White Flour: Is It Really That Bad?

White Flour: Is It Really That Bad?

What is White Flour ?

White flour is a food of vegetable origin.
“Bianca” is a generic adjective, used to underline the white appearance attributable to the scarcity of fibrous residues in the flour.

Another synonym for white flour is ” refined flour “, while white flour is NOT a synonym for bleached flour.
White flour belongs to the III fundamental food group . In fact, from a nutritional point of view, it plays the primary role of carbohydrate and energy source.
By white flour we mean the one made from soft wheat. The flour made from durum wheat is called ” semolina “.
Soft wheat is a herbaceous plant belonging to the Poaceae family (graminaceae), genus Triticum, species aestivum (binomial nomenclature Triticum aestivum ).
Flour is obtained by grinding raw seeds and, based on the level of refining (sifting), products with different characteristics can be obtained: wholemeal flour , type 2 flour, type 1 flour, type 0 flour and type 00 flour .
The lightest flour has an impalpable consistency and is type 00.
The yield of soft wheat in white flour is approximately 70%. The remaining 30% consists of bran , bran, germ and middlings.At the end of the refining process , they remain:

  • More carbohydrates
  • Less lipids , proteins , fibres, mineral salts (ashes) and vitamins .

As a result, white flour can be considered a food high in ” empty calories “; in fact, it provides a lot of energy (thanks to the high carbohydrate content ), without supplying significant quantities of micronutrients.

Some experts or alleged experts argue that this nutritional composition of white flour is partially responsible for the collective tendency towards obesity and metabolic pathologies.
Actually, there are various types of white flour. These differ in some phases of the production mechanism and in the ” strength ” of the finished product (we will explain what it is later on).
Among the most characteristic phases of the production cycle we mention:

  • Bleaching (now disused)
  • Enrichment: mainly used in the USA; it serves to replenish the food with some nutrients lost during refining (eg magnesium ).


Forza della Farina e Alimenti

White flour is a common ingredient in the Western diet .
It is the basis of bread making , the production of pasta and sweet foods .
For industrial food applications, it undoubtedly boasts better physical characteristics than less purified flours, especially as regards strength.
In any case, flours are not all the same and are produced “tailor-made” according to the application destination.
Strength is a physical characteristic of white flour. It mainly concerns the activation of gluten , a protein that allows dough to rise.
NB. Gluten is a nutritional element which, if taken by the intolerant, causes celiac disease .
The strength of the flour is classified with Chopin’s alveograph and is expressed in a graph called “alveogram”.
The reference parameters are the toughness index (abscissa), the extensibility index (ordinate) and the breaking point; the unit of measure is work (W).
Based on the strength (from 90 to 370W), white flour is intended for various food uses ( biscuits , dry pastries, bread-making and special products such as panettone ).

Strong flours, such as Manitoba , are ideal for bread-making and in general for long-rising doughs. The weaker flours can instead be used for the production of biscuits or unleavened products


It hurts?

As anticipated, from a nutritional point of view, white flour is the subject of several controversies.
It is not clear whether the controversies have a scientific foundation or are the result of a kind of ” collective hysteria “.
Below we will briefly summarize the possible health implications of white flour.

Whitening residues

Bleaching is a process that reduces the natural pigment in white flour, increasing its whiteness.
This is an old practice and is no longer used. It was based on the application of some chemical substances such as: nitrogen oxide , chlorine , benzoyl peroxide , salts, etc.
Chemical bleaching can leave residues and harm the health of consumers. However, as of today it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
As specified in the specification for the regulation of flour and bread-making, the European Union totally abolished this practice already at the end of the 90s.
For the sake of disclosure, we will now explain the reason for a similar correction. Chlorine oxide, by interacting with some amino acid compounds, tends to form oxalan . This undesirable element has a harmful effect on the pancreas and can favor the onset of diabetes .
This explains why (regardless of the real concentrations of oxalan in the finished food) bleaching has been eliminated from the flour production cycle.

Obesity and Metabolic Pathologies

White flour is said to predispose to obesity and metabolic pathologies.
This statement represents a distortion of the glycemic index concept . Since this is a fairly complicated matter, we will simplify the information as much as possible, making it understandable:

  • As anticipated, white flour has more carbohydrates and less fiber, protein and fat
  • The “purity” facilitates digestion and speeds up the absorption of glucose
  • As blood sugar (glucose) levels rise , the pancreas reacts by releasing insulin
  • Insulin is an anabolic hormone , which promotes tissue growth and energy reserves (including fat).

It should therefore be specified that, compared to a wholemeal product , white flour:

  • Contains more carbohydrates, about 9-10g more per 100g of food.
  • For the same portion, increases blood sugar more ( glycemic load )
  • It is more caloric, roughly 20kcal more for every 100g of food.
  • Contains less fiber, protein and lipids (about -6g, -1g and -1g).
  • If the load and the glycemic index increase, the insulin index also increases . Insulin is the hormone responsible for the transport of glucose in most tissues (such as muscle ).
  • The glycemic index of white flour is about 30-40% higher than wholemeal . This occurs due to the lower presence of fibres, proteins and lipids in the refined product.

