We have many options to choose from when it comes to making our flour baked goods at home today. There are grain flours, nut flours, legume flours, seed flours, and root flours. Options from wheat to coconut or even quinoa are available at many local grocery stores.
But, is there a larger difference between all these flour options? If you check the ingredient list on your next wheat flour purchase, you may find that it contains more than wheat. Many processed flours will have certain parts of the plant removed and other things added to the product.
Let's take a look at what whole-food flours contain versus an enriched flour product.
Whole Food Flour
First, a whole-food flour’s ingredient list will contain one ingredient, that whole food, whether it be wheat or almonds. For example, if you are purchasing a whole wheat flour, the ingredient list will read whole wheat flour, or 100% whole wheat. Today, we also have quick reference tools to make it easier to locate whole grain products, like the “Whole Grain Stamp” that you can find on more than 12,000 products in 61 countries.
Why choose whole-food flour?
Whole-food flour will contain all three edible parts of the grain; the endosperm, bran, and the germ. The endosperm contains the energy or carbohydrates and protein of the plant. The bran contains B vitamins, fiber, and important antioxidants. The germ contains B vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and protein.
So, the whole-food flour will contain much of its original nutrients that our bodies need, like the essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and health-protective phytochemicals, as well as the energy from the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat).
In addition to containing the nutrients that our bodies need, whole-food flour, with all of the kernel parts (endosperm, bran, and germ), has less effect on blood sugar levels than a refined flour (containing only the endosperm), as the whole-food flour has a lower glycemic index. This is important because when we consume high-glycemic foods, like refined flours, blood sugar levels spike rapidly, and as they come back down the subsequent crash can leave you hungry a short time later. In addition, refined flours have been associated with weight gain.
A 2010 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the association of whole grain versus refined grain consumption on body fat distribution. This study assessed the associations between whole and refined grain intake on abdominal subcutaneous adipose (fat) tissue and visceral adipose tissue. Excessive visceral fat (stored deep in the abdominal cavity) is associated with health risks like heart disease, type II diabetes, and certain cancers.
This 2010 study found that individuals who consumed whole-grain foods had lower body mass index (BMI) and central obesity. Further, the whole-grain eaters, averaging more than three servings of whole grains each day, were found to gain significantly less weight over time. In contrast, those individuals who ate more refined-grains, like breakfast cereal, white bread, English muffins, bagels, biscuits, white rice, pasta, crackers, and pizza, had increased levels of both subcutaneous and visceral fat.
Enriched flour is refined, processed flour that has had certain nutrients added back to restore some of what was lost during processing. When flour is labeled as “enriched,” it must contain certain nutrients at defined levels, specified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The refinement of flour removes the bran, to give the product a softer texture, and the germ to extend the shelf-life of the product. Remember though; this is where most of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), fiber, and antioxidants are stored in the grain and when these are removed, we lose the nutritional value the whole-grain had to offer.
Another factor to consider when we look at “enriched” products is the type of nutrients that are added back to the food item. Many of the nutrients that the manufacturer adds to the product do not come from whole food but are created in a lab. Some of these substances will have a different structure than the nutrient that was removed during the manufacturing process. For example, thiamine (vitamin B1), found in foods like whole wheat, beans, nuts and seeds, and asparagus, is an essential nutrient that the body uses to metabolize carbohydrates and plays a role in nerve cell (neuron) structure and function, among other functions. The thiamine found in food is a water-soluble vitamin. However, the thiamine mononitrate found in many “enriched” processed food products is a fat-soluble synthetic vitamin. The structure of the vitamin contributes to how it functions and is used and stored within the body.
A 2010 study published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research compared the metabolic energy expenditure of a similar whole-food and processed-food meal to determine the meals possible effect on weight gain. Using bread and cheese sandwiches (typical to the Standard American Diet), the whole-food meal consisted of multi-grain bread with whole sunflower seeds, whole-grain kernels, and cheddar cheese, while the processed food meal was comprised of white bread and a processed cheese product. The study found the processed meal resulted in increased energy stored (weight gain), due, in part, to the fact that the white bread had lower nutrient density, less fiber, and an excess of simple carbohydrates that make them structurally and chemically simpler to digest.
The whole-food flour contains one ingredient, whether that be grain like whole wheat or a nut such as almond.
This whole-food has been minimally-processed and contains all of the edible parts of the plant with its nutrients. Consuming whole grains is associated with lower body mass and less weight gain over time, and lower risk for chronic disease.
The enriched, processed flour has had nutrients removed, and select nutrients (often synthetic) added back to the final product. These highly-processed flours are associated with lower nutrient density, weight gain, and greater risk for chronic disease.
Luke 6:1 “On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands.”
McKeown, N. M., Troy, L. M., Jacques, P. F., Hoffmann, U., O'Donnell, C. J., & Fox, C. S. (2010). Whole- and refined-grain intakes are differentially associated with abdominal visceral and subcutaneous adiposity in healthy adults: the Framingham Heart Study. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 92(5), 1165–1171. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.29106
McGuire, M. & Beerman, K. (2011) Nutritional sciences from fundamentals to food. (2nd ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage.
Mahan, Escott-Stump, Raymond (2012). Krause’s food & the nutrition care process. (13th ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier.
Barr, S. B., & Wright, J. C. (2010). Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure. Food & nutrition research, 54, 10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144. doi:10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144