The power of flour

Old-school flour ad
Flour is highly explosive.
Flour is highly sought-after.
Flour is highly malleable.
Flour is, in a word, powerful.

Your purchasing dollar is powerful, too.

I’m going to discuss the spectrum of flour options that whirled through my head the other day. I won’t be discussing the benefits of whole wheat flour vs. white flour vs. rice flour, etc. Rather, I’ll be sharing a few ideas about the options for your next purchase of something as trivial-seeming as flour. I’ll talk about price, availability, labeling, etc. and hope that my sarcasm and bias aren’t TOO evident…

I wanted to avoid going out into the chilly weather, but alas needed this key ingredient. I found several different flours at home, but the combination of whole wheat, all-purpose, masa harina, etc. still didn’t amount to what I needed. I found myself having an all-too-frequent inner debate regarding where to shop: Harvest Co-op or Whole Foods? Scraping by with whatever was in the house wasn’t an option, so I headed out.

I had quite a load of food scraps that were begging to be dropped off (the Whole Foods on Prospect Street in Cambridge has a complete recycling/composting center), so I went for that option.

Below is what I’ve discovered about this powerful stuff. Caveat: I didn’t pursue standard brands, like Pillsbury or Gold Medal. This is my bias, I guess. Instead, I’m addressing items that I’d consider buying and that are available in my immediate neighborhood…

Whole Foods 365 Organic Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

  • Kosher, organic, $3 for a 5lb. bag, paper bag. Distributed by Whole Foods, Austin, Texas.
  • Ingredients: Organic unbleached wheat flour, organic malted barley flour.
  • In their own words: “Product of USA”

Not a whole lot to work with, right? Whole Foods “365” packaging is mysterious. They tout their local and organic products and yet, the only information that you get is “distributed in Texas.” I find it disconcerting that this could mean that your organic berries are from South America or that your salmon was caught in Washington, sent to China to be filleted and then sent to Texas and then to Massachusetts for your lox and bagel brunch. Kinda makes the organic argument moot if it’s saturated in fuel. The “corporate organic” dilemma is frustrating, to say the least. Granted, you are hands-down doing the right thing by choosing organic over conventional. But the truth can be blurry, if not downright hidden, sometimes.  

King Arthur 100% Organic Bread Flour

  • Kosher, organic, $5 for a 5lb. bag, paper bag
  • Milled exclusively for The King Arthur Flour Company, Norwich, Vermont
  • Ingredients: Certified 100% organic hard red spring wheat flour, certified 100% organic malted barley flour.
  • In their own words: “No bleach or preservatives ever added.” “Milled from 100% U.S.-grown wheat” “100% employee-owned, 100% committed to quality” “Never Bleached. Never Bromated.” “We keep the best interests of our employees, our community, and the environment top of our mind in everything we do.” B Corporation logo as well as testimonials, recipes, and a letter from the president of the company.

We had a bag of King Arthur flour in my apartment, but I never gave it a second look until it was practically empty and destined for the recycling bin. This bag is chock full of information, a lot of which is subtle, but still very present. This company is incredibly forth-coming with information regarding labor practices, environmental commitments and socially responsible behavior. And it’s locally produced, to boot! I also learned that the company is a B Corporation, which as far as I can tell, is a very cool thing. By slowing down for a minute to read the package, I have been prompted to action, been educated, and been caused to feel warm and fuzzy in the process.

Arrowhead Mills Organic Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour

  • Kosher, organic, $3 for 2lb. bag, paper bag
  • Manufactured for distribution by Arrowhead Mills, A Division of the Hain Celestial Group, Melville, New York
  • Ingredients: Organic whole wheat flour
  • In their own words: recipes, “Grown without synthetic pesticides” “Whole Grain Flour” “Low fat diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.” “Good Source of Fiber and Thiamin” “Low Fat” “All Natural – no artificial anything!” “Whole Grains Council stamp” “Naturally Nutritious” “All Natural” “Stone Ground Whole Wheat, the ‘Miller’s Choice.’ You will still find our signature organic whole wheat stone ground in our old fashioned mill, just as it had originally been produced long ago in the midwest. Naturally sodium and cholesterol free, low fat, and a good fiber source, our stone ground whole wheat is a true American grain staple.”

