Julia Child sheds light on quality of all-purpose flour in US vs. France in the 1950s-1960s

After watching the first season of Julia on HBO in the last couple of months, my appreciation and admiration of Julia Child has grown immensely. Though I’d always respected her and thought she was fun and quirky, I never realized before exactly how ahead of her time she truly was. So after watching the show, I decided to read her memoir, published shortly after she passed and co-written with her husband’s grand-nephew, called Julia Child: My Life in France.

One interesting thing I’ve learned while reading it that I never really thought much about before was the nutritional value of something as basic as all-purpose white flour across different countries. I suppose at a superficial level, I’d thought about what “wheat” is in the U.S. vs. say, in Italy, because a lot of people who claim to have gluten allergies/problems in the U.S. travel to Italy and find that they can somehow eat copious amounts of pasta there and have zero negative reactions. But I didn’t actually think about the vitamins and minerals and how that composition would be different. Julia brings this up in her memoir as she (based in the U.S.) and her writing partner Simca (based in Paris) are testing out recipes for what would eventually become her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. They are corresponding via phone and snail mail about their endless tests on making bread, and they can never reach the same baked result and are frustrated as to why. But then, they both realize that the reason they cannot get the same result… is that their raw ingredients are just NOT the same in quality.

For one, Julia remembers that while she lived in France, anytime she had flour in the house, it had a very short shelf life and would go rancid within 2-3 months in the pantry, attracting endless maggots, which was actually a sign of pride for the French, she claimed. The reason for this is that it was an indicator of exactly how fresh the flour was. In contrast, the all-purpose flour she used in the U.S. could last years on the shelf, with nothing going “off” about it. The main reason for this is that in the U.S., the focus was less on keeping the ingredient (in this case, wheat flour) in its purest and thus most nutritious form; the primary goal was to keep the shelf life as long as possible. But in order to get to that hyper shelf-stable state, the flour would have to go through intense processing and heat treatments, which would ultimately reduce the nutritional profile of the flour. And that was why French flour was not American flour, and why they could not get the same results from baking using the same recipe in their two countries.

In other words, the majority of all-purpose flour in the U.S. is just empty calories. While it does have some nutrition, such as certain levels of B vitamins, folate, selenium, riboflavin, niacin, manganese, and phosphorus, it pales in comparison to flour you find on the shelves in most of the rest of the world, especially countries in the EU that actually care about what they put into their bodies.

This brief section of her book made me so sad. I mean, who doesn’t want to believe that when they eat chocolate chip cookies in the U.S. that there has to be some redeeming quality to the cookie in the form of some nutritional value from the flour…?

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