Author: Jenni McAllister, Freelance Writer
Should You Eliminate Bleached White Flour from your Diet?
The health concerns associated with white sugar are well-documented, but less well-known are the fact that white flour isn’t all that good for you either—it’s highly processed, and consequently low in nutritional value. Luckily, while there are some recipes—like the classic chocolate chip cookie—that are thought to be better when made with white flour, in most cases, it’s easy to make substitutions that allow you to all but eliminate bleached white flour from your diet.
Why is Flour Bleached?
Wheat is ground into flour via a process calling milling, at the end of which the resulting flour is colored yellow. This is because wheat (and flour) contains a yellow-pigmented compound called xanthophylls, which, along with chlorophyll, is involved in photosynthesis. Over time, the yellow pigment fades, leaving the flour a much paler yellow that’s almost white, but this aging process takes a couple of weeks or more when it’s allowed to happen naturally. Chemically bleaching the flour speeds up the process considerably, and as well as this, the gluten in bleached flour is chemically changed, too. Dough made with bleached or aged flour is stronger and more elastic; bleached flour or aged is therefore better for baking.
Problems with Bleached White Flour
There is several issues about bleached white flour that make it a fairly unhealthy food to eat in large amounts. One is that it’s a simple carbohydrate, easily and rapidly metabolized by the body into sugar. Ultimately, all carbohydrates break down into various types of sugars, so it’s not the sugar molecules per se that are the problem. It’s the fact that bleached white flour is mostly devoid of nutritional value, and contains very little fiber—all the fiber and nutrients (like vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins) are removed during processing. That lack of fiber contributes to the rapid metabolism of the carbohydrates in white flour, which causes the same blood glucose highs and lows that result from over consumption of sugar.
Perhaps the most pressing problem that’s specific to bleached white flour is the chemicals it’s treated with, including various forms of oxidizing (aging) agents such as benzyl peroxide, calcium peroxide, and chlorine dioxide. These chemicals have been implicated as causative agents of digestive disorders, asthma, allergies, and diabetes.
In part, it’s chemicals like those used in flour bleaching and other processes used for food production that have led to the increased popularity of Detox Diets that focus on eating whole rather than processed foods. It's not just the chemicals that act like toxins, however; there's even evidence that simple carbohydrates like those found in white flour are addictive, due to the blood sugar spikes they cause. Furthermore, some experts say that to permanently eliminate refined carbohydrates from the diet requires a withdrawal process akin to the kind of medical detox used to help a drug addict kick the habit.
One important thing to note about unbleached flour is it may still be chemically treated, even if it hasn't been bleached. Some flours are treated with bromides, typically potassium bromide, which improves baking qualities and allows for better rising. Due to concerns over this chemical’s status as a possible carcinogen, its use as a food additive has been banned in several countries, including Australia, Canada and the UK; however, it is still used extensively as a flour additive in the US.
Dietary Substitutions for Bleached White Flour
Eliminating bleached white flour from your diet is much easier than it used to be, thanks to the increased awareness of the potential problems with consumption of chemically-treated flour. It’s now quite easy to find unbleached white flour, which has been allowed to age naturally over a period of time, rather than having the aging process accelerated artificially with chemical treatments. Overall, naturally aged flour performs just as well as bleached white flour, although poor-quality unbleached flour may produce baking that doesn't rise as much. Some people note that naturally aged flour tastes better, too, without the bitter aftertaste that can sometimes be detected in bleached flour.
It’s just as simple to eliminate white flour entirely, by switching to whole grains, oats, flax seed and nut powders.
Dave Mulder, for Eating Real Food. “How and Why is Flour Bleached?” Accessed June 19, 2014. Purpose of chemical treatment for flour.
Global Healing Center. “White Flour: How Healthy is it For You?” Accessed June 19, 2014. Health concerns associated with white flour.
Rose Cole. "21 Day Sugar Detox." Accessed June 20, 2014. Kicking the sugar habit.
The Kitchen. “Food Science: Why some Flour is Bleached and Bromated.” Accessed June 19, 2014. Chemical processes in flour refining.
Weston A. Price Foundation. “White Flour—the Other Sugar.” Accessed June 19, 2014. Reducing white flour intake.
Whole Vegan. “White Flour, the Refined Flour.” Accessed June 19, 2014. Bleaching agents used in white flour.