The crispy croissant flakes coating my lips, fingertips, and more than a respectable amount of my face felt as crystalline as the sugar encrusted on the golden gluten. A new baker friend made these delicious pastries, and she sat down to talk with me despite having slept only 4 hours. She recently moved from San Francisco to Southern California, where she noted bakers are more focused on whole grain than their Northern California peers.

As a Northern California farmer, I found this fascinating because I’m accustomed to Mike Zakowski and Eli Colvin breads that are popular, whole grain breads in Sonoma County. I spend time in Los Angeles, where I don’t know anyone save perhaps Bub and Grandma who makes any 100% whole grain loaves. And they only make a couple loaves each round because there’s not a large demand. There’s one bakery that claims it does, but their crumb photos show impossible shine and bubble largess for 100% whole grain, and the quantity of grain they purchase compared to how many loaves they put out also indicates a discrepancy in what they say versus what they do. Obscuring their number and practices means they’re setting a standard for customers that’s ruinous for the whole grain movement. How can anyone else who bakes truly whole grain loaves ever compete against this farce? How will they know what’s real bread?

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, people aren’t ashamed of blending whole grain and sifted flour. They have lofty goals for the rise, and whole grain is a flavor enhancer. For the non-whole grain part, what’s the rest?

A recent phenomenon among bakers is to tout using local grain, and sifting out the bran and germ. (Remember that a wheat berry consists of a bran, germ, and endosperm. The endosperm is the starch, bran the outside with fiber and minerals, and germ inside with most of the amino acids, oils, and nutrients.) That leaves the endosperm for flour that looks white, requires less hydration, and has much sugar and gluten to feed the yeast that leavens the bread.

This also replicates the malnutrition problems we learned about in the 1940s. When people relied on refined flour, they developed neural, gastrointestinal, skin diseases, and conditions known as beriberi and Pellagra. These preventable diseases came about because they were denied whole grains.

The response wasn’t to reinvigorate whole grain production, but rather to enrich flour. US FDA regulations mandate that refined flours be enriched with B vitamins (folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin) and iron. As I talked with this baker about blending whole grain and enriched flour, I wondered: is enriched flour a sufficient substitute for the whole grain?

The very obvious answer is no. First off, the sifted flour removed the bran that holds fiber. Fiber slows down digestion of wheat and raises its glycemic index. (My cousins often gripe to me about wheat being a simple carb, but it’s simple because someone simplified it! Wheat isn’t inherently simple.) Amino acids, nutritive oils, potassium, copper, and so much more is not replaced. Enrichment is like living off emergency food tablets — it gives you enough to survive, but not enough to thrive.

While I’m satisfied knowing that enriched flour is not a one-for-one substitute for whole grain qualities, I remained curious about what’s actually in enriched flour. What are the enrichment additives made out of?

After a few hours in the university nutritional health archive, I learned that synthetic thiamine and niacin are derived from coal tar with the help of ammonia, formaldehyde, and other acids. (This fascinating origin trail inspired me to look into synthetic Vitamin D, which comes from irradiated animal fat.) Synthetic thiamine and folic acid take crystalline forms that the body doesn’t easily absorb and can bioaccumulate in places like joints and damage tissue.

While these vitamins fulfill regulatory standards, they come from petrochemical and resource-intensive processes that unnecessarily enlarge wheat’s carbon footprint and aren’t necessarily benefitting us eaters. Some other things I came across:

  • How are nutrients so throughly removed? Bleach. That’s why some flour bags say unbleached, but it’s still just a sad excuse for flour.
  • Size matters because the smaller the flour, the faster it is for our body to digest and convert carbs into sugars. That’s part of why stone-milled flour, which can get to a small enough size for bioavailability of nutrients while not too small, is a better option over the roller or impact milled flour that’s found in the store.
  • Organic flour isn’t enriched, so it’s empty. If you buy organic flour and want nutriment, buy whole wheat.
  • Fermentation, such as natural-leavening from a sourdough yeast, substantially increases bioavailable B vitamins. 

Thus, the answer to my original question, “Is enriched flour enough?” is, “No!” We need organic, stone-milled, whole grain and a long fermentation when it comes to making bread. So, while I enjoyed having crispy carb and sugar flakes on my face, and oh goodness was it delicious, I will eat these sifted and enriched flour creations sparingly.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the role of farming! The quantity and quality of the nutrients in grain depends on the nutrients in the soil, and those nutrients are developed through the cultivation of soil organic matter, microbes, balanced minerals, and high cation exchange capacity. That’s done through cover cropping, animal rotation, and no-till farming, to grossly oversimplify the process. (see: all previous and future blog posts) All that work for heritage grains that capture carbon and then to throw away all the flavor and nutrients? Please don’t dis my labor by discarding the things I nurtured for you!

Many questions remain about this massive grain system, such as:

  • How did flour enrichment get regulated? Is it only because WWII soldiers were negatively affected by sifted flour?
  • Has the list of enrichment additives changed over time? Are they sufficient for our nutritional needs?
  • How do we get whole grains out there? Oh yeah, that’s why I started the California Grain Campaign. You can be part of it, too!

What are your questions about our grain economy?