Wheat flour is present in about a third of all grocery products on supermarket shelves and makes a useful contribution to our intake of protein, fibre and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Although wholemeal is widely regarded as healthier, white bread is still far more popular.
This article looks at consumer attitudes to white wheat flour as well as the findings from some exciting new research that could be the best thing since sliced bread.
White wheat flour attitudes
The National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) recently commissioned a YouGov survey on consumer’s attitudes to white wheat flour.
The survey of 4,081 UK consumers found that over half considered white wheat flour easy to get hold of (56%) and to bake with (55%), but only 7% thought it was healthy.
One in 4 (26%) consumers thought white wheat flour was ‘over processed’, 16% thought it was ‘old fashioned’ and 34% though it ‘should be eaten in moderation’.
Alex Costigliola, Trade Policy Manager at nabim, said: “When looking at the latest NDNS data, we can see that in teenagers, flour contributes 38% of fibre intakes. All cereal products combined contribute 44% of their fibre intake, which is quite interesting when compared to fruit & veg's fibre contribution of 32%.”
Nutritional offerings of white wheat flour
The survey also found that only 6% of consumers thought white wheat flour was nutritious.
Although nutrients such as calcium, iron, thiamine and niacin can be lost through the milling process of white flour, these are restored to the levels present in unrefined (wholemeal) flours (UK Bread and Flour Regulations, 1998). In fact, calcium levels in white flour are higher than wholemeal, making it a very important source of this nutrient for those who consume little dairy produce
Priya Nicholas, Communications Manager at nabim, said: “We are running a year-long digital campaign to increase people’s understanding of the nutritional benefits of eating flour-based products as well as the health benefits of fibre and highlighting the link between fibre and flour-based products.”
Currently, only 13% of men and 4% of women meet the recommended fibre intake of 30g a day. Although wholemeal four is generally regarded as healthier, white bread is by far more widely used, with white bread making up three quarters of the 12 million or so loaves sold each day. Typically, a slice of white bread has about 1g of fibre, whereas wholemeal has about 3g.
Healthier white bread proves possible
Efforts to increase fibre in white bread through conventional crop breeding is a slow process. Manufacturers currently use a mix of both white and wholemeal flours, or add seeds and fibre from other sources to make higher fibre breads. However, that practice could soon change.
A group of researchers has identified parts of the wheat genome responsible for the fibre content of white flour. This is by no means simple, as wheat genome has around 150,000 genes – much bigger than the human genome which has around 25,000 genes.
The researchers from Rothamsted, the John Innes Centre and the University of Bristol along with colleagues in Hungary, France and Turkey, have developed genetic markers that can be easily used by plant breeders to screen wheat lines for higher fibre genes.
Dr Alison Lovegrove, lead author, explained that these plants can then be used in high fibre wheat lines. Dr Lovegrove, from Rothamsted Research, said: 'We hope to go on and identify further genes that increase fibre content, thereby providing plant breeders, millers and food producers with even more option.’
This research has made it possible to produce a good quality white loaf that tastes just like white bread but has twice the fibre of traditional white bread. The research team are hopeful that higher fibre bread and other products made from white wheat flour will be a staple on supermarket shelves within five years.