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White Flour Poison Death
and other hysteria)
By Mike Avery
Around June, 2007

Last weekend, Friday and Saturday June 9th and 10th, I was fortunate enough to be able to teach a class on sourdough baking in Evergreen Colorado for Mountain Tops Milling. Mountain Tops Milling sells a wide range of excellent grain mills, mixers and other baking supplies. Gisele Hall, the owner, is a delightful lady and dedicated to better baking and better health.

During the course, I have students make two or three breads (depending on the time available), and a pizza for lunch. I want the students to know what dough should feel like when it is developed, and how it feels as it is developing, so I have the students knead by hand. This knowledge transfers very well to using a mixer.

I also had the students make their first bread with white flour. This is because white flour is much easier to handle than whole wheat, which reduces the learning curve dramatically. Several students didn't even want to touch the white flour. It's not healthy you know.

Which prompted me to think about what is healthy food and what is a healthy diet? It can be argued that I've enjoyed too much of a diet over the years. However, I am working on that and I am losing weight. About 25 pounds in the last 3 months... right on track to where I want to be in about a year.

The Greek Philosopher Epicurus preached moderation in all things, a teaching modern Epicureans have really corrupted. Mark Twain weighed in on the subject saying, "Moderation in all things - including moderation!" and "Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough!"

Over the years, I've been exposed to a lifetime of dietetic advice. And all of it seems to be contraindicated a few years later when the next study comes out. I can't tell you how many "health food books" I've looked at only to be amused by the portrait of the author on the back cover. Some of my friends were upset when I asked, "Do you want to look like THAT ?" My favorite was a book on a low-mucous diet. The author suggested that foods that produce mucous are bad for us. Never mind that mucous is our bodies lubricant which keeps things in your body slippin' 'n' slidin' the way they should. The author looked ancient and, well, desiccated. I often joked that he was actually 35 when the picture was taken.  My friends were not amused.

And then there's Julia Child. She was an unabashed lover of good things - cream, red meat, white breads. She'd rather have a nice small steak with good marbling and a rich taste than a big lean tasteless one. She died three days short of her 92nd birthday. She reminds us you can enjoy life on your own terms and still live a long, healthy life. (Yes, I know she had several bouts with cancer. So did Euell Gibbons and Adelle Davis.)

The two things that bother me about the people who have discovered "the truth" are that they never seem to discover the same truth. Of course, given the nature of biochemical individuality, it's not too surprising that different people have discovered different truths. ( Dr. Roger Williams, the discoverer of pantothenic acid and several other vitamins, wrote extensively about biochemical individuality.) But that also means that the truths they discover aren't universal. The other thing is that the people who have found the truth all too often seem determined that other people WILL do what they have found best. Years ago in a co-op where my then girlfriend lived, Frank, the guy in charge of the coke machine decided that sugared soft drinks are bad, and artificially sweetened soft drinks are worse. So, he replaced all the soft drinks with beer. Never mind the diabetics in the co-op who couldn't drink beer, or the people who had religious or moral reasons to not drink beer. And that doesn't get into the meat wars at the co-op. Let's not go there.... though, I could also talk about democracy run amok in this context as well.

Perhaps my favorite story about health food is one told by Dr. Andrew Weil. He had a speaking engagement in Germany, and as soon as he set foot in Germany his hosts whisked him off to a Gasthaus. Before he had a chance to blink, they had served him a Wienerschnitzel (a breaded and fried piece of veal that is a delicacy in Germany, or anywhere else for that matter), and a liter of beer. He was in somewhat of a bind. He is mostly a vegetarian and there was more meat on the plate than he would normally eat in a month. And he had largely given up alcohol. But, he didn't want to be rude. He tried the Wienerschnitzel and found it delightful. And the beer was a wonderful accompaniment.

The conversation was wonderful and the time flew by. In due course, he finished his beer, and before he could say a word, he was served another one. And another.

