Not all wheat flour is created equal. Flour varies not only in the types of wheat used to make the flour but also from country to country. In this post, we're going to explore the differences between French and Italian versus American flour.
If you've ever traveled to France or Italy, you've probably noticed you had an easier time digesting bread, pasta, and pastries in France and Italy than in the U.S.. It's common to hear people who are gluten-sensitive say they can consume these foods in France and Italy without experiencing any discomfort.
People also often report not gaining weight despite eating more bread, pasta, and pastries in France and Italy. Those who have experienced the difference wonder why. One reason is the type of flour used.
Having experienced the difference between French, Italian, and American flour for over thirty years, I have wondered why flour in France and Italy is different from flour grown and milled in the U.S. In this post, I will share some research I have gathered over the years and recommend French and Italian brands of flour for your favorite recipes.
Flour from France and Italy is different—and better, I will argue. Understanding the type of wheat used in each country and how wheat is grown, milled, and used provides us with some explanation. However, the topic of wheat flour and gluten is complex. Therefore, consider the following research as food for thought, and sprinkle in some logic to come to your conclusion.
The Type of Wheat
Many Italian and French flours are made from soft wheat, which is lower in protein than the hard red wheat more commonly grown in the U.S. Lower protein content results in lower gluten. The higher the protein, the higher the gluten content. However, one should not only focus on gluten content when it comes to choosing quality flour. How it is grown and processed greatly influences the quality, more so than the level of gluten.
Growing the Wheat
How wheat is grown affects the final result, and I believe it has a larger impact on the quality of the flour than the gluten content. Glyphosate, commonly known by its brand name "Roundup," is a widely used herbicide in wheat agriculture. It is used to control weeds, promote crop growth, and accelerate the drying and maturing process, making it easier to harvest the crop. Regardless of these "advantages," I think it goes without saying we don't want to eat Roundup.
The usage and regulations surrounding glyphosate in wheat farming differ between the United States, and France, and Italy. In contrast to the United States, France has taken a more cautious approach to the use of glyphosate in wheat farming. This aligns with the European Union's (E.U.) goal of minimizing the use of glyphosate and other potentially harmful pesticides.
While there is some use of glyphosate in France and Italy, it is not as common as in the U.S. In France, there is a strong movement to eliminate it altogether. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to end glyphosate use in France within three years. On September 30, 2020, France banned the use of two glyphosate-based weedkillers. Today, France is in the final stage of banning glyphosate altogether.
In addition to the type of wheat and how it is grown, the wheat species in the U.S. have been modified over time. I learned this from Chef Marc Vetri in his bookMastering Pasta.He states, "Modern wheat called tritosum estavium (TSVM) is the same wheat species that has been used to make bread for at least 1000 years. What changed in the 1960s [in America] is that new varieties of TSVM were developed (using traditional plant breeding techniques) that could withstand higher levels of chemical fertilizers and modern harvesting."
He goes on to say, "Those semi dwarf wheats helped increase production. But what may be more important is how these wheats led to a drastic reduction in the time it takes to turn dry flour into packaged baked goods. Wheat for making commodity flours have been specifically bred to withstand the high-speed mixing required for making bread products quickly on an industrial scale. This is good for production and profits but may not be so good for our health. First of all, we're adding excessive amounts of vital wheat gluten to bread products. Wheat gluten is basically refined white flour hydrated into dough and then washed of its starch, so you're left with a mass of almost 80% wheat protein. It's like pure gluten, which adds structure and elasticity to bread doughs and helps them rise faster - especially whole wheat bread doughs. Ironically, the added gluten may be making these healthy whole grain breads less tolerable to our digestive systems."
As you might imagine, this wheat modification and the use of glyphosate can be the catalysts for health issues. Some believe it explains why there has been a significant increase in gluten intolerance among the American population.
The Milling Process
How the flour is milled must be considered as well. The milling process in France and Italy involves a slower grind, which produces finely ground flour, helping to preserve more of the wheat's natural flavor and nutrients. The result is a more nutritious, lighter, and easier-to-digest final product, and many agree it is more flavorful.
IGP stands for "Indicazione Geografica Protetta," which is an Italian designation used to protect and certify the geographic origin and quality of certain foods and agricultural products. In the case of IGP pasta, it refers to pasta that is produced in a specific geographic region of Italy and meets high-quality standards.
To be awarded the Pasta di Gragnano IGP, every phase of production is scrutinized, including the ingredients. This pasta must be made with durum semolina wheat and spring water from Gragnano. You can learn more about Italian pasta in this blog.
