Flour probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of fresh food, but what baker hasn’t opened a container of whole wheat flour only to smell that it’s gone rancid? Refined flour’s staying power on the shelf is one of the things that has led to its popularity, but unfortunately, the reason it lasts longer is that all the good stuff’s been refined right out of it.
A few months back, I read the classic text Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, which I heartily recommend. In the early twentieth century, dentist Weston Price traveled the world studying the teeth of people who ate indigenous, pre-industrialized diets and comparing them to those of people from the same communities and families who had begun eating a diet of refined grains and sugars. The differences–documented in a huge number of photographs–are stunning. Refined grains and sugars, stripped of most nutrients besides simple carbohydrates, do not provide the body with all of the building blocks for optimal growth. And one of the first places that this lack is evident is in the teeth. A body lacking a sufficient supply of nutrients develops a smaller dental arch. And a smaller dental arch means crowded teeth. In an embarrassing indictment of our so-called “advanced” culture, the need for braces is a sign of poor nutrition. People eating traditional, whole-food diets have gorgeously straight teeth.
A diet of refined foods also leads to a staggering increase in cavities. Dr. Price says this is not because of what simple sugars do in your mouth as you’re eating them. It’s because they lack the nutrients that build cavity-resistant teeth. That’s why a pregnant woman is more susceptible to cavities. To get the baby the nutrients it needs, her body will prey on her own skeleton if it has to.
The lack of important nutrients doesn’t just affect the teeth. It has also been linked to arthritis and to a narrowing of the pelvis (producing obvious complications for childbearing women). Dr. Price also found that nutrition was an important factor in susceptibility to infectious disease. In his day, tuberculosis was the clear example.
Now, our refined, industrial diets have come a long way since the early twentieth century when Dr. Price was writing. We know the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, as well as getting enough protein and calcium. But we still have a long way to go if we want to have teeth as straight and healthy as those of the people Dr. Price photographed who ate traditional, indigenous diets. And it may come as a surprise, but fruits–those foods we’ve been told are so important to our health–are relatively low in nutrients. They do have Vitamin C, but there are a lot of important nutrients fruits just can’t supply. For those, we have to turn elsewhere: to animal fats (for example, butter made from the milk of cows who graze on fresh spring grass), to seafood, and…to whole grains.
“Modern white flour,” says Dr. Price, “has had approximately four-fifths of the phosphorous and nearly all of the vitamins removed by processing, in order to produce a flour that can be shipped without becoming infested with insect life.” Many of the nutritional problems of our culture seem to be due to the fact that we eat primarily foods that have been shipped over long distances and/or stored for a long period of time. We refine, pasteurize, and add preservatives all in an effort to keep foods edible for long periods. Not to mention that our so-called “fresh” fruits and vegetables have been bred not for nutrition but for their ability to hold up to long-distance shipping, and are picked before their peak of ripeness for the same reason. Our diet has evolved, not according to our nutritional needs, but according to the needs of the shipping industry, as well as our desire to have ready-made convenience foods.
Well, since reading Dr. Price’s book, I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase my consumption of more-nutritious foods. I would like to eat more whole wheat (as well as other whole grains), but I’ve had so many bad experiences going to make whole-wheat bread and finding that the flour I had was rancid. Sometimes it seems like it comes from the store that way (which I guess makes sense, given that not many people buy it so it sits on the shelves for quite a while).
I decided that the solution was to buy wheat berries. In their whole, unground form, wheat berries will last many, many months on the shelf without going bad. After all, wheat berries are just seeds, which are naturally designed to last for months before conditions are right for them to sprout. At any time, the berries can either be cooked whole or ground into whole wheat flour.
So far, I’ve had several breakfasts of boiled wheat berries, which are surprisingly good, even unseasoned. They taste a bit nutty and have a chewy texture. They do take a while to cook, though: about fifty minutes after soaking overnight. So I don’t eat them every day.
As far as grinding, I began my adventures by grinding some (raw) wheat berries in my (clean) coffee grinder. The result was a flour as finely textured as what you find in the store, with a deliciously fresh smell! The problem with the coffee grinder is that its motor is not designed to run for long periods of time. So you have to grind the flour a quarter-cup at a time. And after about two batches, the motor starts to smell like it’s burning.
So I’m thinking of investing in a grain mill. Carol Deppe, in her book The Resilient Gardener, recommends the Grainmaster Wonder Mill. I would prefer a hand-cranked mill (I hate the noise of machinery and like the exercise), and I’ve seen a few in Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog, but I’m not sure which one to get (especially since some of them are hugely expensive). Do any of you have experience with either kind, hand-cranked or electric? Any recommendations?