For millions of consumers it's worth paying a premium to buy baked goods made from this elemental flour, ground on stone as flour has been for over 3,000 years.
We've got some bad news. Most U.S. flour sold as stone ground probably never saw a piece of granite.
Stone ground can mean anything from wheat berries first cracked on stone mills and then ground to flour on rollers, to finished flour passed over a stone after it's been ground, "or it could mean that it's just a nice name," says Jeff Gwirtz, the director of technical services of the Internatonal Association of Operative Millers.
"It's more a conceptual, warm, touchy crunchy feel," he says.
Grinding on stone is slow and expensive. A typical stone mill can grind about 2,000 pounds of flour an hour and the miller's got to stay beside it the whole time - smelling the air to make sure the stones aren't getting too hot, touching and tasting the flour to make sure it's not too coarse or too fine.
A modern roller mill can grind more than three million pounds of flour a day, all of it computer controlled.
Though no one tracks stone ground flour sales, 100 percent genuine ground-on-stone, whole-wheat flour - you can't really make white flour on stone - is a sprinkle next to the 140 million pounds of flour milled a day in this country.
"Stone ground flour is really quite rare," says Joshua Dorf, owner of San Francisco-based Stone-Buhr Flour Company, which despite its 100-year-old name doesn't mill its flour on stones. Dorf says milling plants have offered to pass roller-ground flour over a stone so that he could sell it as stone ground. He declined, saying, "I just found it ludicrous."
But for many big companies, stone ground is just a marketing phrase. General Mills sells a Gold Medal stone-ground flour. But company spokeswoman Kirstie Foster says that only means the "flour products that have passed through an actual stone mill at least once."
Milling giant ConAgra won't disclose proprietary aspects of its flour production, but spokeswoman Amy Danis says the ConAgra mills its stone ground flour "within the FDA requirements."
Except there are no federal requirements. "There are some things that are considered puffery," says Mary Engle of the Federal Trade Commission. It's perfectly legal. Just like "just like homemade" or "natural," stone ground doesn't have to mean anything, she says. "It's in the eye of the beholder."
That just didn't sit right with Hodgson Mill in Gainesville, Mo., one of a few dozen stone mills left in the country. They grind much of their flour on five sets of pink granite stone mills, each about the size of a 30-inch tire and weighing 300 pounds.
It's a lot of work, says Hodgson's Paul Kirby. For example, he says, "you've got to take the stones apart and sharpen them every 90 days."
Which is why Hodgson asked the Food and Drug Administration to define stone ground in 2001. The agency has refused to do that, citing a lack of evidence that the words stone ground on labels are important to consumers.
Urvashi Rangan, a food labeling expert at Consumers Union, disagrees. "Stone ground means that it's ground by stone. It's really unfortunate that the FDA thinks consumers are too ignorant to understand that," she says.
But does stone grinding really make any difference? The story going around in the 1970s, when things like stone ground flour and bean sprouts first entered the mainstream, was that stone mills are slow so the flour stays cool, while roller mills are fast and heat the flour up. And heat, the story went, kills vitamins. So stone ground flour was supposed to be more nutritious.
Well, says Kendall McFall, an instructor of milling science at Kansas State University in Manhattan, stone grinding may be romantic, but it's not any cooler than roller mills.
A study done by the Center for Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India, found that stone ground flour reached temperatures as high as 194 degrees, while roller milled-flour only got as high as 95. The researchers found that stone ground flour lost more essential amino and fatty acids.
But baking bread typically reaches 200 degrees inside, so worrying about the milling temperature seems kind of silly, says McFall.
But in the end, consumers just want to be told the truth, says product image guru Katie Paine of KDPaine and Partners in Durham, New Hampshire. She cites research that found 70 percent of Americans have at some point decided not to buy from a company because of questionable ethics. "We want people to tell the truth. And we're not going to be happy if you don't."
By ELIZABETH WEISE, USA TODAY
At true stone mills, sparks can fly
SAN FRANCISCO _ Grinding flour on stone is not for the faint-hearted. At Giusto's Specialty Foods, the two stone mills run only for special orders. Most of the family-run company's flours, prized by bakeries on the West Coast, are ground in modern hammer mills.
Eighteen-year veteran miller Dave Kyne oversees the stone mills, which date from the 1950s. Wheat kernels slowly pour into the mill, about as fast as someone emptying a measuring cup.
"I'm got to baby-sit it," he says. He's alert for telltale changes in the drone of the mill. "The one time I wore earplugs, I blew out a motor." Smell is also critical. If the wheat runs out and the granite stones start to rub against each other, "the air tastes like when the dentist is drilling your teeth," he says. And if flour starts to clog the mill, "it's like burning bread."
Unfortunately Kyne's attention was diverted by a USA TODAY reporter. The smell of burning flour filled the enormous mill room as photographer Martin Klimek - hunched over the mill to get a shot of the mechanism - started yelling.
Kyne sprinted over to see sparks and flames shooting from an outlet pipe, scorching Klimek's pant leg and singing his sock.
He shut the mill down while owner Matt Giusto checked Klimek to make sure he was okay. Then they began the laborious task of clearing out the burnt flour that had built up and caused the flames.
By ROBERT DAVIS, USA TODAY
Gannett News Service