Browsing one of my favorite food references over the weekend, I came upon a funny little bit of editorializing that I wanted to remark on. The book was Food Lover’s Companion, Second Edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst. I love it, though it isn’t nearly as thorough as other food references. It does however possess the twin virtues of being both up-to-date and small, roughly pocket-sized. Thus, I take it a lot of places.
Saturday, sitting on the front stoop during little Josephine’s nap, I happened upon the entry on flour. It begins predictably enough, defining flour as a ground meal of wheat produced when grain is crushed by sets of steel rollers. About three sentences in, though, we get this line:
The more naturally nutritious stone ground flour is produced by grinding the grain between two slowly moving stones.
The bit about stone ground flour being ground between stones is certainly true, but the part about stone ground flour being more “naturally nutritious” is just plain baloney. It’s a trope you hear repeated all the time in health food shops, but the fact is there’s no meaningful difference between wheat that’s cracked by stones versus wheat that’s cracked by steel rollers. The only difference is that modern mills are more efficient at removing bran and germ, which may be what Herbst is referring to. But then they’re also great at putting it back in when mixing whole grain flours, so the end result is exactly the same.
I’ll tell you one ingredient that is missing from modern, roller-produced flour though: grit. In days gone by, flour mills employed grinding stones cut from a rock called millstone grit. It’s a type of sandstone that’s soft enough so it cuts easily, and rough enough to be great for cracking wheat. Trouble was those same characteristics meant the stones wore down with use, delivering a fine sand into the flour they were milling.
No big deal, right? What’s a few extra minerals in the diet? Except for the fact the grit wore on peoples’ teeth like a fine sandpaper, and decades of bread chewing left them worn down to the roots by the time most people were in their 50’s. Thus, when the steel rolling mill came into wide use by the 1850’s, it was a Godsend, both to nutrition and dentistry.
Of course, modern mill stones are made of much harder stone (granite, say), so they leave far less grit in flour. But for my money I’ll take the good ol’ roller-cracked flour any day. It may not be as wholesome as sounding as “stone ground flour”, but then I get my extra minerals from vitamins.