One of the major drivers of this movement is the country's sudden, collective hysteria over gluten. As people with wheat intolerances (real or imagined) are seeking out alternatives to processed white flour and providing a market for these whole grain experiments, scientists and nutritionists have turned their attention to understanding why a nation of people is suddenly allergic to one of the most fundamental foods in history. Many believe that the culprit isn't gluten at all, which is after all just protein, but could be the way that commercial, industrial flour is grown and processed.

Modern, industrial wheat is bred for qualities like durability, yield, and disease-resistance, not for nutrition or flavor. Like an egg, a wheat berry has three parts — a husk, or shell; a germ, or yolk, which produces life; and a starchy white endosperm that has about as much nutritional value as an egg white. To make white flour, millers strip the berry of its husk and germ, leaving only the carbohydrates. They started doing this with the development of the roller mill in the late 19th century to prolong the shelf life, because the germ will cause the flour to go rancid, and for consistency, because the bran and germ create sharp edges that can pierce gluten and stop bread from rising.

White flour is so reviled in health circles because it's basically just refined carbohydrates, which cause blood sugar to spike, but doesn't offer anything else. Even whole-wheat flour made industrially isn't much better for you: It's made like white flour, but with the ground-up seed and germ put in at the end, though the integrity of the berry has been compromised (there is also some concern that the entire whole grain isn't put back at the end; the FDA guidelines for "whole grain" only require the item is 51 percent whole grain by weight). True whole-grain flour, crushed in a stone mill, contains all the parts of the seed, and many believe that it's better for those with wheat intolerance.

Josey Baker peers into the Austrian stone mill installed at the back of his Divisadero cafe.
Molly Gore
Josey Baker peers into the Austrian stone mill installed at the back of his Divisadero cafe.
Restaurant owner Bob Klein is making single-origin whole-grain pasta through his company Community Grains.
Courtesy of Community Grains
Restaurant owner Bob Klein is making single-origin whole-grain pasta through his company Community Grains.

Three years ago, Marin baker Craig Ponsford switched to local whole-grain flour and hasn't looked back. Ponsford was formerly co-owner of Artisan Bakery in Sonoma, which sells thousands of its baguettes, ciabatta, sourdough loaves, and other white breads a day. But he was concerned with the health benefits and hooked up with Community Grains, and now sells his whole-grain bread, pastries, and pie crusts at his San Rafael bakery, Ponsford's Place, open only two days a week. "I'm the only bakery that I know of that is 100 percent whole grain. I jumped off the cliff," he says.

But Ponsford is upfront about the fact that the science is just not there to back up the health benefits he feels are there in his gut — it's such a new field that the studies just haven't been done yet. He's working with the Children's Hospital Research Institute in Oakland, part of the Community Grains group, to test the benefits of whole-grain versus whole-wheat flour. But he says he's seen results. Some of his customers have diabetes or wheat intolerances. "People [in my bakery] are having really good experiences when they eat whole wheat," he says. "So I have instincts around that, but that's not science either." He also admits, wryly, that people are brainwashed easily enough when it comes to new health fads in their diets.

One of the many ironies of this "new" field is that it's actually one of civilization's oldest. Humans have been crushing grains between stones for 9,000 years, but the past 150 years of industrialization severed the basic line of communication between farmer, miller, and baker necessary to create a local grain ecosystem. It's taking some doing to bring it back.

At a point in the not-too-distant past, all this infrastructure and knowledge existed in California. The Native Americans cultivated grains, and the missionaries brought soft Sonoran wheat to the area along with wine grapes and olive trees for oil-making — the necessary foods of sacrament. In the mid- to late-19th century, California was a national leader in wheat production, most of it shipped from San Francisco Bay to Great Britain. The Central Valley farmers fighting against Southern Pacific Railroad in Frank Norris' seminal California novel, The Octopus, are wheat farmers. Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino counties grew wheat before they planted orchards and then wine grapes.

But in the late 1800s the Midwest figured out how to grow hard red wheat, ideal for making white bread, and had a lot of land to grow it on. California developed irrigation, enabling farmers to grow more lucrative crops like fruit, nuts, and greens that the rest of the country couldn't. Wheat became an anonymous commodity crop, bought and sold on the market like soybeans and cattle, and industrial wheat farming got bigger and faster, abetted by improvements in fertilizer and herbicides. Slowly but surely, the local grain culture died in California. The state still grows about 750,000 acres of commodity wheat, most of it exported internationally, but local farmers and millers looking to do things on a small scale are having to learn about one of the world's oldest crops by trial and error.

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"gluten's exile has opened up a new market for grains like spelt and rye"

 Only among people who don't know that spelt and rye contain gluten.


God I love bread, but as my wife is Asian and has more of a preference for rice, buying a nice loaf is something of a waste or too big a calorie bomb for me to finish.

Glad to see new types of flour being promulgated--and yeah, I understand that this stuff can't be cheap for all the basic Econ 101 reasons, so for this occasional home baker of bread...fat chance! Still, as insinuated and eve stated in the article with the words 'precious' and a riff off of Portlandia, how much artisanal specific products can we stand. Forty years ago it was just organic. Now like nuances of types of rock music, food has been taken into divisible territory as artisanal, natural, gluten-free, hormone-free, and multiple other designations.

Oddly, I am at a crossroads in my life, being a person who likes to bake and cook and make my own food as inclined or able. My growing concerns about big commercial food practices has been tempered by a general effort to control my intake and portions through what might be called a loosely local and Mediterranean cuisine. I try to limit meat intake and choose other animal proteins with a bit of care. I try to be alkaline and more green in my food choices.

Now I have to face a choice of freshly milled heirloom grain products. Noooooooooo....


In answer to lisapetrison, most local Californian farmers, millers and bakers who are working to produce organic whole wheat breads and pasta, are aware of the danger of mold formation in the grain and in the flour. They work to avoid molds, which would spoil the good flavor that they are working to reveal, by keeping the grain and flour as dry as possible.

Fortunately in most of California the summer is bone dry, so that the expectation is that the grain will contain only 10% moisture, which is well below the danger level of 12% moisture.

Also, freshly stone milling this grain “as is” and using it in breads or pasta, within a week or so, and often right away in breads made by the miller-bakers, means that there is no opportunity for molds to settle into the flour. Storing the flour briefly at room temperature, avoids the condensation that would occur if the bag of flour was kept in the freezer or refrigerator, and repeatedly opened at room temperature.

These stone ground whole wheat flours are rarely sold, and where they are there is an increasingly concerted effort to present them freshly ground. No moisturizing process is used for good stone milling, so that the whole wheat flour will likely have a moisture content well below 12%, the same as the grain. These flours are intended to be used within a short time, even though theoretically all the antioxidants in a stone ground whole wheat flour, and the low moisture content, would enable a much longer shelf life.


Very interesting column  thanks for that. There's a bakery here (Amsterdam)that's baking whole wheat loaves since almost 90 years now.


So glad to see this trend!  But I would like to see more discussion of the issue of mycotoxins as well. The Bulletproof Executive has created a whole business based on "upgraded" products with low levels of mycotoxins, and it seems time for other food products to be considering the relevance of this factor too.  

Wheat flour tends to contain high amounts of certain mycotoxins (such as trichothecenes and fumonisins) that are not regulated in the U.S.  If I knew that these artisinal wheat flours were low in mycotoxins (as well as from heritage strains that are a pleasure to eat), I would buy them in a heartbeat! Otherwise, I will have to keep purchasing from Jovial, which sells the heritage einkorn type of wheat, grown in Italy where their standards with regard to mycotoxins in food are much more strict that the (non-existent) ones in the U.S.

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