Flour is one of the most popular baking items in existence, in fact, some would argue that flour is the ultimate baking ingredient. While we can neither confirm nor deny this, what we can all agree upon is the fact that flour is a highly versatile ingredient.
Head to your nearest grocery store or bakery and browse the many items found upon the shelves and once you reach the flour section, you’ll be spoilt for choice when deciding on which flour to choose.
Humans have been cultivating and harvesting flour for centuries now, and while we’ll go into more detail regarding the history of flour a little later on, what we will say now is that without it, many of our favourite dishes wouldn’t be possible.
Whereas there is plenty of nutrition in flour, one hot topic of debate is bleached vs unbleached flour. If you’re health conscious, you’ll likely avoid bleached flour and will opt for natural flour, perhaps in a healthier form such as wholemeal?
What is flour?
Flour is probably one of the most familiar ingredients you will find in kitchens and pantries across the globe. Despite it being such a common item, many people aren’t entirely certain what flour is or where it comes from.
Flour is a fine powder which is made from grinding cereal grains, roots, or seeds. It can be used to make a variety of different products, though typically we associate it with breads and pastas.
There is a great deal of nutrition in flour, and while it can be made from a number of seeds, grains, roots, or other culinary ingredients, the most common type of flour we find is made from wheat.
The main reason for this is because of the natural gluten found in wheat, which is well suited for baking as it leaves a light, soft, and sturdy bread.
In other parts of the globe such as Central America, flour is primarily made from corn as opposed to wheat, and from rye in parts of Central Europe.
Because flour is such a popular and important ingredient, it pays to know about the health benefits of flour, and indeed which type to choose and which to avoid. (4)
A brief history of flour
Flour may be a popular household ingredient, but it is certainly not a new ingredient. We’ve been using flour for centuries upon centuries, way back in ancient Roman times in fact.
There is evidence to suggest that flour has been made as far back as 30,000 years ago.
The ancient Romans used to make flour by toasting cereal grains to remove the chaff from the wheat.
They would then use a primitive, but very effective form of a pestle and mortar as they would basically take the grains and repeatedly smash them between two large stones until they resembled a fine powder.
As you might expect, the flour was grainy and coarse, rather than super fine and powdery like we have today, though there is evidence that, even back then, the Romans would sift their flour to remove any large clumps.
The powder was then combined with water to form a firm dough, which was then baked over an open fire to make a simple flatbread.
Because the Romans were so creative, and because flour was so popular, as they advanced, they developed water mills just before 71 B.C. Here, the grain was fed between millstones which were turned by mechanisms that got their power from water.
In the industrial age, after watermills, we found windmills, which were powered by wind rather than water.
Humanity evolved and so too did farming and agriculture and consequently, in the industrial revolution, windmills became less popular and instead, mills were powered with steam and metal or porcelain rollers ground the grains to flour, rather than millstones.
The new advancements in milling meant that the flour was finer than ever and as a result it also enjoyed an increased shelf life.
Because these new rollers removed much more of the germ, getting to the grain inside became much easier and so more flour was produced more easily, and as a result white flour became much more affordable.
As far as nutrition in flour is concerned, though, the main downside is that much of the B vitamins, minerals, and fiber contained in wheat were removed during processing, so white flour was far less nutritious than wholewheat flour.
Nowadays we have plenty of food choices and supplements, so B vitamin deficiencies aren’t a problem. Back then, though, a lack of B vitamins meant that diseases such as Beriberi and Pellagra became more prominent.
Finally, experts linked this B vitamin deficiency back to white flour in the 1930s, and consequently flour was enriched with added minerals and B vitamins such as Iron, Niacin, Thiamine and Riboflavin. In the 1990s, Folic acid was also added.
Different types of flour
If you head to your nearest grocery store, supermarket, or bakery and start browsing the different types of flour available, you’ll find that there are heaps of different types of flour to choose from.
Each type of flour offers different health benefits and different characteristics in terms of taste, texture, structure, and aroma.
Here are some of the most common and popular types of flour currently available.
If you’re looking to bake bread, you can probably guess what type of flour you should opt for.
Bread flour is made purely from hard wheat, and as a result it contains more gluten. The increased amounts of gluten in this particular flour helps to make the bread rise much higher than usual.
The reason for this is that the gluten proteins help to lock in air bubbles as the dough is kneaded.
If you’re baking a product containing yeast, bread flour is the flour you should opt for.
All purpose flour is another very popular flour that you’ll find in most people’s kitchens around the globe.
Made from a combination of both hard and soft wheats, all-purpose flour provides similar effects to those enjoyed from both hard and soft wheats.
All-purpose flour contains a middle-range of protein in the form of gluten, and it is gluten that plays a key role in determining how a flour will taste, look, and behave.
