White Flour: Is it Evil?

You hear a lot of wacky conspiracy theories at the fringes of the whole grain baking movement. About how white flour is a conspiracy by General Mills and Hostess to keep us on a steady diet of nutritionally vacant foods, how it’s a Western tool for addicting non-wheat eating cultures to cheap and abundant carbs, or how it’s a government plot to rob us of B vitamins so as to turn us into physically weak, mentally enfeebled servants of the military-industrial complex.

I’m not qualified to speak to those subjects, though I can tell you that other than giving breads a lighter color, lighter texture and sweeter taste, whiter, higher extraction flours have always been functionally superior to darker, low-extraction flours because they last longer. The reason for that has to do with fat. Whole wheat flour retains the oily germ of the wheat berry, and that oil will go rancid in as little as a month if the flour is kept at room temperature. That’s why it’s always a good idea to store whole wheat flour in the freezer if you plan on keeping it for very long. White flour, on the other hand, is almost pure wheat starch, which means it can keep almost indefinitely if it’s kept dry.

This is why, when relief groups deliver flour to the war-torn or disaster-sticken parts of the world, it tends to be the white flour. It’s also a big part of the reason why high-extraction flours have been so heavily favored over the last 150-or-so years. Most of us don’t think twice about food preservation these days. If our flour goes rancid or our strawberries get moldy, we just head to the supermarket and buy more. Our ancestors had no such luxury. If you were scratching out an existence as a frontiersman in 1870 or as a North Dakota homesteader in 1930, you were simply out of luck if your flour went bad. High-extraction flours offered a hedge against that risk, plus they just tasted better. Add it all together and it isn’t hard to see why, when it came to flour, our forebears gravitated to the white stuff.

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