Although many pastas in Italy are made with durum semolina wheat - which is a higher protein flour and, therefore, higher gluten flour, people report being able to eat pasta in Italy better than in the U.S.-despite the higher gluten content. Therefore, we can hypothesize the reason lies in the fabrication and quality of the wheat and the pure ingredients in the pasta.
I could stay in a rabbit hole researching wheat and flour indefinitely. Instead, I combine my experience, some research, and logic to arrive at my conclusion. If I feel better when I eat French and Italian flour, my food is lighter and easier to digest, and a countless number of people experience the same thing, then I will buy a great brand of French and Italian flour. The proof is in the pizza.
Emma's review for Francine French Flour on Amazon:
Reviewed in the United States on September 25, 2023
Size: 2.2 Pound (Pack of 2) Verified Purchase
"Over the past year, I have developed severe food allergies to wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar, and more. Suddenly, anytime I tried to eat bread, my stomach would blow up and I would burp constantly. Almost every 5 seconds for hours or even sometimes a couple days. I've been seeing all kinds of [doctors], both regular and Naturopaths. They all felt I had some kind of acid reflux/Gerd. But many were pointing out that it could be the Glyphosate in the wheat. Roundup and Pesticides sprayed all over our foods. I did hear friends explain that when visiting Europe, they could eat all the bread and pasta they wanted and actually lost weight and never had any gut issues. I am learning that Monsanto is banned in Europe, so their food is much healthier than the U.S. I decided to give it a try and ordered this flour. My husband and I invited friends over for a pizza party. Our friends have family back in France and instantly recognized the cute little bags of flour. They said that is the correct size bag they sell in Europe. This flour made delicious pizza crust. Everyone got their own personal pizza to customize. I was able to eat my entire personal pizza with absolutely no tummy issues! Talk about a dream come true! Don't hesitate to try! I couldn't be happier!"
If you want to search for the best quality flour, try French or Italian flour and experience the difference. There are several types to choose from. For the purpose of this post, I will share common types for everyday cooking.
French Flour- A Delicate Touch
French type T45 is the finest ground and lowest gluten-content wheat flour in France. It is considered an all-purpose flour in France. Made from soft wheat, it has less protein and, therefore, less gluten than American all-purpose flour. American unbleached flour has a protein level of between 10-12, and French T45 measures 6-8. Remember, the lower the protein, the lower the gluten.
The Fluide and Supreme are slightly finer and designed to be lump-free. It costs a bit more than the Blé type T45, so if you want to save a few dollars, try this easy tip. Use the Blé type T45. Let the batter sit for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator, and it will be lump-free.
Italian Flour: Perfect for Pasta and Pizza
As far as Italian flour, if you enjoy making homemade pizza dough, Type 00 flour from Italy will produce a light and crispy crust. Type 00 flour from Italy is the same as a T45 in France. Although many prefer a higher protein and thicker grind Italian flour for pizza, I find that there is nothing like type 00 flour to make pizza that is light to digest.
You can also use 00 Type Italian flour for dredging and baking. Consider it a lighter, lower gluten content, all-purpose flour. 00 Type Italian flour and semolina flour are used for making pasta. Making homemade pasta is a fun family activity when you are feeling adventurous.
Italian flour is easier to find in American grocery stores than French flour. In fact, I have yet to see a French Flour in a grocery store. You may find it in a specialty shop like my friend Chef Claude's Birmingham, MI, French restaurant, The French Lady Bistro.
Although Italian Flour is fairly common in grocery stores, it is critical to note that not all brands of Italian flour measure up. For example, I just removed a brand from this post that I had recommended. I learned that while they process the flour in Italy, they now grow the wheat in Canada, where the use of chemicals such as glyphosate is more common than in Italy. Since I could not confirm if they use chemicals and pesticides like Roundup and glyphosate, I crossed them off my list. Unfortunately, this brand is commonly found in grocery stores. To help you navigate what is a great brand of Italian flour, look at their website. You will find some companies share very specific details about the ingredients, where they are sourced, how they are processed, and how they are manufactured. Companies also boast that they do not use chemicals or glyphosate. When a company is this clear and transparent about the ingredients and manufacturing, you can discover if it is quality or not. Follow this same process for any product you are considering, such as olives, herbs, or chocolate.
An example of an Italian flour company that is very clear about where the wheat is grown and processed is Molino Camema. As stated on the shopping site Italian Harvest, this flour is ideal for bread and pasta. The '00' flour is finely milled and designed to be used for pizza dough, certain pastas, and pastries. Molino Camema guarantees that their milled wheat and grain is grown and milled in the Altamura area, Puglia. Certified organic." Monlina Camema flour is also IGP certified. This is clear quality. Italian Harvest is a good online shopping site for flour, pasta, and other quality Italian products.