Flours rich in protein contain more gluten, and flours low in protein contain less gluten. All-purpose flour is somewhere in the middle, providing usually around 10 – 12% gluten. To put this into context, bread flour usually contains around 16% gluten.
No prizes for guessing what this particular flour works especially well with.
Cake flour is one of the finest flours in existence, as it has been milled extensively so that it becomes super fine and powdery, to give a soft and velvety feel.
Cake flour is low in gluten, containing around 6 – 8% gluten, and it also happens to be bleached. Wait, what? Yep, as we’re talking about bleached vs unbleached flour, finally we have bleached flour making an appearance.
We’ll look at what this bleaching process entails a little later on, and at whether or not it is healthy, but basically, this process alters the flour’s fat content and PH levels, making it more acidic.
This acidity helps items containing a lot of sugar, such as cakes, to rise while baking rather than collapsing.
As cake flour has less gluten, it provides a soft and fluffy texture that works wonders when it comes to baking cakes and sweet goods.
On paper, cake flour is probably the unhealthiest flour on our list so far, mainly because it is bleached, but worry not, because there are also very healthy flours to choose from.
Whole wheat flour is made by grinding the whole kernels of red wheat. Wheat kernels consist of three parts:
White flour is made by simply grinding up the endosperm, whereas wholewheat flour is made by grinding up the germ, the bran, and the endosperm.
The bran and the germ are where the majority of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals are found, which is why wholewheat flour is much healthier than refined white flour such as all-purpose or cake flour.
White flour is denser than most white flours, and is also less absorbent than white flour, which means that more liquid has to be used when baking. This ultimately results in a much stickier dough, that can be tricky for those not experienced in baking.
As we mentioned earlier, flour does not have to exclusively be made from wheat, as you’re about to find out here.
Oat flour is made from, shock horror, oats, which have been finely ground to give a soft, fine, and fluffy texture. It is also much sweeter in taste than wheat and as it is gluten-free, it is also ideal for people who suffer with gluten allergies or intolerances.
Oat flour can be purchased at the store, or alternatively you can make it yourself by simply adding dried oats to a food processor and blending them into a fine powder.
Finally, we have perhaps the most common store cupboard flour ingredient of all – self-raising flour.
Self-raising flour is a combination of all-purpose flour, salt, and baking powder. The idea here is that, thanks to the added baking powder, the flour will rise naturally, without the need to add additional raising agents such as eggs or yeast.
What is bleached flour?
As we’re learning about bleached vs unbleached flour, we now need to learn more about what bleached flour is and look at whether or not it is as harsh as it sounds.
Now, without going any further, technically all flour is bleached, but what sets unbleached and bleached flour apart is the process in which this occurs.
“unbleached” flour bleaches naturally as it ages, and undergoes no additional processing or treatments. Bleached flour, though, is bleached with bleaching agents such as chlorine gas and benzoyl peroxide. This is to speed up the aging process and give the flour a more appealing look.
Bleaching the flour also gives the flour a softer texture, making it ideal for dishes which are designed to be soft and fluffy such as pancakes, muffins, or cakes. Remember, cake flour is indeed a bleached flour.
How is bleached flour different to unbleached flour?
Unbleached flour still bleaches naturally, it’s just that the process takes longer and the flour goes a dull, off-white colour.
Bleached flour means that the aging process is expedited and the flour takes on a brilliant white colour and soft and smooth texture.
Just because a flour is “unbleached” this does not mean it doesn’t have chemicals added to it, it simply means that it doesn’t have chemicals such as chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide added to it.
The main differences between the two are that bleached flour is much whiter, plus it is softer and fluffier. Unbleached flour is tougher and has more of a denser grain.
Is unbleached flour healthier than bleached flour?
This is a tricky question to answer because it depends on which flour you’re using. Yes, unbleached flour is not bleached, but it can still contain artificial ingredients and chemicals to preserve it, which will likely not do your body much good.
If you’re looking for a healthy flour, as far as bleached vs unbleached flour goes, wholewheat flour is obviously much healthier than bleached flour as it will contain more nutrients.
Ideally when you choose a flour for health reasons, the fewer ingredients it contains, providing they’re all natural, the healthier it will be.
The final word on flour
So, now that we’ve looked at flour and the differences between bleached vs unbleached flour, hopefully now you’ll have a much clearer idea about which flour to utilize and which to avoid.
The bleaching process reduces nutrient contents and can reduce vitamin E and B vitamin contents, which is another reason why wholewheat flour is considered so healthy.
In terms of white flour, bleached vs unbleached flours are actually very similar as far as flour nutrition goes. Wholewheat flour is, however, by far the most nutritious so if you’re health conscious, be sure to take this into consideration before baking.