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Keep It Whole! Processing Wheat Grinds Out Its Nutritional Value

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From kernel to loaf, wheat loses nutrients in each step of the refining process, making whole-wheat bread far healthier.

We should eat our wheat as whole as possible, according to a new study that reveals exactly how nutrients degrade as wheat flour is processed and refined. In a “farm-to-table” investigation, researchers found that mineral levels fell by nearly three-quarters in breads made with refined flour, compared to those made from whole wheat flour. Levels of the nutrients vitamins A and E also fell substantially as flour was refined, they discovered.

From Kernel to Flour to Bread

To conduct the study, the investigators tracked key nutrients in one wheat sample, produced in New York’s Hudson Valley, at three stages: kernel, flour, and bread. Wheat samples were sent to researcher David Killilea of the University of California San Francisco, who analyzed them for minerals, phytate, starch, fiber, and vitamin B. Tests on ash and protein were run at California Wheat Commission, and analysis of carotenoids (vitamin A) and vitamin E was conducted at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

The researchers produced three types of flour from the sample:

  • Stone-milled, which produced intact whole-wheat flour
  • Roller-milled, which produced reconstituted whole-wheat flour
  • Refined, which produced white flour with the bran and germ removed

They then used a uniform baking protocol to make test breads from the three flour types.

David Killilea analyzes wheat samples at the University of California San Francisco. (Courtesy of Holly Duden)
David Killilea analyzes wheat samples at the University of California San Francisco. (Courtesy of Holly Duden)

The Findings

The findings were dramatic. Levels of major minerals “were reduced by up to 72% in refined flour and bread,” the researchers wrote. Trace minerals were more variable, they found, but were also reduced by up to 64 percent in refined flour and bread. Additionally, they reported:

  • Phytate levels were similar in kernels and whole-wheat flour but were reduced by up to 83 percent in refined flour and bread.
  • Levels of carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin) appeared elevated by 18 percent to 30 percent in whole and refined flour but were reduced by up to 77 percent in breads.
  • Vitamin E levels were reduced by up to 20 percent in whole-wheat flour and up to 82 percent in refined flour and bread from all flour types.

The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in the Hudson Valley of New York State sponsored the study and donated the wheat sample. The milling took place at North Dakota State University and the baking at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the partner restaurant of the Stone Barns Center.

In a July 1 presentation at Nutrition 2024, the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting, presenting author Mr. Killilea discussed his team’s findings. Mr. Killilea, who has a doctorate in pharmacology and is a vice chancellor of research at the University of California San Francisco, spoke with The Epoch Times about the study and its implications.

The Epoch Times: Were you surprised by your findings that milling and refining so substantially reduces nutrients in wheat flour?

Mr. Killilea: Yes and no. The loss of minerals resulting from milling to white flour was not surprising because the minerals tend to associate with the bran and germ, which are removed in the production of white flour. We also expected some loss of carotenoids (vitamin A-like) and vitamin E after baking, but the degree of the loss—over 75 percent—was surprising!

The Epoch Times: Based on your findings, would you recommend that people buy only whole-wheat products? 

Mr. Killilea: Strictly speaking, yes. It’s absolutely clear that whole wheat is superior in terms of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But it is an unfortunate reality that most wheat-based foods (in the United States) are made from refined (white) wheat flour. And some foods labeled “whole wheat” can be misleading. Finding authentic whole-wheat foods can be quite tricky, so I advise people to continue looking for and substituting in whole-grain options.

The Epoch Times: How was your presentation received at the Nutrition 2024 conference?

Mr. Killilea: I think the reception was positive. The benefits of whole grains are now widely appreciated in the nutrition research community. At our conference, we had several other presentations about how whole-grain consumption improves the gut microbiome, gut health, and mood, and reduces risk of many chronic diseases.

The Epoch Times: Do you think your research will affect what nutritionists recommend we include in our daily diet?

Mr. Killilea: As nutritionists and dieticians understand more about how much nutrition is gained by whole-grain consumption, there will be a greater urgency to replace refined wheat with whole-wheat foods. Consumers will demand more whole-grain options from food companies and restaurants, and also demand transparency and certification for whole-grain claims. I think that change is inevitable.

The Epoch Times: Can you tell us more about the Stone Barns Center?

Mr. Killilea: This study was supported by Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, an experimental farm and research center, and their partner restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, led by James Beard, award-winning chef and author Dan Barber. Mr. Barber was one of the first farm-to-table chefs and is now supporting one of the first farm-to-table nutritional studies. It is exciting to see a world-class restaurant team and agricultural organization invest, and actively participate, in nutrition research.

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