How do we in WSU Breadlab define whole grain bread? The answer is simple. Whole grain bread is made with flour in which the whole kernel goes into the mill and the whole kernel comes out of the mill (in flour form). The term “whole grain” is often used loosely. We frequently hear bakeries calling a loaf “whole grain” when it contains only a small percentage of whole grain flour. In some ways, this is a step in the right direction. After all, some whole grain is better than none. It is, however, still misleading. When bread made with a percentage of unsifted flour along with a percentage of white flour is labeled as whole grain, we dilute the meaning of whole grain.
We are advocates of unsifted flour. Flour that has not been run through a series of sieves to remove the bran and germ. Unsifted flour may be a bit coarser and darker in color. Who decided that these qualities are undesirable, thus we must remove them? The reasons given for sifting flour are varied. Some argue that this starts with the millers, who, in turn, might counter that the bakers demand sifted flour. To further complicate the matter, the bakers may say consumers won’t purchase bread made with 100% unsifted flour. Still others argue that consumers simply aren’t aware of the case for whole grain.
It may be economically favorable to sell a loaf made with half whole grain flour and half white flour. White flour is less expensive. But how can this be? Why is the flour for which production requires additional processing and expensive machinery less expensive? How can a flour that requires 25% more wheat to obtain the same flour yield be less expensive?
White flour with the bran and germ sifted off is the predominant flour choice in the United States. On average, white flour is around 75% extraction. Extraction rate is a baking term referring to the percentage of the original grain kernel remaining in the flour. A higher extraction rate indicates less of the bran and germ has been sifted off. Thus, a 75% extraction indicates 75% of the original grain kernel remains in the flour and 25% has been sifted off. When we remove the bran and germ to make white flour, we lose much of the nutrition. In one study, the removal of the bran and germ (at 72% extraction) in wheat resulted in a 67% loss of folate, 76% loss of iron, 80% loss of niacin, and 77% loss of thiamin. These are all nutrients which the FDA has required to be added back in their synthetic form to white flour labeled as “enriched”. Does it not make more sense to leave these nutrients in our flour in their original form and simply not sift? In the case of wheat, white flour has also lost essentially all the fiber originally found in the grain—a nutrient essential for a diverse gut microbiome and, consequentially, for optimal immune function, metabolic rate, and nutrient absorption. Current American dietary recommendations for fiber intake are 25-38 grams per day. Most Americans eat half this or less. Recent research suggests that fiber recommendations should be raised to at least 50 grams per day if not higher. For reference, one slice of The Approachable Loaf contains about 5 grams of fiber. Most grocery store white breads have from 0-1 gram.
By refusing to sift, we are using everything that the farmer harvested. When flour is sifted, the removed bran and germ may be sold as low-value animal feed or even discarded as compost in some situations. Why do we continue to stand by and devalue the most nutritious part of the grain? This is akin to using a $20 bill as toilet paper. As plant breeders, yield is an important target. Is not a 25% loss of our final product yield equivalent to a 25% yield loss in the field? It’s about the best use of the land.
Why 100% unsifted? Why would one value healthful, nutrient-dense food?
We need food to survive. Food fuels our heartbeat, cognition, and movement. Food also represents our need for something outside of ourselves. In the same way that we must eat to fuel life, we are fueled by community outside of our relationship with ourselves. Of course, humans have a right to choose their own food. Thus, if one wants to eat squishy white bread most days, that is their right. The truth is, we have put a premium on more nutrient-dense food. Squishy white bread (with a dose of calcium propionate and vital wheat gluten) is always less expensive than 100% unsifted bread made with no nonfood ingredients. Economic inequity is where the problem lies. Nutrient-dense foods are less available to those with smaller incomes. Industry has created the illusion of free will to promote their insider interests—gaining financially from decisions within the food system that contribute to our poor health.
Inequity is disguised as free will. This inequity cuts at the heart of our obligation to nourish all humans with healthful, nutrient dense, minimally processed foods. Nutrient dense, minimally processed food equates to UNSIFTED.
- Poutanen, K. (2012). Past and future of cereal grains as food for health. Trends in Food Science and Technology. 25:58-62.
- Schroeder, H.A. (1971). Losses of vitamins and trace minerals resulting from processing and preservation of foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. p. 562-573.
- Whitley, A. (2009). Bread Matters: the state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own. Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. Kansas City, MO. p. 22-23.
For additional references, if you wish, contact Merri Metcalfe at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recipes compiled and adapted from, and by Jeff Yankellow, Robin Morgan, Laura Valli, Merri Metcalfe, Kim Binczewski, Niels Brisbane, and Julia Berstein.
Porridge words by Laura Valli.
Unsifted words by Merri Metcalfe.