Reader Alan responded to the below post on sifting with a story about a recent kitchen moth invasion. It reminded me of something similar that happened here in the pastry household about a year ago. Most of us have had the experience. You’re doing dishes one evening and you notice a couple of little moths with stripey wings flitting about. Who let these darn things in here?
“Honey,” you call to your spouse in the next room, “we’ve got to make sure we’re keeping the screen doors closed. Moths are getting in.” But of course no one is letting the moths in. You and I are bringing them in — in our packaged flours and grains.
Insect eggs and other, ehem…impurities…are in all flours, however they’re more likely to be alive in freshly milled and/or organic flours because those products aren’t treated with fumigants (otherwise they wouldn’t be organic). Left sitting around long enough nearly all of those products, and even many treated flours and meals, will eventually hatch moths, usually Indian meal moths but also Mediterranean flour moths. Both are extremely common US pantry pests, and each have a life cycle of about six weeks. So if you don’t want them to hatch, you need to hurry up and eat them. You need the protein anyway.
Something I find interesting about pantry moths is that they don’t occur on or near wheat or corn crops in the field. Rather they’re specifically adapted to human activity (milling and the like). And are they ever destructive. Globally, it’s estimated that humans lose something on the order of $10 billion worth of milled grain to moths every year.
But I know what you’re thinking: if conventional flours have fewer live moth eggs in them than the more natural alternatives, why don’t conventional flour makers talk about that? The answer is: are you kidding? It’d be like a politician standing up and saying “My opponent has solicited sex from prostitutes over a dozen times, while I myself have only done it twice!” When you’re talking moth eggs, the winning answer is always to keep your trap shut.
This is why conventional flour manufacturers never respond when natural food advocates ask them why they won’t stop using bleaches and fumigants on their flours. “Because if we don’t, the insect eggs in it will hatch out.” Talk about a poor PR message. It’s also why organic flour makers and smaller specialty millers can crow endlessly about never using bleaches and fumigants without having to worry about a response from the likes of General Mills. “Sure their products may look and taste more natural, but in the end their moth eggs will end up hatching a whole lot faster than ours!” It tends to depress sales.
So if you wonder why organizations like the military or international relief organizations always distribute processed white flour when there’s a famine or disaster somewhere in the world, this is the reason: because processed white flour is the most sanitary, and it can be kept a lot longer.
But a word to the wise baker: of you’re keeping a lot of flour around it’s best to keep it in the freezer. This is especially true of organic flours, but it’s a good rule of thumb just generally. Freezing not only kills off (or stunts the development of) pests, it prevents any oils in the flours from spoiling. Plus it frees up pantry space. If you don’t have that kind of freezer space available then the best course of action is to use mass-market bleached flour and keep it in a sealed container. That way, if any critters are born on-premises, they’ll have nowhere to run.