-R K Chandrika
By the time you retire for the night, it would be surprising if you’ve not had something from this list: roti, naan, bread, cake, biscuit, pasta, pizza, noodles, sweet treats, rusk, mathri, namkeen, samosa, gujiya, puri, golgappa…. You get the general drift. You’ve then had your white poison for the day – refined flour.
But the refinement of your flour, while being a major problem, is not the only grave drawback with it, as we are about to discover.
The Raw of Refined Flour
To understand what refined flour or maida is, let’s break it up. Wheat, from which our flour is milled, has three parts. One part is the tip of the grain, also called wheat germ from where germinates the plant. The germ is richest in protein and B vitamins though it constitutes only about 2.5% weight of the grain. Flour manufacturers remove this part because it’s also rich in (good) fats and reduces shelf life of the flour. The second part is the bran which forms 14-15% of the seed, and provides the roughage necessary to digest the wheat, besides being loaded with B vitamins, and essential phytochemicals and minerals. This is also removed because it can go rancid faster than the rest of the grain and thereby reduces shelf life. Which leaves us with the nutrient-stripped, starchy part of the grain – endosperm, which is what you get when you buy pre-milled flour from the market.
This is the refined flour which makes your roti and bread look white (for those unfortunately obsessed with white) while doing dark things inside your body. This cannot be digested easily by your system, and therefore draws the necessary enzymes and vitamins from your body, depleting its existing store.
The GI or glycaemic index of refined flour is also quite high. The GI valueof a carbohydrate indicates how fast it converts into blood glucose. The higher the value, the faster it ups your blood sugar, contributing to a wide range of negative body conditions, from diabetes to degraded cardiovascular health.
Further, the gluten-rich refined flour, which makes it easy to cook all those delicious-looking baked and fried snacks, while causing celiac disease in only a small percentage of people,leads to undetected gluten sensitivity in a rather large number. This can manifest in indigestion, acidity, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, and other digestive disorders.
Steer clear of ‘Enriched’ flours (sounds very healthy doesn’t it?) because they are basically the adding of a small percentage of the removed nutrients back to the milled refined flour before bagging it. It is still much lower in fibre and nutrition and less holistic than whole wheat.
The solution, you’d conclude, would be to switch to whole wheat. If possible, the kind you get freshly ground from grain, while you loiter around, at your local ‘chakki’. However, there seem to be some bugs in your whole wheat flour too that you should examine.
To Wheat or Not to Eat
William Davis, in his book ‘Wheat Belly’, points out that wheat in various forms is the most consumed grain in current times. The GI of even whole wheat bread, at 72, is higher than table sugar at 59. He feels wheat is at the bottom of a number of inflammatory diseases, asthma to arthritis. A number of wheat slamming nutritionists and naturopaths have put their chronically suffering patients on a wheat-free diet and claim astounding results in the reversal of their disease.
Moreover, wheat, having been cultivated for centuries, is no more the ancient grain it was. It has gone through many changes for the seed to give higher yield, to be more easily harvested and to make it more pest and temperature resistant. As a result of its changing form, it differs drastically from its oldest known ancestor, the Einkorn wheat grain variety. The latter is easily digested, and kind on the intestines, unlike the modern wheat grain variations. Then again, in more recent times, apart from the hybridisation and gene tampering, mono-cropping is a scary story of potent pesticides and free flowing chemical fertilizers, which are proven to impact the harvest. But this allegation equally applies to all widely grown food crops, with wheat heading the pack.
Luckily there are alternative grains with a lot of nutritive value – millets, oats, corn, and rice. Your flour can be composed of these, even if there is a steep learning curve in adding them to your daily diet. But then, there seems to be a grain of a problem in this option too.
Go Against the Grain?
Our ancestors were never voracious grain consumers. Even after the advent of cultivation, it was much later in the food timeline that foods as complex as breads and cakes made an appearance. Even now, in most traditional or pre-modern societies across the world, the methods of preparing and eating grains is much the same. These practices, when scrutinised, pointed out something important to researchers about their role in ensuring nutrition.
Grains have a ubiquitous protective mantle composed of phytic acid, which remains intact even after cooking. In the body itforms phytates by binding with minerals such as calcium, zinc, potassium, magnesium, etc., and prevents the body from absorbing these essential nutritive elements.This often leads to serious deficiency related issues like bone loss, bad teeth and host ofother diseases. Phytates also interfere with the digestion of proteins, starches and fats. This also applies in varying degrees to legumes, nuts and beans, which is why they all need preparation before being cooked or consumed.
People who are not too affected by over-consumption of unprepared grains, nuts, legumes and beans either have very good gut flora that manages the effects, or consume a lot of vitamin D and A in the form of certain animal fats.
On the other hand, it is argued that phytic acid binds heavy metals and minerals in the gut, preventing free radicals from wreaking their programming for cancer, kidney stones, cardiovascular disease and more. Which is why you now see as many arguments in favour of as against whole grains, and you can be forgiven for concluding that every research is only agenda driven (much of it is).
The best solution here is to treat each individual as per their body-mind type and food habits. If you have a lot of mineral deficiencies and are vegetarian, you definitely need to look into your manner of grain and nut consumption. Our ancestors’ practice of pre-soaking grains, beans, nuts and legumes, and fermenting them before cooking or consumption is a win-win for almost all types of people.
Fermentation of grains exponentially increases beneficial probiotics in grain, as well as enzymes and amino-acids that are essential and beneficial for the body. It breaks down phytic acid, enabling absorption of minerals, but also producesmicroflora that help get rid of heavy metal toxins.
Fermented wholegrain flour breads, called sourdough in the West, or khameeriroti back here, as well as fermented grain or legume foods like dosa, idli, khaman, dhokla are the way to go with grain flours. But then, fermented foods are anenormous treasure trove which we will open another cosy day over a glass of kefir, kombucha or kanji.
R K Chandrika has been imparting nature treatment and spiritual healing and practices for the past 20 years, apart from being a professional documentary filmmaker. She runs a holistic nature care enterprise accessible on www.grasroutes.com. You can send in your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer the more relevant and generic questions of them, which will be carried the following Sunday.
Disclaimer: Everything related to health in this column is for information purposes only. Readers are expected to exercise their own good sense in following any of them, and consult a professional therapist or doctor for conditions that warrant doing so. The author and The Morning Chronicle bear no responsibility for any outcomes from following anything described herein.