What the H-E Double Hockey Sticks is Bromated and Why is it in My Flour?

We get a lot of questions on the subject of bleached and bromated flour.


Flour bags

It may have something to do with the flour bags we’ve incorporated into our décor.

(Our “clever” fix to lack of space in the Shop.)

You can’t really help but notice them…stacked up on a bench, against the wall when you first walk into the bakery. Very apropos…but more importantly, super cute.

On these bags, stamped in big, bold print is the slogan: “Never bleached, Never bromated.”

It took us about three years to make the connection. A staggering level of intelligence for all to aspire.

Connect-the-dot skills aside, since we plopped them out there we better take the time to clear up any confusion created and tell you what it means. So here we go:

Potassium Bromate

Commonly referred to in baking as bromate. One adds potassium bromate into something, in which case it has been bromated.

In a nut shell, it’s a chemical used to strengthen flour.

You see, after wheat is ground into a powder (flour) you have just a few hours to develop the protein strands in it. One accomplishes this by adding water and kneading it into a dough which can then be baked into a beautiful loaf of bread.

But after those first few hours the protein strands unravel. When this happens, you lose the strength of the protein network. Bread made from flour which has lost its strength won’t get as big and poofy as you’ve come to expect. It also tends to be a little crumbly, kind of like cake.

The bread will taste very good but it ends up looking more like a five year old’s ceramic project instead of that glorious vase you were shooting for.

Excellent development on this dough. Strong protein network, so it's nice and stretchy.

Excellent development on this dough. Strong protein network, so it's nice and stretchy.

So how is this resolved?

It ages or matures. Just like fine wine, good beer and great cheese.

They all develop beautiful characteristics and flavors with the addition of oxygen.

Wheat’s no different. It rests for several weeks while oxygen develops the flavor and settles down those unraveled strands. It’s a natural process which occurs over time.

This process can be bypassed with the addition of chemicals. These chemicals kick the oxygenation process into high gear and speed up the aging so flour can be bagged up and shipped out for immediate use.

It eliminates additional costs like storage fees and labor so it’s cheaper for the producer which makes it cheaper for the consumer.

It’s a neat little idea and super workable when it comes to things like furniture and cars, after all, everybody loves a bargain. But when it comes to flour (or any food for that matter) it’s extremely short sighted.

Potassium bromate is classified as a category 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic to humans) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer Causes.

It’s been found to cause tumors in mice, rats and hamsters as well as damage DNA.

IACR is part of the World Health Organization of the United Nations. If you want to delve into it, here are couple of links:

IACR Potassium Bromate Summary of Data & Evaluation

IACR Potassium Bromate Research

The FDA has recommended that bromated flour no longer be used but is allowed if the amount falls within a certain limit. With the exception of California, its inclusion in a product does not have to be disclosed.

California is the only state that declared it a carcinogen and requires any food using it to have a warning label should it exceed a certain level.

It’s banned in the United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, India and many other countries.

So why is it still allowed in the US?

Well, the idea behind it is that “X” amount of bromate used will bake off, leaving no residual if baked at a high enough temperature and for a long enough period of time. You know, like when you cook with wine. The alcohol burns off and you get that lovely flavor but you don’t get snockered.

It’s good in theory and accurate under exact scientific conditions. And, let’s face it, if a company can get consistency of product at lower material costs…well, that’s the winning ticket, isn’t it?

The problem is that residual amounts of bromate have been detected in baked products by various organizations in both the US and abroad.

It’s wonky. Too wonky for us and frankly, we don’t buy into the premise.

There are wide differences in baking times and temperatures for different products.

A donut takes 3 minutes to fry up. Artisan breads can take an hour. Ever make a flour tortilla? Man, that’s quick.

Hamburger and hot dog buns, 10 minutes on the outside. Pancakes and biscuits, all under 10 minutes.

How about the flour you toss into gravy to thicken it? Or the flour that’s added into baby formula?

What’s your go-to lunch item? Burrito, taco, hamburger, tortilla wrap?

What do you eat for breakfast? English muffin?

You a cereal lover? Is it made with wheat flour?

Like eating 'uncooked' cookie dough?

See where we’re going with this?

Residuals can remain if:

Too much bromate has been added.

The product isn’t baked long enough.

The product isn’t baked at a high enough temperature.

Now all of this isn’t meant to freak you out.

If your eyes just got really big at reading those questions or perhaps contemplating all the items you eat on a daily basis…well, just settle down.

You didn’t know before, now you do and you can fix it.

Buy flours that say “not” or “un” bromated: King Arthur, Bob’s, Wheat Montana, etc. If you’re not sure because the label doesn’t say it, buy organic.

Anything organic won’t have potassium bromate in it.

ingredient label

Read the ingredients.

Do the products you’re buying say “Enriched Bleached Flour”, Potassium Bromate" or "Bromated Flour" ?

If so, skip it.

Heads up...you’re going to find it in a lot of items.

Going out to eat, maybe getting a pizza?

Ask them if they use bleached or bromated flour in their pizza crust. If they don't know, odds are it's in there.

(Incidentally, if they don't know, do yourself a favor and go to a better pizzeria.)

We should mention...

For those of you out there dabbling in baking...yes, the results you’ve normally gotten using bromated flours will change.

Unbromated flours tend to require more mixing time to develop the protein network and you’ll have some inconsistency. It might even make you cry.

That’s okay. We’ve been doing this a long time and even we have our moments.

(More than we care to disclose.)

But, if you want to make incredible tasting breads that actually nourish the body…well, them's the brakes. There are no short cuts, you hone your craft.

You can always ask us for help.

The trade-off is that your biscuits, now made with unbleached and unbromated flour, will taste ten times better than what you’ve been turning out.

Nobody will care and the neighbors will start inviting you to every potluck under the sun. (There’s a double edge to everything.)

Finally, for those of you wondering why we haven’t addressed “bleaching”, well, it really deserves an article unto itself and we’ve got some inventory to take care of before Wednesday open.

We’ll get to it in our next blast or two. For now…avoid bleached flours.

With Love,

The Gang at 20 Shekels