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Wholemeal: better bred bread

Crow’s Rest Bakehouse founder Alexandra Vaughan looks at how choosing delicious wholemeal Real Bread can be good not only for your health but also the planet's.

A tale of two loaves. Copyright: Kimberley Bell

A tale of two loaves. Copyright: Kimberley Bell

Figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that 91% of the wheat flour produced for bread and industrial dough products in the UK is highly-refined, low-fibre white. Against this background, The National Food Strategy of 2021 called for the UK population to increase our fibre consumption by a massive 50% to achieve better health. 

The shortfall has well-understood implications for our health, but a perhaps lesser-known perspective is just how wasteful this is. Not only would bread and other baked products be better for us if we used more of the whole grain, millions more loaves could be produced every year with the volume of wheat currently grown, which would be better for the planet. 

Wholemeal or wholegrain?

In the UK all wholemeal bread is, by law, wholegrain, but not all wholegrain bread is necessarily wholemeal.

The extraction rate of flour is the percentage of the grain that ends up in a sack or bag, with wholemeal flour being 100% of the hulled and cleaned grain. According to The Bread and Flour Regulations (1998), for the word wholemeal to be used to name or advertise bread, all of the wheat flour used must be 100% extraction. Despite official guidance to choose more wholegrain foods, the words wholegrain and wholewheat are neither defined in UK law, or their use regulated. Also undefined and unregulated are how both words can be used to name and advertise non-wheat (e.g. rye) flour and bread.


Wholegrain foods are a crucial source of fibre, which people in the UK do not eat enough of. In 2020, the national average adult fibre consumption was reported to be 18-19g per day, well below most countries’ reference daily intake, which ranges from 30g in the UK to 90g in some other nations. Worryingly, a 2015 study, titled  ‘Low whole grain intake in the UK: results from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme 2008–11’, by Mann et al., reported that one in five Britons eat no wholegrain foods at all.

In a September 2023 webinar, Dr. Andrew Ross, Professor at the College of Agricultural Sciences, Oregon State University, pointed out that micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) are commonly co-located with the fibre and may be a critical health difference between eating stoneground wholemeal flours as opposed to reconstituted roller-milled flours, where some of these nutrients are lost. In an attempt to make up for some of the losses and improve the population’s micronutrient intake, four (soon to be five) vitamins and minerals must be added to all non-wholemeal flour sold in the UK

A large body of evidence has linked the consumption of wholegrain foods to reduced risk of non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Growing evidence also suggests that wholegrain foods might support more plentiful and diverse gut microbiota, which might be linked to those other positive health incomes. A number of the known, and potential, benefits are discussed in Chris J. Seal et al’s 2021 article 'Health benefits of whole grain: effects on dietary carbohydrate quality, the gut microbiome, and consequences of processing'.

Lost loaves

Refined flour production is also driving resource depletion and exacerbating negative environmental impacts. Depending on the type of process used, between 15% and 50% of each tonne of wheat harvested is diverted away from feeding people, for example to be used as animal feed or by nutraceutical companies.

Dr. Andrew Wilkinson, farmer, miller and co-founder of Gilchesters, explains that to produce white flour, “the maximum amount of flour extractable from any one grain of wheat is 82%, and industrial roller mills work at this 82% extraction rate”. Stone mills producing sifted (i.e. non-wholemeal) flour will run at an extraction ranging from 50% to around 72%. Some stone millers, like Yorkshire Organic Millers and Tuxford Windmill, choose to offer higher extraction (generally around 85-86%) of sifted flours by not using sieves with the finest mesh sizes. 

More agricultural vehicle fuel and (in ‘conventional’ farming) agrochemicals are needed to grow the grain for a tonne of white flour than for a tonne of wholemeal. Dr. Wilkinson points out, "even when organic farming methods can grow our cereals without these industrial inputs, the waste in soil nutrients is still colossal.”

As a visual demonstration, Kimberley Bell, owner of Small Food Bakery in Nottingham, milled two one-kilo batches of wheat, sifted roughly 35% of middlings/semolina and bran out of one of the batches, then made a loaf from each. Seeing how much smaller the sifted flour loaf was and the piles of what had been removed to make it (see photo above) really brings home the amount of food, resources and money that may be wasted when flour is refined.

