Today we're going to tackle these two mysterious terms often found on packages of all purpose white flour. This is one of our most requested topics and we're more than happy to clarify these two unpalatable terms.
What does "bromated" mean? Bromated, by far the less common of the two terms, is a process in which potassium bromate (bromate) is added to flour to improve baked goods.
Why would bromate be added to flour? It is added to improve rise and elasticity of dough. In many countries around the world, bromate is a banned food additive. It is not banned in the United States. Why you ask? In theory, because bromate is an oxidizing agent, it should be fully consumed in the bread baking process and there should be no bromate in the finished good. However, if the conditions are off (think not baked long enough), some bromate will still be present in the baked good and that, in our opinion, is not good. You see, bromate has been linked to cancer in some lab studies and, while it is not a banned food additive, the FDA discourages its use by bakers.
What does "bleached" mean? Like bromate, bleach is a chemical that is added to flour. The bleach used for flour is not the same as the bleach you'd use on your laundry, but when you look at their chemical make-ups, they might as well be the same thing.
Why would bleach be added to flour? Quite simply: to make it whiter. There is some claim that it helps with gluten activation, but the main reason is that people want their white flour to be really white. To understand this, let's take a brief foray into the history of white flour.
How did this come to be? Historically, all flour was whole grain flour--typically wheat. The history is complicated and long, so for the purpose of this article, let's just say at some point, millers and bakers discovered that you could sift flour to make it lighter. They discovered that removing the germ and the bran from flour made a lighter baked good (and it lasted longer). Because this process (called bolting) was time consuming, white flour was an expensive ingredient reserved for the upper classes. Over time, technology advanced and white flour became very easy to produce on steel roller mills. White flour became advantageous: it had the desired baking properties that everyone wanted to enjoy, it was very cheap to produce, and it had a much longer shelf life than whole wheat flour. Because it was cheap to produce, it became a staple. What was once a food of the elite, was now a food of the masses.
Traditionally, white flour was aged and it came out fairly yellow. Not cornmeal yellow, but not white either. Aging white flour helped the flour develop gluten and produce better baked goods. As with so many processed foods in our world, chemicals were brought in to do faster what nature did over time. Bromate and bleach were added to flour to shortcut the aging process and provide a truly white product.
With modern technology, white flour can be sifted to produce a very white flour with no chemical bleaching. However, bleaching flour is still a common practice. Bromating is less common, but a quick online search proves that you can most definitely still buy it and that it's still being used in industrial food applications.
Are Bob's Red Mill flours bromated or bleached? No, absolutely not. We do not believe in using either of these chemicals and we encourage you to look for brands, like ours, that do not bromate or bleach their flours. Our white flours are not bromated and not bleached. Instead, white flour typically contains malted barley flour, an ingredient that has the same effect as bromating without adding crazy chemicals. It adds a little extra sugar to the flour to produce stronger gluten reactions. If you choose organic, the flour will not contain malted barley flour, neither will it be enriched, bleached, nor bromated. Enriching white flour will be another story for another day.
We hope this helps clear up some confusion. If you have further questions, please leave them in the comments and we'll do our best to answer them.