Larry Crowe  /  AP
P.J. Hamel, senior editor at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont, measures out some whole-wheat white flour while making sandwich bread in their test kitchen on Tuesday. King Arthur Flour, like many other in the baking industry, is making, using and marketing white whole-wheat flour products.
updated 5/10/2006 4:30:46 PM ET 2006-05-10T20:30:46

Whole wheat is looking a whole lot less wheaty these days.

That’s because food processors are selling more of a newly popular flour that merges whole-wheat health benefits with the color, taste and texture of white bread.

The secret: white wheat, a grain that can be milled to resemble pancake-friendly all-purpose flour, but is as healthy as traditional whole wheat.

Though white wheat has been available for years, it’s recently garnered serious attention thanks to new government dietary guidelines urging Americans to eat at least three servings a day of whole grains.

“The word is out that Americans should eat more whole grains for a healthier diet,” says Garth Neuffer, spokesman for ConAgra Foods Inc., which launches a white wheat-based flour this summer. “However, people also have shown they won’t sacrifice taste and convenience. The majority of Americans still want a white flour-tasting product.”

That’s why white whole-wheat flour has shown up in numerous healthier versions of many refined flour icons during the past year, including Wonder Bread and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers.

Norwich, Vt.-based King Arthur Flour, a leading distributor of white whole-wheat flour, certainly has seen a difference. Sales of white wheat products have jumped 55 percent since the same time last year.

Hanging onto the fiber
White wheat’s appeal is thanks to a subtle difference between it and the far more common red variety.

Traditional white flour — usually sold as “all-purpose” — is produced by milling red wheat to remove the bran and germ. Doing so also removes most of the nutrients, earning white flour a bad rap in health circles. It contains no fiber.

The bran and germ are retained in conventional whole-wheat flour, giving it 5 grams of fiber per quarter-cup serving, as well as a deeper color, grainy texture and (thanks to tannic acid in the bran) a mildly bitter taste.

But white wheat contains less tannic acid. That means it can be milled with the bran and germ (making it nutritionally equivalent to conventional whole wheat) and still produce a flour with a texture, taste and appearance similar to all-purpose.

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Now companies are betting it will help them capture consumers who want white-bread taste with whole-grain health benefits.

“The American public certainly is not going to say, 'I love that brown, rich, grainy look to things and I’m going to embrace it,”’ says P.J. Hamel, a spokeswoman at King Arthur Flour, which has sold white whole-wheat flour since 1992.

“They’ve been brought up on white bread and if you can get whole wheat to look like it, that’s what it will take,” she said.

Despite the surge in interest, white wheat still accounts for just over 12 percent of the nation’s total wheat crop, with probably less than half of that as the variety suitable for breads and most other baked goods.

At King Arthur, all-purpose flour still dominates with three-quarters of sales. White whole wheat has just under 4 percent, though the company is adding a new organic variety this summer.
Numbers like those are likely to change. Consumer demand is part of it, but so are agricultural innovations. Until recently, white wheat was more challenging to grow than red; new varieties of white are reversing that.


General Mills Inc. recently launched its own white whole-wheat flour under its Gold Medal brand. The Minneapolis-based company also has a white whole-grain bread mix that uses durum wheat, a light-colored variety traditionally used in pasta. Both products are sold commercially and General Mills has no plans to sell them directly to consumers.

ConAgra, based in Omaha, Neb., entered the white wheat market in 2004 with its Ultragrain flour, which was sold exclusively on the commercial market and already is used in dozens of companies’ products, including a 50 percent whole-grain pizza sold in 3,000 school districts.

This summer the company appeals directly to consumers with a Healthy Choice brand flour that is a 70/30 blend of traditional all-purpose and white whole-wheat. Each quarter-cup serving has 2 grams of fiber, or about two-thirds a serving of whole grains.

That’s not 100 percent whole grain, but in some ways it might be better.

Baby steps
People who already eat whole grains aren’t the target audience of such products, says Ann Yelmokas McDermott, a nutrition scientist at the Tufts University U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrition Research Center.

This is for people who otherwise wouldn’t touch a whole grain. And for them, baby steps are better than nothing.

And ConAgra’s Neuffer says getting those people accustomed to the taste of whole grains will make it possible for the company to slowly tinker with the formula, possibly upping the ratio of whole to refined grains over the years.

“The perfect product is a product people will eat,” he says. “It puts them on the path toward getting the whole grains they need.”

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