Science shows white flour is healthier than previously thought

22 Apr 2020

A new study out of the UK comparing historic and modern wheat varieties showed that there has been an overall increase in the quantity of dietary fiber and a decrease in acrylamide, a potentially cancer-causing chemical, over the last two centuries.

Despite claims that modern wheat variants are less healthy than older ones due to a decrease in genetic diversity in cultivars, the study said, “there is no evidence that the health benefits of white flour from wheat grown in the UK have declined significantly over the past 200 years.”

Science shows white flour is healthier than previously thought

In fact, the study noted that there has been a steady increase in the amount of dietary fiber in modern wheat varieties, which contain, on average, a concentration that is a third higher than in previous centuries.

The study was launched to investigate the continuing concerns over the decline in health benefits associated with the diluted genetic variation in wheat varietals. This unease from consumers stems from the dwarf wheat varieties bred in the 1960s that increased yields but also led to a decrease in the mineral micronutrients iron and zinc.

However, while zinc and iron content diminished, other nutrients flourished in modern wheat. Fiber was not the only health component to grow over the centuries. Betaine, which benefits cardiovascular health, was found to have elevated levels in modern wheat varieties. At the same time, levels of asparagine, which converts to acrylamide when baked, have decreased. Sugar levels, including sucrose, maltose and fructose have also increased over time.

The study looked at 39 varieties of wheat that humans have cultivated since 1790. Variants were split into three groups: the period between 1790-1916, which contained nine types of wheat that were bred before genetic selection technologies were developed; the period between 1935-1972, which featured 13 varieties that were created with an increased scientific understanding of genetics; and the period between 1980-2012, which had 17 varieties that exemplified modern breeding techniques. While the team reported variations in nutrient content between the years, it was considered “small” when compared to the variation between cultivars.

Each cultivar was grown for three consecutive years before it was milled into white flour. Scientists chose to produce white flour as it is the most widely consumed wheat product in the UK and the study specified that results using the nutrient profile of this processed product are more relevant to the masses than a study on whole grain.

These findings may be significant for consumers as the study noted that UK diets are fiber-deficient with 10% of daily dietary fiber coming from white bread. Bread of multiple varieties provides 20% of the total daily intake of fiber in the UK.