Dr. Weil knew that he was in trouble. He was going to pay a heavy price the next day. Meat, fried meat at that, fried potatoes, and lots and lots of beer. And jet lag. And he had to speak the next day.

Much to his surprise, he felt great the next day. He concluded that any food that is prepared with love and shared with friends is health food. Or as Delbert McClinton  sang, "it ain't what you eat, but the way that you chew it!"

Professor Raymond Calvel, the person who was largely responsible for the revival of good bread in France felt that unless you are having digestive problems, there is no reason to eat whole grains. His view is very typical of French people. They see whole grain breads as being coarse and revolting. Still, if you look at mortality rates in France, you'll see that they do tend to live longer, and with better health than we Americans do. And they drink too much too!

A lot of people who feel that white flour is devoid of nutritional value don't understand a few things. There are many grades of white flour, ranging from patent flour, to bread flour, to all-purpose flour to commercial white flour. It isn't all the same. While all-purpose flour is lower in nutritive value than whole wheat flour, it's far from being a nutritional disaster. The only area where the flour is significantly different from whole wheat is with regards to fiber. Commercial white flour, the sort used by mass market bakeries to make Wonder type bread is essentially useless.

For most of us, there really isn't a problem with eating home made or artisanal bread made with good quality white flour. These breads aren't bad by themselves, and in the context of an overall healthy diet, there certainly isn't an issue. Of course, far too many Americans don't have a diet that is healthy overall. We tend to not have enough diversity in our diets, we eat too many processed foods, we eat too much red meat and too few vegetables and fruit. Treating whole grain bread as some sort of silver bullet is unrealistic.

What is important in our diets, beyond balance and diversity, is not just what is in our food but also what is not. By using unbleached, unbromated flour you have avoided a lot of toxins. If you move one step further and use organic flour, that's even better.

Please understand, I enjoy whole grain breads and bake them often. I don't have anything against whole grain breads. I do think they've been oversold. However, whole grain breads aren't a religious icon or a crusade for me. Good bread is my crusade, and good bread, like good people, comes in all colors.

2 thoughts on “White Flour Poison Death, and other hysteria”

  1. Thomas Cappiello

    I am utterly confused and don’t know which way to go on this. I try and do incorporate some whole grains in most breads I make. The so called Hundo breads I just haven’t fallen in love with yet. Whole grains are more nutritious, that is indisputable. To what extent this makes a difference in one’s overall health over their life time is certainly debatable, and likely unanswerable.

    1. While the hysteria of the “White flour is poison” crowd is not helpful, neither is the fear some people feel who are excessively concerned that they aren’t putting enough whole grains in their diet. In a number of places here at sourdoughhome, I have quoted my son’s sensei who told him to “remember to breathe“. The sensei meant you shouldn’t get so anxious that you don’t remember to breathe, which is good advice.

      People won’t eat food they don’t enjoy, and there is little as wasteful as making bread your family – and customers – don’t want to eat. I’d wager that few people who can afford to visit our web site are suffering from malnutrition, so those folks are hardly having a dietary crisis.

      For home bakers, the first big improvement in their diet is to leave industrial bread behind. Much of the good in home made and artisanal breads lies in what is NOT in it rather than what is. Andrew Whitley. in his book Bread Matters“, chronicles how he finds many of the ingredients in industrial bread to be questionable. Having known good ingredients helps, at least in my view and Mr. Whitley’s. Sourdough is another step towards healthier food, but making good bread at home, even with a bread machine, is a tremendous step for your culinary health.

      Some people reach a point and declare, “no more refined flour!” and move towards breads that are 100% whole grains, some even mill their own grains into flour. (This can mean grains they purchased, or grains they raised themselves for the true hard core elements.) And that’s fine. We all need to find our own comfort levels and to find our own joy. Using some whole grains is a good thing. Using more is a better thing. But there is a lot of good in just making your own bread, so take it one step at a time until you find your joy.

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