Where does it all go?

As noted above, some of the removed parts of the wheat grain are repurposed. Larger, and medium-sized mills such as Shipton Mill, mostly sell this wheatfeed (skin, chaff, fragments of the grain and some flour) to animal feed producers. Specific elements of milling byproducts are sold to the breakfast cereals industry, as a mushroom growing medium, and even to the cosmetics and supplements industries – wheat germ is high in vitamin E and bran is used as an exfoliant.

Some smaller mills, including Yorkshire Organic Millers and Tuxford Windmill, sell their milling byproducts to local, small-scale animal farms. In all the cases above, it does not seem to represent an important source of income, as the cost of processing (separating, bagging, etc) reduces the potential profit from its sale.

Wholemeal baking

Working with wholemeal flours and introducing different cereals can seem like a big challenge, both from a technical perspective and in terms of customer response. Helen Evans runs Eric’s in East Dulwich, south London, making a point of using wholemeal flour in all their products, from croissants and cookies to Real Bread. She uses a range of different grains, from Miller’s Choice wheat (which goes into most things), barley (for sablés), emmer or einkorn (in her millionaire’s shortbread base). She assesses a flour’s characteristics and what products it will be most suited for, as in the case of wholemeal Flanders wheat or spelt, both flours with excellent extensibility, perfect for pizza dough.

Some people avoid wholegrain foods on health grounds – living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example. The Happy Tummy Co. founder Karen O’Donoghue’s experience as a baker has led her to conclude that soaking and fermenting food properly can be a total game changer to how some people’s bodies process wholegrain foods. “Often, the customer is surprised by the positive results, having been told otherwise by their healthcare professional. We get that a lot, in fact!”

Winning people over

Habit plays a significant role in food choices and early exposure to new tastes and smells can shape preferences throughout life. A 2014 study titled ‘Nudging children towards whole wheat bread: a field experiment on the influence of fun bread roll shape on breakfast consumption’ by van Kleef et al., which involved more than 1,000 children, suggested that targeting younger people with fun-shaped wholemeal bread might increase acceptance and help to lead to lifelong wholemeal consumption. 

Wing Mon Cheung co-founded Cereal Bakery in late 2022 and is committed to using only wholemeal, non-commodity grain flours. Although customers have been receptive to trying the bakery’s sweet and savoury products, they’ve been hesitant about wholemeal bread. Once they’ve tasted it, however, Wing Mon told me “they are very surprised that it isn’t as ‘heavy’ as they were anticipating – they also love the flavour.”

Karen suggests that “offering people [wholegrain] biscuit and cake alternatives makes change feel indulgent, fun, explorative and manageable” and that “the product needs to consistently taste better than its white flour counterpart and make the customer feel better each and every time.” Helen believes that too much information can sometimes backfire and prefers to let her products speak for themselves. As Helen points out, ‘wholegrain' has a bad reputation - people still think 'heavy' and 'healthy'. Eric’s customers are unknowingly eating more nutritious products, whilst their feedback indicates they love the taste.

Wing Mon’s advice? “Just go for it! Don’t be afraid to experiment. I think many people would be surprised by how little adjustment needs to be made for some recipes. For bread specifically, be prepared to adjust your methods and play around with what might work best, whether that’s ambient fermentation or finding a good mix of flours.”

With several worldwide crises helping to drive price increases, and the need to feed an extra one or two billion people by 2050 in a way that doesn’t wreck The Earth, are you ready to embrace making and eating more wholemeal Real Bread?


Want a slice of the action?
The Real Bread Campaign plans to look at if and what role it might play in driving an increase in production and use of wholemeal flour, as well as encouraging people to eat more wholemeal Real Bread.

If you might like to be involved in this project, please email Campaign coordinator Chris Young

We're particularly keen to involve millers, professional bakers, researchers / academics, registered nutritionists and dieteicians, and people with PR and marketing expertise/experience.

See also

Published Tuesday 26 March 2024

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