Saying no to Maida (all-purpose flour)

Living in India made it easier

Two months ago, I decided to make one healthy habit and stick to it. After some deliberation, I realized it would be easier to break an existing unhealthy habit. I came up with something simple — “Say no to Maida 99% of the time.” Don’t be rude when offered birthday cake. Hence 99%.

What follows is a short essay on why and how I did it.

From Wikipedia: Maida is a finely milled and refined and bleached (with chemicals such as Azodicarbonamide, chlorine gas, benzoyl peroxide) wheat flour, and used extensively in making Indian fast food, Indian bakery products such as pastries and bread, varieties of sweets and in making traditional Indian breads such as paratha, naan, kulcha and rumali roti. In the name of all-purpose flour, Maida is also used worldwide in making of pizza crust, white bread and tortilla.

Maida is made from the endosperm (the starchy white part) of the grain, while the fibrous bran is removed in the mill. Maida contains trace amounts of alloxan, which is an undesirable side product of the chemical changes that give it softness and white color. Large amounts of alloxan is known to destroy beta cells in the pancreas of rodents and other species, causing diabetes.

Ouch!

Why is Maida used in everything available off-the-shelf?
Because it’s lighter, cheaper and requires less kneading (less cost) compared to Atta (simple unprocessed milled wheat, or whole wheat flour). No surprise that maida can be used to make glue as shown here. By eating maida I was eating a glorified glue!?

Anything nutritious here?
Nope. Sorry, almost none of the fiber and nutrients present in wheat are preserved in maida. Therefore, maida based foods borrow nutrients from the body in order to aid their own absorption, thereby depleting the body’s reserves. The worst part is such foods raise blood sugar, and make you hungry sooner so you never break the cycle of eating more maida. Most dishes made of maida cause hyperacidity, constipation, and numerous other digestive disorders including SIBO (small intestive bacterial overgrowth). [SIBO Reference Book: Fast-track digestion]

What I discovered?
The simple act of refusing to eat maida kept me away from many unhealthy foods such as biscuits, noodles, bread (whole wheat bread has maida too– ask any baker), samosa, pizza, pasta, etc.

As a percentage of income, the rich in India spend little on healthy home food, although every fit person will tell you that 90% of fitness is defined by what you eat. I found that with my new rule, I spent more on home groceries but saved more when we eat out.

Now that I had become a maida-scanner, I found that my country which was traditionally a land of rotis and atta, has become a paradise for maida, where we line up and pay through our nose to get more of it —

Here are some observations:

  • Modern schools serve fancy maida cookies to kids at snack time.
  • Top-paying employers keep bread and biscuits on every floor. (Unless the founder is fanatic about organic food — Steve Jobs kept Odwalla carrot juices for Apple engineers as per his biography.)
  • 5-star cafes and branded restaurants serve maida loaded cakes, pastries and sandwiches at mind blowing prices.
  • At expensive restaurants, you would find food marked as “veg” or “non-veg”, or “spicy” but no markings for “maida-free” and no list of ingredients.
  • We buy the same biscuits and the same bread that a person with 10% of our salary affords. However, that person walks more, eats less, and does not work at a desk all day.

Implementing the no-maida rule

First, I internalized the fact that eating maida-foods was not at all necessary given that I live in India, where atta and rotis are always available. I already had a cook who made rotis everyday. (In India, for the price of a upscale restaurant meal for two, you can hire a cook for a whole month to make rotis.) Until now, despite these advantages, I was often eating bread or biscuits on weekdays, and pasta or pizza on weekends.

Next, I followed the ‘replace maida with something’ strategy:

  • Dry fruits are simple to store and carry around so I always have them in my bag. My favorites are raisins, anjeer (fig), walnuts.
  • I soak almonds and legumes (green moong) overnight to make a quick snack or salad when at home.
  • I searched grocery stores especially organic stores, and found plenty of biscuits-like snacks without maida (made from ragi, millet, oats, puffed rice, roasted chana, peanuts etc). Only buy if the packet says “free from maida”; branded biscuits don’t qualify.
  • On weekends, I bake a cake at home with atta. The recipe remains the same. I add a few spoons of milk and a spoon of rava (semolina) to make the dough soft. On festival days, traditional Indian sweets can be made by replacing maida with atta.
  • I promote my new rule so family and friends get their much-awaited chance to catch me breaking the rule, and I get a welcome reminder.

It’s working well. My previous intake of white sugar and carbohydrates has reduced because many of the replacements don’t have added sugar. I have become more creative when ordering food (a waiter’s nightmare), and more thoughtful when selecting food at a buffet.

Awareness is the holy grail of good eating and good living. A simple rule such as no-maida, may not be a complete solution, but the fact that it makes me stop and think is enough of a reason to continue.

Two months and still counting.

My home made whole wheat flour choco-walnut cake