What is flour?

Flour is produced from the machination of softwheat. Grain has three separate parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. High in fibre, the bran is the outer covering of wheat. The germ is the inner part, where growth occurs, which is high in fat. The endosperm is the majority of the wheat: it is high in proteins and complex carbohydrates, and low in sugars. We take this stored energy in the form of proteins commonly called glutens. We can consider flour a fundamental part of our diet, due to its ability to provide us with clean carbohydrate energy.

There are many types of wheatflour, suitable for different types of end product. Each have its own level of protein (and so gluten) and therefore different rising times and methods of use. Generally, soft wheat contains 11-18% protein. Many countries, and specifically the USA, require the addition of minerals and vitamins to flour to replace what is lost during milling. Principally, these are iron and the vitamin-B group (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin).
In reality, the different types of flour have different nutritional properties based on those cereals they are derived from. According to INRAN, type-0/00 flours provide us with 340 calories per 100g, whereas the other flours have 5% lighter, for instance. Similarly, wholemeal flour contains 8.4% food fibre, whereas type-00 only contains 2.2% (Infofarine.it page on flour nutritional properties).

Wheat is rich in catalytic elements, mineral salts, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, arsenic, silicon, manganese, zinc, iodide, copper, vitamin B, and vitamin E, and a rich source of nutrients. Wheat germ also includes vitamins like thiamin, folic acid, and vitamin B6. The wheat germ oil also improves body robustness. As the Italian Ministry of Health points out, the human body needs cereals and cereal-products (rice, pasta and bread) as a source of essential "complex" carbohydrates, minerals and vitamin B, which means that wheat is an essential part of a healthy diet. The bran and germ in wholewheat also help the body to process waste efficiently and help us to feel fuller for longer, avoiding the hypoglycemic “peaks and troughs” that often result from excessive sugar consumption.

Depending on the extent to which the external part of the grain has been removed, we create a range of different types of flour, that according to Italian state law, carry different denominations. The range of Italian flour starts goes from wholemeal (which has the least material removed) through type-2, type-1, type-0 to type-00 (each with progressively more material removed).
These flours have different protein levels, plus different quantities of minerals, fibre and starch, and therefore different nutritional qualities. For instance, type-00 has the highest level of starch, and lowest levels of protein, minerals and fibre. The other flours contain less starch, but higher levels of protein, minerals and fibre.
These flours also look different: type-00 flour is pure white whereas the other flours are of progressively darker shades.

Milling means that the process by which grain is separated into pieces with different granulametric values by rolling mills; these pieces are then separated again by plansifters, before being sent back to the rolling mills, purifiers or brushes, in order to obtain the flour.
Stone-milling on the other hand means that the grain is broken into pieces from above by stones, producing a wholemeal flour that in turn can be sifted to produce type-0, type-1 or type-2 flours. The wheatgerm is protected in this process, and becomes part of the wholemeal product thus obtained. This is the main difference between white flour (made without the bran or wheatgerm) and wholemeal flour (made with all three).

Scientific research has demonstrated the health benefits of eating whole-grain foods. American heart researchers found in 2005 that more than six weekly servings of whole grains helped reduce coronary artery thickening in women, and could help slow the progression of atherosclerosis in post-menopausal women. British cancer researchers concluded that high dietary lignan intakes (found in wholewheat) leads to reduced breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women (published in 2009 in the British Journal of Cancer). Wholewheat grains also help weight loss in obese patients: obese women who ate wholewheat products over long periods lost considerably more weight loss than those who did not, according to the (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
There is also evidence that wholewheat improves metabolism, prevents type-2 diabetes, reduces chronic inflammation and prevents gallstones, as reported in scientific journal Nature). Other research has suggested that wholewheat helps with anemia, mineral deficiencies, asthenia, tuberculosis, pregnancy problems and breastfeeding problems. It is also known to balance cholesterol levels: the American Heart Association suggests eating wholewheat foods to lower the risk of heart problems.

Today, it is very common to hear people questioning the safety of type-00 flour, to the point where some have described it as poisonous and to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, these warnings have no scientific basis, and very often are simply part of fashionable diets that do not last long. In recent years, we have seen doctors recommending zero-protein diets, zero-carbohydrate diets, gluten-free diets (for people who are not gluten intolerant) etc etc. The most recent trend is a fruit-only diet, or uncooked vegetable-only diet, and unfortunately, there is always a doctor or a specialist ready to publicly back these diets. And then a few months or years later, all these suggestions and new "diets" disappear, leaving in their wake a trail of devastating harmful side-effects.
The fact is that flour is a derived product, and as such, the first question that we must ask ourselves (as consumers or producers) is "where do the raw materials for this flour come from?" In general, we can agree that less refined products are better for our health, but if a 100% wholemeal flour is produced using low-quality or aged raw materials, it will still not do our health any good, and might even do some harm. The same consideration is true of the filling and packaging processes, which are now light years cleaner than in the "good old days".
Type-00 flour is NOT like nicotine, for example, which is a poisonous substance in and of itself, regardless of how or where it it used. Our health depends on the general nature of the diet that we follow, and there is no evidence that type-00 flour is a poisonous ingredient that always does our health harm. We have to be very careful when we hear certain assertions about diet and health, above all on the Internet or daytime-TV programmes, which have no scientific base whatsoever. A good example is palm oil. Suddenly, in recent months, food producers big and small have started changing their recipes and their advertising, making great play of a new slogan: "made without palm oil", an ingredient believed by many to be cancerogenous, and to be avoided completely. However, as the Belgian Appeal Court recently discovered, there is actually no evidence to support these claims. In a 2017 judgment against Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize, the Court ordered the immediate cessation of their "without palm oil" advertising campaign for their own-brand chocolate spread, after Delhaize were unable to provide scientific proof of the dangers of the ingredient (Ferrero Successfully Defends Nutella In Court ".
Or take the case of gluten-free diets for people who are not intolerant or allergic to it: even the president of the Italian Celiac Association saw fit to criticise the trend, saying "no research has yet shown any beneficial effect for non-gluten intolerant people from a gluten-free diet, in fact. The scientific studies demonstrate very clearly that a gluten-free diet for such people is useless" ("In Italia 6 milioni di celiaci per 'moda')", or the vegetarian diet that "cures cancer" revealed by its own author to be complete fiction and a fraud "Multa di 410mila dollari per la blogger... ". We cannot even say that refined foods are a modern trend, as the ancient Romans and Greeks had the same idea, preferring white (refined) foods to demonstrate their social superiority over the "plebs" (ironically, today, the fashion is for darker foods, to demonstrate our superior knowledge compared to those who eat badly, or do not care what they eat)
Let us therefore conclude with the words of two experts:
"There is no such thing as first-rate and second-rate flours, but simply flours that serve for different uses; bread, pizza and sweets", opinion of Giovanni Battista Quaglia, of the Faculty of Medicine at Rome Tor Vergata University, previously at Italian National Research Institute for Food and Nutrition (INRAN).
"Flour is an excellent source of slow-release carbohydrates, essential for our diet and good for our health", opinion of professor Pietro Antonio Migliaccio, for 25 years part of INRAN, and current president of the Italian Society for Food Science (SISA).