Traditional flour for baking and thickening comes from wheat, but the wheat typically has undergone processing that strips it of its bran and germ. That means it's no longer considered a whole grain and offers fewer nutritional benefits. Enriched flour is fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals, making it slightly more nutritious, but whole-wheat flour still might be the healthiest overall choice.
Enriched, unbleached flour has a few distinguishing factors. Its color is likely to be creamier or darker than bleached flours, since it is free of whitening agents and related chemicals. The flour also has more nutrients than unenriched varieties. Specifically, the Food and Drug Administration stipulates that each pound of enriched wheat flour must have at least 20 milligrams iron and 2.9 milligrams thiamin, 1.8 milligrams riboflavin, 24 milligrams niacin and 0.7 milligrams folic acid, all of which are classified as B vitamins. In a pound of whole-wheat flour, there is about 16 milligrams iron, 2.25 milligrams thiamin, 0.75 milligrams riboflavin, 22.5 milligrams niacin and no folic acid.
Nutrition and Calories
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 cup of unbleached, enriched white flour has approximately 460 calories, 12 grams protein, 2 grams fat, 95 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber and 0.5 grams sugar. In contrast, a cup of whole-grain wheat flour has about 410 calories, 16 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 86 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams fiber and 0.5 grams sugar. Note the significant differences in fiber and protein contents, which are important if you're trying to lose or maintain weight. Fiber and protein are especially satiating nutrients, so choosing whole-wheat baked products over products made with enriched white flour may keep you fuller for longer.
When health is your primary concern, it's worthwhile to consider how you're using a certain type of flour. If you use whole-wheat flour to make a pound cake that contains copious amounts of butter and sugar, for example, the cake isn't automatically "healthy" because its flour has more fiber and protein than enriched white flour does. Try to seek out baking recipes that use fresh, whole foods such as fruits and vegetables and have only small amounts of sugar and fat.
Supplementing a wheat product with nutrients does not necessarily make it healthier than seeking out a whole-grain variety. So even though enriched white flour beats out refined white flour in a competition of health, whole-wheat flour, with all of its natural nutrients intact, offers the most nutritional benefit per serving.