The principle is often misunderstood, the technical process even more so. The first thing that comes to mind is oil, or possibly fibrous materials, but rarely, if ever, grains, sugar, salt, or even cooking oils. And then there is the fact that questions are asked only once something is already in question! So what is refining? What is refined? What is it for? What is the interest in doing it, for example in economic terms?
The Hegemony of the White Sugar Beet
For a long time French colonies provided raw sugar (from sugar cane) to metropolitan France, until bickering with England about maritime and land trade routes led France to seek out a local alternative to the exotic plant: hence, the sugar beet. Not only did the root allow for “local” production, but the beet’s sugar was a white color so white when compared to the brown sugar produced from sugar cane, that it thus quickly become a symbol of purity, and therefore wealth. It is a symbol that has guarded all of its splendor, and even more so through the chemical prowess of the food industry that continues still to push for sugar that is whiter than white. White, for sure, but also void of nutrients.
Unrefined, salt contains many minerals (magnesium, as magnesium chloride, trace elements, iron). Already long-practiced refining allowed for the achievement of white colored salt, generally preferred by consumers. It is refined to purify it and to facilitate its storing. The purification process essentially contains a recrystallization phase, during which a brine solution is treated with chemicals to precipitate “impurities” (including magnesium and calcium salts). White, of course, but stripped of natural minerals.
Grains (Wheat, Corn, Rice, Oats, Barley, etc.)
Grains are stripped of their coatings (that are rich in fiber) and germs (the interior part of the grain housing micronutrients) leaving only the main starchy “body” known as the endosperm. This is the only part kept when a grain is refined. Why only this part? In order to better store large quantities produced as a result of the industrial age and in case of famine. This technique has become the only way to proceed. Storable, certainly, but at the expense of half or three-quarters of the mineral nutrients (calcium, iron, zinc), B vitamins and almost all of the vitamin E, and fiber..
Very early on, like sugar and salt, “bleached” flours were found to be much more appealing to consumers. While “black” bread was considered for peasants in the 19th century, “white” bread thus served as its contrast, showing up on the tables of notables and the bourgeois. But today, will this trend reverse itself with the promotion of organic whole and multigrain flours and bread? According to preliminary data from the Nutrinet study, the main factor that seems to steer consumers to organic products, which are certainly more rustic in appearance, is no longer a question of revenue but that of their professional situations (tied to their level of culture and information).
As for Cooking Oils
Above a certain temperature, cooking oils are unable to withstand the heat and thus begin to smoke (creating the risk of forming toxic components). In their natural form, they may have a slight odor, which can be repulsive for some refined noses. Thus, still talking about the 19th century, the food industry developed a series of technical processes (neutralization, decolorization, deodorization) with the goal of improving the organoleptic qualities and color of the fatty substance gathered through the pressing or extraction of oil producing raw materials. Resistant to heat, sure, but they have been transformed into saturated fats, even though monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are good for your health! Lacking in antioxidants and vitamins, vitamin E in particular is completely destroyed by the refining process.
When refining grains, sugar, salt, and even oils, it is thus mainly their nutrients that have been removed.
And health consequences have rigorously been established in terms of metabolism and pathology: intestinal diseases, metabolic issues, excess weight gain due to poor hunger/fullness control, etc. All of the leading experts in nutritional epidemiology have been unanimous in stating, and for several decades now, that refined foods lack nutritional density, are also low in fiber, whereas they are rich in energy. In other words, they have become “a source of empty calories” and moreover, “implicated in the genesis of numerous pathologies, especially diabetes and obesity,” laments Nicole Darmon, research director in nutritional epidemiology at the INRA. Less nourishing, they promote an overconsumption of calories in comparison to the actual need, and therefore create a clear risk of excess weight gain.
Conversely, the potential benefits of a high fiber diet, according to Denis Lairon (nutritionist and research director at Inserm), would prevent excess weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndromes and certain cancers, including colon cancer. Unrefined (raw) sugar from sugar cane, itself, contains more minerals and vitamins. In 1932, the Canadian dentist Weston A. Price, conjured his anti-cavity theory based on a diet rich in minerals, phosphorous, zinc, and fluorine. However, when refined ingredients were used, it was found that they actually caused cavities and excess weight gain.
Finally, do not confuse refining and refined.
Unlike a food product which has gone through the process of refining, in order to be whitened, stored and made more resistant, thus being altered, a refined delicacy is improved in a way that makes its taste more subtle, its flavor more delicate and its presentation more appetizing, without removing any of the pleasure that it provides…
Article written by Julie Lioré (Knowfood).