If you’ve ever been to a bakery or had a bowl of pasta, it’s likely that you’ve consumed white flour. White flour is a highly refined substance that is used in a variety of processed foods and baked goods because it is light, airy and cheap. Unfortunately, refined white flour is completely stripped of its nutrient value, with virtually no vitamins, minerals, or fats to speak of.
What is Refined White Flour?
There are three parts of a whole grain: the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran, or the outer coating, is rich in fibre, antioxidants and B vitamins. The germ, the innermost layer, is high in B vitamins and also contains minerals, protein and fat. The endosperm, found in the middle, is the starchy part of the grain and it is mostly carbohydrates.
When refined white flour is made, companies remove the bran and the germ, leaving only that starchy endosperm. This makes it more shelf-stable, but results in a big nutrient loss and a subsequent ‘food’ that is harmful to our health.
Foods that Contain Refined White Flour
Some of the most popular foods that contain white, refined flour are:
- Pizza Crust
- Pie Crust
As you can see, the foods that use white flour are mainly junk foods. These items not only contain the dangers of white flours, but also usually include other damaging ingredients like unhealthy oils, sugar, artificial flavours and preservatives.
What About Enriched White Flour?
Once companies remove the nutrients from the whole grain to blend refined white flour, they enrich or fortify the flours. Often this is to meet government guidelines or regulations for certain recommended daily amounts of nutrients we need. The problem with this is the vitamins and minerals that food manufacturers use to enrich the white flour with are not the forms that are bioavailable to us – that means they are not the type of nutrients that our bodies are able to easily recognize and use.
And even when white flour is enriched or fortified, you will still be at risk for the dangerous effects of white flour, which I’ll get to next.
Health Effects of Refined White Flour
Vitamins and minerals in our food normally aid the workers (enzymes) of our bodies. When we remove these nutrients from what we consume, we must get them from somewhere else in order to properly metabolize food. Our tissues become the reluctant donors, and this eventually leads to a vitamin and/or mineral deficiency, which eventually leads to a health condition. When we eat things that contain white flours, we are taking more “health dollars” out of the “health bank” than we are depositing.
Here are some of the ways that refined white flour can impact our health.
Weight Gain + Obesity. White flour doesn’t contain the micro and macronutrients we need to feel satiated and full. In one study of nearly 3,000 people, refined grain intake was associated with an increase in visceral and subcutaneous abdominal body fat. In another 12-week trial, participants who ate refined wheat products gained more body fat and their cholesterol levels went up. Another thing to consider with white flour is the products that contain it are usually junk foods, like the ones I mentioned above, leading to weight gain.
Blood Sugar + Diabetes. Refined white flour has a high glycemic index, which is a scale that rates the speed at which a food increases blood sugar levels. It jacks up the levels of insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas. Once released, insulin works to facilitate the movement of sugar into cells for energy. However, when high glycemic index foods are consumed there is a hyper-insulin response. One meta-analysis concluded that whole grain intake was associated with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes over refined grains. Another assessment of the 20th century (between 1907 and 1997) noted that the increase of refined carbohydrate consumption in the US paralled the rise of Type 2 diabetes.
Cardiovascular Disease. Studies show that consuming large amounts of refined grains boosts our risk of heart disease, while several large scale studies and meta-analyses indicate that eating more whole grains can protect against cardiovascular disease.
Inflammation. Inflammation in the body causes a whole host of diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. Evidence indicates that refined grains can boost levels of inflammatory markers in our blood. Diets low in the glycemic index, however, can reduce these inflammatory markers.
Digestion. Whole grains are packed with fibre, which helps to keep us regular and eliminate unwanted toxins through our bowel movements. When we eat refined white flour, we aren’t receiving those digestive benefits. Studies also show that whole grains can impact our gut microbiota, helping us produce essential short chain fatty acids that nourish the colon and our microbiome.
Cancer. You might be surprised to know that cancer cells have many more insulin receptors than our healthy cells. Insulin is increased by sugar, and therefore, this response promotes the growth of cancer. Anti-cancer diets recommend eliminating refined white flour, and the products that contain white flour (cookies, cakes, etc.)
The Gluten Factor
Another large element to the white flour issue is that wheat flour contains gluten. Gluten contains proteins that are very difficult for us to digest, leading to inflammation, leaky gut and allergies.
For more information about gluten, you can check out my two-part series:
You can also watch two interviews I did with Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist and author of the popular book Wheat Belly:
…But Gluten-Free Flour Can be Refined, Too
Gluten-free doesn’t always mean healthy. Some gluten-free flours are refined too, including:
- White rice flour
- Potato starch
- Corn starch
- Arrowroot flour
- Tapioca starch
You can also find gluten-free cookies, muffins, cakes, crackers and the like that are just as detrimental to our health as their counterparts that contain gluten.
What to Eat Instead of Refined White Flour?
The best option to replace refined white flours are gluten-free whole grains, including:
- Wild rice
- Brown rice
- Gluten-free oats
These whole grains are intact and rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins, as well as fibre.
If you are looking for flour alternatives, you can try:
- Nut flours (almond, pecan, cashew, walnut, etc.)
- Seed flours (sesame, sunflower and pumpkin)
These are high in protein, fat and fibre. You can discover more gluten-free flour options here. If you’re going to bake sweet treats, ensure they are also rich in healthful fats, natural sweeteners and consume them sparingly.
Refined white flour isn’t a health food – in fact, I wouldn’t even call it a food at all. By eliminating it from your diet, you have the potential to climb up the slope of health to better vitality.