Again, Arrowhead Mills succeeds via its packaging, giving the consumer the information he/she needs to make a wise and informed decision. I also learned that they are part of a large conglomeration (corporate organic bells ringing!) that produces many other widely-found organic lines. However, they seem to be doing the right thing, by way of a Corporate Social Responsibility Report on the home page of their website, for example.

Bulk organic flour from Harvest Co-op (Arrowhead Mills selection)

To my surprise and pleasure, I learned that the bulk selection of flours come from Arrowhead Mills as well. Buying in bulk saves money, minimizes (or eliminates) packaging, has a much smaller carbon foot-print, and is more engaging than simply grabbing something off the shelf like a zombie. The Harvest Co-op, too, is an important place to spend your dollars, as it is a local, cooperatively-owned business that practices what they preach.

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Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains

  • Kosher, organic, $300 for 150 lbs. of assorted whole grains, Eco-bags: hand-sewn by owners, farmers, share-holders
  • In their own words: “Restoring community based grain, bean and seed production. Organic, ecological agriculture for nutrient dense food! In response to escalating grain shortages worldwide (due to climate choas, population growth, and increased energy demands) growing grain for ones own community is not only sensible but a necessary component of food security. Communities all over the globe are taking their own food systems back into their hands and producing, as humans have done for millennium, their own sustenance. Thank you for your support and YES WE CAN!”

Ben and Adrie Lester are endeavoring to have a grain CSA for the first time ever. I am a share-holder, and am eagerly awaiting 150 lbs. of locally-grown wheatberries, beans, barley and other grains. I am very, very excited about the prospects of having locally-sourced grain at my fingertips for an entire year. I haven’t yet determined how I’ll mill the grain, but I’ll sort that out, possibly even buying a mill collectively and having monthly milling parties. This option for grain results in the fact that I will establish a relationship with the actual people who have grown, processed and organized getting the food into my hands.

One of my main food-related goals is to avoid having to go the grocery store as much as possible. The grain CSA will eliminate many trips to the store, is the most affordable choice, brings me a ton of new information, introduces me to new people and ideas, and is the most healthy. I feel very privileged to live somewhere with so many choices.

So there you have a summary of my latest braindump. But so what, right?

Labeling is key; corporate responsibility is huge. There are several companies vying to corner the market for scannable barcodes that will deliver immediate information regarding the impact of your purchase. Until this becomes a standard practice, I encourage you to read labels, send emails, post links, and basically question everything. The Smart Choices Program failed. Why? Because people like you and me got pissed off and did something about it.

If a grain CSA isn’t an option, I highly recommend that you look at your options and take a few minutes to make conscientious decisions about how and where you spend your money and how and what you put inside your body. It’s worth the extra couple dollars to stimulate local economies and stimulate better, healthier appetites.

I’m all too aware that green-washing or “green fatigue” is ever-present, causing one to feel frustrated, misled, and pushed-around. If we take the helm, we can make healthy decisions based on our own research, conversations and gumption.

Don’t forget: “Eating is an agricultural act”.

6 comments

  1. Great information, Ryan. I remember when I first appreciated the differences in flour… a friend had moved to California and bequeathed his pantry ingredients to me. A few weeks later, I made pancakes for breakfast and they tasted awful! I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong since I make the same recipe all the time. Finally, I realized that I was using his flour — gold medal, instead of my usual King Arthur. I was amazed at how different the two tasted.

  2. Nicely done! Very informative post, thank you.

  3. very nicely presented!
    I’m splitting the Pioneer Valley share this year too, and couldn’t be more excited!! although there is that dilemma of milling….

  4. There’s a grain CSA?!!!! Why did I not hear about this earlier?! I went to their website and hope to sign up when registration opens. I’d say grain has been one of my top concerns in eating local because we eat so much of it. I usually buy King Arthur and your post helped me feel a little better about supporting them, but I really wanted to get more local than that. Thanks so much for this post!!

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