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Question Regarding Bleached Flour

Question: I know that the ancients could separate chaff and wheat,and reduce the grain down to the wheat berry. The wheat could be stoneground very fine indeed. But for the life of me, I don't know of one reference of the ancients subjecting the wheat to being bleached.

My understanding is that modern white bleached flour is a product of the World Wars in this century, developed to try and enhance the shelf-life of flour. But it is so nutritionally bland and chemical tasting that rats won't even eat it.

I would not advocate using whole wheat flour, but there must be an alternative to bleached white flour.  Is there not an unbleached white flour available? Until I know of one, I use white bleached flour. But I would never claim that it is exactly what our Fathers in the Faith used.

Answer: I have a very reliable source on the matter, from which I would like to quote: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (this book is in cooking circles considered to be authoritative). 

Page 290-
"After flour has been ground and blended to the desired mix of particles, it is treated chemically to accomplish in a matter of minutes what otherwise takes weeks.  Bleaching removes the light yellow color caused by xanthophylls, a variety of carotenoid also found in potatoes and onions. The color has no practical or nutritional significance and is oxidized simply to obtain a uniform whiteness.  Bleaching does, however, destroy small amounts of vitamin E in flour, which probably accounts for its bad reputation in some circles.  For historical reasons, yellow coloration is valued in pasta, and so semolina is never bleached.

"Bleaching is often accomplished with the same gas, chlorine dioxide, that is used to age or "improve" the flour.  But even unbleached flour has been aged with potassium bromate or iodate.  Aging has important practical results.  It has long been known that flour allowed to sit for one or two months develops better baking qualities; hence the practice of letting flour age before use (during this period, it is also naturally bleached by oxygen in the air).  But done in this way, aging is a time- and space consuming, somewhat unpredictable procedure.  Hence the use of chemicals both to accelerate and to control flour improvement.  Aging effects the bonding characteristics of the gluten proteins in such a way that they form stronger, more elastic doughs."

So, what he's saying is that the modern bleaching practice is something like using dry yeast: the Fathers (or dare I say mothers!) left a lump of dough out to collect naturally occurring yeast particles since they didn't have little jars of Fleischmann's at the bazaar.  When I was in Greece, I picked up on this when I noticed that peasant bread (using local flour) was indeed yellow.  The island didn't have the modern facilities to age its flour with chemicals, nor did they have the inclination to risk letting their flour sit around for a few months and risk dampness, wild yeasts, etc.  Mr. McGee also points out that this process improve elasticity in dough.  This is extremely important in light of the alternative: crumbing!  I know our parish priest dreads loaves that crumb, as it complicates his clean up and his efforts to appropriately handle the Gifts.

The Fathers don't discuss it simply because they took it for granted.  White flour was the best for what they needed it for, and people wouldn't think to bring anything lesser as sacrifice.  White flour, in which the outer bran has been polished off, dates back long before the birth of Christ. Asians typically eat rice with the bran polished off (white rice) and have done so for thousands of years. Around 400BC, Hippocrates wrote of the differences between white and brown flour. Around the same time as Aristotle, the culinary writer Archestratus sung the praises of white bread from Lesbos in his book, Gastronomia (McGee, p. 282). McGee goes on to say that classical Greeks had a deep affinity for white flour.

The use of white flour is also witnessed in two other ways: the ecclesial arts (which spared no expense, since the process of polishing off bran is more costly in the loss as well as labor) and the witness of monastic centers (who both rigidly hold to the practices handed down to them and use white flour).  Unlike the West, technology and science has never posed problems to our Faith.  We thank God for the conveniences!  There is "unbleached" white flour which is available in most markets with a decent selection, but, as you read, the process is much the same as it is for the bleached.

When rats are given the choice of hot dogs or bags of white flour, my experience has always been that the invariably go for the hot dogs!

I hope I have satisfactorily answered your question. Please also let me know if I can provide any further information.