To think about the harmful potential of a food, it is first of all necessary to establish the average portion of consumption.
Food portions must respect the criterion of nutritional balance . It is never correct to eliminate or exceed the quantities; for example, the average portion of pasta varies between 70 and 90g.
Wanting to estimate the differences between white and wholemeal flour on a portion of pasta, the controversy would stop here. The metabolic impact is almost identical.
On the other hand, we must strive to have a broader vision and consider the collective tendency to abuse foods containing white flour; especially: bread , pizza , pasta, snackssweets, cakes etc.
By abandoning the concept of nutritional balance and taking into consideration a high-calorie or unbalanced diet, the choice of flour could have a noteworthy impact.
Taking a trivial example, consuming 500g of white flour a day rather than wholemeal would result in the following differences:

  • 45-50g more carbohydrates
  • 100kcal more
  • 30g less fiber
  • 5g less protein
  • 5g less lipids


In addition to facilitating weight gain (by increasing adipose tissue ), hyperglycemia has many negative health effects. Among these, above all the tendency towards type 2 diabetes mellitus , hypertriglyceridemia and other metabolic pathologies .
Chronic hyperglycemia decreases tissue sensitivity to insulin . Without glucose, the tissues continue to ask the pancreas for insulin, which increases its levels in the blood . In the long term, this organ gets tired and reduces its functionality, giving rise to diabetes and related complications.
Furthermore, hyperglycemia has a negative effect on the functionality of blood transport proteins . As a result of the so-called glycation , the structure of the peptides is altered , which lose efficiency and effectiveness.
In particular, this reaction seems to compromise the functionality of lipoproteins ( cholesterol transporters ). When they are glycated, lipoproteins do not interact correctly with the receptors and remain in circulation for too long, oxidizing (through the action of free radicals ).
This happens especially with LDL or bad cholesterol, responsible for the fatty deposition in the arteries and for the phenomena of atherogenesis .
These metabolic complications occur above all in conditions of: obesity, overeating, unbalanced diet, sedentary lifestyle, genetic predispositions and a combination of other factors.

The role of white flour in the onset of these diseases is not absolutely predisposing. On the other hand, it could be said that, in the event of food abuse, white flour has a worse effect than wholemeal flour. Replacing the two foods could benefit health in proportion to the amount consumed.

  • If the diet has few calories , the use of wholemeal favors the achievement of many nutritional levels; among these above all the fibers, some vitamins and certain mineral salts.
  • Conversely, if the diet is very abundant (for example, in the case of a professional athlete), the use of wholemeal flour could lead to excess fiber and compromise the intestinal absorption of some nutrients .

Celiac Disease and White Flour

White flour contains less total protein, but more gluten than whole wheat.
Gluten is a polypeptide made from glutenin and gliadin. The two proteins are normally independent in whole grains but, after grinding and mixing with water, they become activated forming an elastic network. This traps the gases released by leavening (natural or chemical) and grows by increasing in size (volume).
In intolerant subjects, gluten can trigger unwanted and serious long-term reactions. This intolerance is called celiac disease and – with the onset of complications due to gluten intake – it gives rise to celiac disease.
Celiac disease is a very specific condition, thoughsometimes it manifests itself atypically . It should not be confused with NON-diagnosable pictures, some of which are probably based on psychosomatics (autosuggestion).
Celiacs must totally and definitively exclude gluten from their diet (therefore all wheat-based foods ). In this case, the white flour is neither more nor less harmful than the wholemeal one.

White Flour and Intestine

Many believe that the use of white flour is related to intestinal disorders.
Among the most involved ailments would be:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome : it is not dangerous and manifests itself with various symptoms , sometimes very different. The most common ones are: cramps and abdominal pain , diarrhea, constipation and nausea .
  • Inflammatory bowel disease : ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease . They can also be very serious and lead to permanent complications.


“Does eating white flour cause or aggravate these ailments?”
The answer is no”. At least, not directly.
At the moment, the existence of molecules that play a decisive role in the onset of the aforementioned pathologies is unknown. Some suspect the
involvement of gluten, especially with regard to irritable bowel syndrome . On the other hand, this would not only concern white flour, but any cereal derivative which contains the protein in question (wheat, spelt , spelt , rye , oats , sorghum and barley ).
With regard to chronic intestinal diseases, if the causative agent responsible were white flour, the cure would be much more decisive than what happens. These pathologies still have a rather obscure origin and it seems that one of the main causes is an autoimmune reaction.
Let’s not forget, however, that inflammatory bowel disease correlates positively with celiac disease. In this sense, gluten would undoubtedly worsen the symptoms and increase the possibility of acute cases.
However, it could be argued that white flour is NOT the most suitable food for the treatment of some intestinal problems. In fact, the prevention of intestinal problems is almost always based on the abundance of fiber in the diet(especially soluble); the only exception is diarrhea.
These fibers prevent constipation, keep the intestines clean and feed the bacterial flora . In turn, these physiological microorganisms participate in maintaining the mucosa of the large intestine healthy and contribute to the immune balance.
Despite being richer in fiber , wholemeal flour mainly contains insoluble ones. Even in this case, replacing the white flour with the unprocessed one could be a positive but not decisive element.
Finally, let us remember that some intestinal problems (such as acute forms of inflammatory diseases) causesevere diarrhea and require a low fiber (low residue or low waste) diet. In this case, white flour could be even more recommended than wholemeal.



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