What’s So Bad About…White Flour?

What’s So Bad About…White Flour?

Have you noticed white flour is the new white sugar? It has become a virtual pariah. Nutritionists urge us to choose whole grain alternatives, naturopaths talk about wheat and gluten sensitivity. It’s enough to prompt one to wear a disguise when entering the baking aisle should you actually dare to purchase the offensive white powder. At Bunners Bakery, vegan couple Ashley Wittig and Kevin MacAllister refuse to be white flour pushers (and that’s the end of the drug metaphor, promise).  Everything is refined sugar and gluten free as well as vegan. White flour is banished. Their timing couldn’t be better since according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Centre, 1 in 133 people likely have celiac or gluten intolerance. And even without any medical need to switch, many people are heeding the advice to avoid white flour. Choices in the commercial world are getting better too and wheat is taking a backseat to alternatives like rice, chickpea and tapioca flour. I thought Ashley would be the perfect person to talk to about whether or not white flour’s rap sheet really stacks up (and if we happen to discuss it over a perfect little gluten free, vegan muffin, who am I to argue)?

According to Ashley, white flour’s rep is well deserved. “White flour is essentially an empty food, made by stripping whole wheat of fibre and nutrients. It breaks down in the body as sugar; to your body, eating a slice of white bread is the same as eating a slice of cake. The increased sugar causes your pancreas to spit out insulin and increased insulin in the body can be a catalyst for a myriad of illnesses.”

But if you don’t have a health reason to avoid wheat there is a vast difference between the white and whole grain versions. Ashley says “if your body can handle it, whole wheat is an excellent source of fibre, protein, and nutrients. However moderation is key and our diets should be as diverse as possible to maximize nutrition. Wheat intolerance is rampant in North America and can range from the severe where someone is violently ill for a week or two, to a mild eczema or weight gain.

So can it possibly be as easy as swapping any other flour for white? Not so fast, says Wittig. While whole wheat flour is a pretty easy switch in most baking, when it comes to the more esoteric options she says, “it’s definitely tricky. You need to blend different flours to get the best results since every product has a different texture you’re trying to achieve. Some flours are fluffier, some are denser, and you should always add some starch (I use xanthan gum) to give your baked goods some light “springiness.”

Take a stroll down the baking aisle in a health food store and you’ll find your brain swimming with the seemingly endless possibilities. “It’s all about that diverse diet.  Don’t just get hung up on whole wheat or brown rice flour. Find a well stocked health food store with various alternative flours.” Wittig is a particular fan of Bob’s Red Mill.  “Experiment with replacing the white flour in your favourite baked goods.  In the bakery, I use a lot of chickpea flour which I think is amazing because for vegans it offers a lot of protein. At home when I’m making pizza though, spelt is terrific.”

Don’t fall for the “enriched” white flour promise. According to the National Institutes of Health, a mere four vitamins are added back in the process; hardly a concession to the 15 that were stripped in the refining process along with the fibre and antioxidants. And the Centre for Science in the Public Interest warns about checking labels. Some products have jumped on the whole grain bandwagon but their “made with whole grains” claim up front just doesn’t bear out in the ingredient list which clearly shows the prevalent ingredient is white flour. Add to this the practice of bleaching flour and injecting other potentially carcinogenic chemicals to increase shelf life and white flour-based products really have no place in our kitchens or our kid’s diets. But don’t panic.That lily white frosted monstrosity of a Dora cake at the pre-K graduation party isn’t going to undo all your hard work. What is life without the occasional yummy confection. But, for the rest of the time when you’re in charge of what goes in their little mouths, experts suggest looking for the term “whole grain” on labels and searching for grain based foods with at least three grams of fibre per serving. And with bakers like Ashley on the case, that sweet little bakery down the street can be virtuous and delish.

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