Fortunately, quality French and Italian flours are easy to find in specialty shops and online in the U.S. My favorite brand of flour, Francine, can be found online at Amazon and online specialty shops. Yummy Bazaar is my preferred online shopping site for flour and other pantry staples. It has been my go-to for years because of the variety of products available, making it convenient to order many items in one place. In addition, since prices for the same products vary at different online shopping sites, I find Yummy Bazaar has a higher percentage of products at the lowest prices as compared to other sites.
These French and Italian flours are priced at around $5 or $6 on Yummy Bazaar. While the price may be slightly higher than flour you find at your grocer's, an extra few dollars is worth the investment for the quality.
Whether you require '00' flour for making pasta and pizza with a smooth texture or French T45 flour for baking or cooking crêpes, specialty shops have knowledgeable staff that can help you find the right flour for your needs. You may also be able to find homemade pasta made with authentic Italian recipes and, yes, imported Italian flour.
The brands and examples of French and Italian flour I share in this post are only the beginning of what you can discover in shops and online. As you continue to explore the diverse offerings of European flour, you will come to learn which type works best for your recipes.
Remember, cooking is an adventure, and anything homemade with quality ingredients is bound to be delicious. As you experiment, what you may think of as a "failure" may be a huge success. A student of mine, Danielle, wrote to me after making pizza dough for the first time. She was so upset. She said," It was a flop. It didn't rise." I told her to try it anyway. It's like a flatbread. She did and was thrilled when her husband said it was delicious!
In my case, focaccia gone "bad" were some of the best croutons I ever made.
Another delicious "flop" of mine was a very dry sausage, and Manchego savory bread turned into the most delicious homemade croutons.
The Final Product
Of course, the flour alone is not the only question to ponder. What you do with it matters. For example, if excellent quality flour is used to make hamburger buns but then poor quality ingredients are added, the result is not desirable. This is illustrated by reading a label on hamburger buns. These are some of the ingredients I saw on the label of a popular brand:
Sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup: Why? To add unnecessary sweetness?
Soybean Oil: To keep them moist? If so, why not use a higher-quality oil like olive oil or sunflower oil?
Salt: What kind? Iodized table salt with high sodium, sea salt, or Celtic salt with low sodium and essential minerals?
Wheat Gluten: Why is it necessary to add more gluten?
Dough Conditioners: Apparently, these are DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Monoglycerides) and are used to improve the texture and shelf life of the buns. I would vote to pass on consuming these.
Sorbitan Monostearate: An emulsifier to maintain the freshness of the buns.
Guar Gum or Xanthan Gum: Thickeners and stabilizers to improve dough texture.
Calcium Propionate: A preservative to extend shelf life and prevent mold growth.
L-Cysteine: An amino acid used to improve dough extensibility.
In the end, this is a lot of stuff, and I find it challenging to discern if these are food or food-like products. In this case, I decided it is best to locate hamburger buns made with wholesome ingredients or make a batch myself to keep in the freezer or serve Steak Haché, the French hamburger, without the bun, which is a divine French dish prepared by sautéeing quality minced meat in butter. Other variations of Steak Haché include seasoning the meat with onion, garlic, or herbs. Another classic variation of Steak Haché is Steak à Cheval, which is a French hamburger topped with a fried egg. Add homemade fries to this dish, and you'll enjoy a French bistro dish at home.
As with everything, it is all about quality, portion control, balance, and moderation. This is one of the secrets to the French Paradox, the age-old question, "How can the French routinely consume croissants, crêpes, bread, cheese, and dessert and maintain a healthy weight?"
The topic of flour can be complicated, from sorting through opinions on whether gluten is good for you to deciphering all of the details around the production of various flours. Many chefs simply tell you French and Italian flour is better and don't feel obligated to explain why. They will just tell you that they know. Therefore, I present this information and formulate the following hypothesis: If many people report noticing a difference, it is worth trying French and Italian flour and seeing for yourself.
I have experienced the differences in flour between the U.S., France, and Italy for over thirty years. After living in France, spending a fair amount of time in Italy, and using only French and Italian flour for home cooking, I notice I feel better when I eat French or Italian flour, and my French crêpes and homemade pizza dough are lighter and crisper. Once I felt the difference in my body and saw the difference in my cooking, I was convinced and only used French or Italian flour, as many others have done. Most French people I speak to tell me they started gaining weight after moving to the U.S. They realized one of the main reasons was the flour. They then decided to avoid flour or only consume flour from France or Italy to alleviate the issue.
If you are ready to try French and Italian flour, you may also be interested in learning about pasta made in Italy by third-generation families and made with the best Italian flour. You can find the blog post below.
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