In India, a country where wheat is almost sacred, there is a lot of confusion on wheat flour.
Two types of flour made from wheat are atta, which is commonly called “wheat flour”, and maida. Though these flours are different from the common wheat you get in other countries, atta is basically “whole wheat flour” or “unrefined wheat flour”, and what is known as maida goes by many names in other countries, including “white flour”, “refined flour”, “enriched flour”, “all purpose flour”, “plain flour”, and this is the confusing part, even just “wheat flour”, or a combination of these names, like “enriched wheat flour”. Many Indians get confused or don’t know any better when they go abroad and check food labels and see “wheat flour” as an ingredient, thinking it is healthier because it is made with atta, when actually, in that country, wheat flour refers to maida.
For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to atta as whole wheat flour and maida as white flour or refined wheat flour from here on out.
There are many Indians who actively avoid or minimize their consumption of white flour. Traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, along with the media, constantly talk about its negative effects on health, and tout the benefits of whole wheat flour. But what is the difference exactly? The edible part of a wheat kernel contains three parts: the bran (fibrous part), germ (oily part) and endosperm (starchy/carbohydrate-rich part). Whole wheat flour is made of all three parts, hence the term “whole wheat”, while white flour is only made of the endosperm. This means that whole wheat flour contains more fiber and fat than its counterpart, which keeps you full for longer and is better for overall digestion. It also contains more B vitamins and, with regard to Indian wheat, may contain more protein than white flour. The caveat though is that whole wheat flour should be consumed when it is freshly ground.
So the other week, I was in the grocery. I was craving for chocolate biscuits or cookies and I was looking at what was available. I love to look at the nutritional information, ingredients and other information on the packaging so that’s what I was doing. Actually I can spend a lot of time doing these things, to the point that family members have gotten irritated that I take forever in the grocery 😛 Anyway, I saw many biscuits and cookies with “wheat flour” listed as an ingredient, and I have noticed this on many food labels since I got here last year. As always, I was immediately suspicious.
Why? When Indians read “wheat flour”, they think “whole wheat flour”, “healthier” and “if I am gonna be consuming this regularly, then at least it is made with atta“. I even saw this elaborately written article from NDTV that compared different chocolate biscuits/cookies in the Indian market, mentioning that certain Parle-G ones use “wheat flour”, implicitly suggesting that it was a positive thing, especially since they gave negative points to Brittania and Cadbury biscuits for using “maida”, as listed on their ingredient label. The funny thing is, at the end of the article, they do mention wheat flour does not necessarily mean whole wheat flour.. so what are they trying to say exactly. Hmmm.
Anyway, I digress. I saw these biscuits and I was skeptical because I also thought, a packaged, mass market biscuit from a big company made with whole wheat flour? What a joke. The fiber content of these biscuits was quite low, if it was even listed. If it was made with whole wheat flour, wouldn’t you list it? In one that did list it, there was 0.3 g of fiber per 100 g of the biscuit. If a biscuit is made with even just 30% whole wheat flour, with the other 70% comprising of sugar, fat, preservatives and other ingredients, it should at least have around 3 g of fiber 1.
Food labeling largely depends on the laws of the country the product is manufactured or sold in, and surprisingly, on this matter, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has not been strict. [Not so] recently though, based on this article dated 6 February 2019, the FSSAI has asked companies to specify whether it is whole wheat flour or white flour (or as they are calling it, “refined wheat flour”), with compliance expected by 30 April 2019. It was disappointing to see large companies like Parle-G and McVitie’s not complying with this on many of their food labels (though I saw it in a few Parle-G products, maybe these companies are in transition?), even when the food was packed after the deadline. The labels on the Britannia products that I saw, however, do specify that it is refined wheat flour.
We can only hope that the FSSAI will be more strict about this and other matters related to the food and nutrition labels of packaged foods. Some that were packed after 30 April 2019 still did not comply with this (as seen in one of the food labels of Parle-G Gluco Biscuits, which was packed on 4 May 2019), I wonder what they are doing about it. This regulation should have also come much, much sooner than this – come on, it’s 2019! Biscuits have been manufactured and sold in India for decades and Indians make a great distinction between atta and maida, whole wheat flour and refined wheat flour!
Ah well. With industrialization, we have many big companies selling packaged foods. These companies should be transparent about what is in their products, especially since they know that it could affect the decisions of consumers who have a right to know what they are putting into their bodies. Yes, these foods are not healthy, whether they are made with whole or refined wheat flour, or with less sugar or no trans fats. Still, we consume these things, it’s hard to completely avoid them when they are everywhere and we are so used to having them with tea, coffee or as a snack. At the very least, we would be able to make an informed decision and some of us may reduce our consumption of these foods. And if they are intentionally fooling consumers like this, in terms of something as basic to Indians as wheat flour, who knows how else they may be fooling us?