Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert, nor do I possess a degree in food science. This article presents the findings of a baker who researched how modern commercial ingredients are processed.
Why I Started Baking with Natural Ingredients
Hello again, friends! Today’s post is a bit different to our regular programming, but hear me out.
There was a point about six years ago where I did a 180. I stopped baking with white sugar, bleached flours, and food dyes and instead I started experimenting with honey, almond flour, and beet powder. This wasn’t because I went through a gluten-free period or some sort of cleanse – it was because I started doing research into the ingredients I was using to make the cakes and cookies that I fed to my loved ones.
I already knew at that point that refined sugar wasn’t great for you, and I had started to move away from it. The unrefined sugar phase was just beginning to take off and get noticed by the media – alternatives like agave nectar and coconut sugar were barely available in regular grocery stores, and certainly not in the amounts that I needed them to be in!
What I didn’t know at the beginning was how many other commercial baking ingredients were also refined and highly processed. It’s when I started delving deeper into the manufacturing around these ingredients that I decided I needed to make a change. I didn’t want to share cupcakes with my family and friends that I knew contained harmful ingredients and additives. And if your love language is also food, you’re going to want to keep reading.
Hold onto your hats, folks. Today we’re getting sciency, and it’s all about how flour is made.
Break it Down: The Different Parts of Flour
All wheat flour is created from ground grains. Wheat grains are composed of three distinct parts:
The endosperm. This is the food storage centre of the grain and it houses most of the starch, protein, and oils. It makes up about 85% of the entire grain and feeds the plant germ.
The bran. This is the outer layer of the grain which constitutes about 13% of the grain and contains all-important fibre, B vitamins, and iron.
The germ. Also known as the embryo; this is where the plant sprout develops and is only about 2% of the grain.
The endosperm is the portion of the wheat grain that makes up all the different kinds of white flours, and it is this portion that we harvest during the milling process (source).
How We Turn Grains into Flour
There are various grains milled for use in flour, such as wheat, millet, brown rice, amaranth, and buckwheat. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the process of wheat milling and the creation of plain (or all-purpose) flour because it is most frequently used in commercial bakeries.
During harvest season, farmers transport the grain to a milling facility where it is tested and graded according to the
On milling day, the grain goes through several stages. First, the grain is cleaned in order to separate it from other seeds and large foreign materials. It is then put through a magnetic separator, which removes any metal particles that may have gotten into the batch out in the field or en route to the mill. From there, the grain is vibrated through a rotating drum system to separate straw, wood, and other fibrous materials.
The next step in the milling process is the aspirator where strong currents of air vacuum out the dust and lighter dirt particles. A de-stoner then separates any stones and hard debris from the grain, and finally the disc separator pulls out objects that do not have the same shape as the grain.
After this lengthy separation and cleaning process, the grain moves to the scourer to begin the grinding process. The scourer rips off the outer husks and dirt on the grain using high-powered air currents.
From the scourer, the grain is spun in the impact entoleter, which uses centrifugal force to break apart any grain kernels that are too tough or unsound. The grain is then transported to the tempering unit where it soaks in a water bath to toughen the bran and loosen the endosperm. Tempering can take anywhere from 6 to 24 hours.
Once the grain has finished soaking, it is taken to the grinder. The grain is fed through a series of roller mills – grooved cylinders made from chilled steel – which separate the bran, endosperm, and germ. Grinding the grain can take a few hours of blending, re-grinding, sifting, blending, repeat until all of the parts are separated (source).
From the grinder, the grain powder is sent through a sifter, which shakes the powder through large screens in order to isolate each part of the grain. One batch of grain can be sifted several times in order to achieve the maximum flour (endosperm) separation of 81% (source, 309).
How We Make White Flour
The flour that comes out of the sifter is what we know as unbleached all-purpose flour. This flour is not chemically processed and does not contain added nutrients or bran. It is moved to a holding facility where it can age properly; fresh flour cannot immediately be used in baking. The aging process is crucial for the glutenin proteins in the flour to strengthen and create longer chains of gluten, which can only happen with time and exposure to oxygen. These longer chains allow for more elasticity, structure, and a softer texture in finished baked goods. You can tell a flour is unbleached by its off-white colouring.
However, this process takes time to naturally occur, so often companies will use oxidising agents to age the flour more quickly.* This means that the flour is exposed to a bleaching agent – usually chlorine dioxide or benzoyl peroxide – to oxidize it faster and give it a pure white colour (source, 309). All-purpose flour, cake flour, self-raising flour, and enriched flour are all chemically aged.
Whole wheat flour is the only wheat flour that is recombined with the bran and germ post-sifting, making this flour the most nutritious but also the densest.
Why You Should Care About the Flour You Buy
I don’t like chemicals being used unnecessarily in my ingredients, especially when those chemicals are known to be dangerous.
Benzoyl peroxide is synthesised from the reaction between benzoyl chloride (used in dyes, perfumes, and resins), sodium hydroxide (used in paper, drinking water, soaps, and detergents), and hydrogen peroxide (used in disinfectants and cosmetics) (source). It is used as a bleaching agent in different foods, such as flour, whey, milk, and cheese, as well as in the manufacture of plastics and in the compound of cosmetic ointments (source). Using benzoyl peroxide as a bleaching agent can have some harmful effects, including the destruction of essential nutrients and fatty acids (source).
Unbleached flour is known to be a little denser than all-purpose flour because it has a slightly higher protein count. However, I have never come across an issue substituting unbleached for all-purpose in any recipe I’ve tried, nor do I foresee this being an issue.
Personally, I would rather serve and eat a cake that has a minutely denser texture than consume flour that has been chemically treated.
What are your thoughts?
Do you have any questions, concerns, or quandaries regarding this article? Leave them in the comment section below or get in touch via email and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
*The practice of using chlorine, bromates, or peroxides to chemically bleach flour is not permitted by European Union food standards. All plain (all-purpose) flour sold within the EU is naturally aged.