting sifted flour was not quite the nutritionally deficient all-purpose flour we are familiar with today, but neither was it straight-up whole wheat.
My conclusion? It might be the best of both worlds to mix a little white (unbleached unbromated) flour in with the whole wheat when baking, especially in recipes like cookies and cakes where there is no rising or sourdough/yeast involved. On the other hand, if you don’t experience any digestive issues, I don’t think there’s any harm – and possibly great benefit – in baking with 100% whole wheat flour. I would say that using anywhere between 50-100% whole wheat flour in a recipe is nutritious and beneficial, and at the very least, better than the average American diet of 100% refined white flour.