Flour is one of the most fundamental ingredients for a bakery.
The amazingly wide range of flour varieties allows bakers to choose flours based on an equally wide range of qualities: low protein, high protein, coarse grind, finely ground, wheat, rye, barley, gluten-free, and more.
Easily, I could write twenty or more blog posts exploring the various types of flours, and perhaps I eventually will, but for this post, I want to focus on how the most common and commercially available flours are processed, and why I think that matters. To learn more about the nutritional qualities of various flours, links to several excellent resources are included at the end of this post.
Bleached and Bromated Flour
By far, the majority of commercial flours milled in the U.S. are bromated, bleached flours, particularly the bulk flours purchased by restaurants, food services, and bakeries. So, what is meant by these terms?
Both terms mean the flour has been chemically treated to help speed up the aging process and to improve how the flour functions in baking. Both processes, particularly bleaching, also makes the flour appear whiter.
Bleaching is typically accomplished by using agents such as benzoyl peroxide or chlorine gas. By themselves, both of these agents are highly toxic. When incorporated into food processing, the chemicals are mixed with neutralizing agents to produce the desired effects while also reducing the toxicity. The time it takes to complete the process also neutralizes these agents, so they are undetectable in the finished product.
Bromated flours are treated with potassium bromate, which is a chemical oxidizing agent. In simplest terms, oxidation means the changing of a chemical structure by adding oxygen. Rust is a good example of oxidation that most people are familiar with; however, this doesn't mean potassium bromate is making rusty flour.
The fact is that flour cannot be used immediately after it's been milled—ok, it can be used, but not if you want it to do anything useful in your baked goods. Instead, flour must be aged first in a process that exposes it to oxygen, which helps change the flour's chemical structure (oxidation) so that it can create stronger protein bonds (gluten) resulting in a more pliable product with greater elasticity.
Aging flour can be done one of two ways: 1) age it naturally by exposing it to open air for oxidation; or 2) throw in some potassium bromate to speed up the process.
The problem with using potassium bromate is that lab studies on mice have linked it to cancer of the thyroid, kidneys, and other organs*. As a result, Europe, Canada, and other countries banned potassium bromate as a food additive, and it carries a warning label in California. The FDA, however, continues to approve its use in the U.S. as a "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) product.
The reason the FDA awarded potassium bromate a GRAS designation is because the process of baking neutralizes this agent and renders it harmless. It is not/should not be present in the final product. The reason other countries banned its use is because if a product is underbaked, the bromate is not neutralized and could be found in measurable quantities in the finished product.
In the world of commercial baking where baked goods are made in large, commercial ovens, potassium bromate should not be that much of an issue. Commercial bakeries are fanatical about consistency, so oven temperatures, baking times, and internal temperatures are all highly regulated. It is unlikely that a commercial bakery will produce an underbaked product.
But you should also consider these scenarios:
— If you adore those really gooey, stretchy cinnamon rolls like those found at Cinnabon, you're eating an underbaked product made with bleached, bromated flour.
— If you like to make rolls, cookies, or buns at home using refrigerated, pre-made dough that comes in a tube (like Pillsbury), the variations in home oven temperatures and personal taste create a higher risk that the final product, made with bleached, bromated flour, is underbaked.
— If you love raw cookie dough, the common (and excellent) advice is to make it egg-free, but you're also eating raw, bleached, bromated flour.
— If you are an avid home baker making breads, cakes, cookies, even pancakes from scratch and not using a thermometer to test the internal temperature, there is a higher risk that you're eating underbaked bleached, bromated flour.
Another consideration that we take very seriously at Mama Donna's is the environmental impact of producing and using these additives. The less chemical agents are used, the fewer chemical agents need to be produced, thus reducing the manufacturing components needed and the possibility of these chemicals and/or their byproducts leaching into the environment.
For the home baker, there are two commercially available flour brands that do not contain potassium bromate or bleaching agents:
— Bob's Red Mill flours, which are also higher in protein and fiber than any other commercial flour I've been able to find on the market.
*A few additional notes: Lab studies testing the carcinogenic properties of food products typically involve feeding mice a large quantity of the suspected product straight out of the box. If you were to chow down on a bowl of potassium bromate on a regular basis, it's likely that you will develop some sort of cancer. Certainly, you are at higher risk.
The fact that there is not a cancer epidemic linked to bromates in baked goods is a positive sign that using bleached, bromated flour for baking is most likely safe.
However, the philosophy here at Mama Donna's Bakery is if the same qualities can be achieved without the use of potentially harmful chemicals, then better to not use these additives and produce a purer, more natural product. Plus, we think a more natural product just tastes better.