“White Bread, why is it so popular?

Part1: JC and I were talking what is with White Bread and its popularity despite it not being the most healthiest? So JC did a bit of research and hence this article! It’s fun, quirky, interesting and it was so long we did in 2 parts – enjoy!

Well, let’s jump back in time and understand the ‘history’ of the humble loaf.  The oldest evidence of bread-making was found at a 14,500 year old site in Jordan, and the Egyptians are recorded as one of the first to introduce yeast to the process of making bread.  Around 1000BC Rome, the circular Quern was developed – a circular stone wheel, which was the basis of all milling until the industrial revolution in the 19th century and in some parts of the world is still the way stoneground flour is made today.

History also tells us that bread made with the whitest flour were for the rich and elite, while the coarser darker loaves were for the poor. Around C150, bakers’ guilds were created which allowed the elite access to the more refined white breads, controlled businesses and regulated the price and weight of bread. Whilst wholegrains are rich source of nutrients, and a very important source of substances in poor people’s diets, they can go rancid after a few months. The more refined white flour was found to be able to be stored for longer periods of time.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, “there was a synergy between the desires of people (status) and the necessities of commerce (long shelf life of the processed product)” – and white bread is produced on a massive scale.

Sliced bread was popularised after a slicing machine was invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, in 1928. The “Wonder Bread” company was the first to mass produce and sell pre-sliced white bread.

Bread type of choice also depends on history and your ancestors. In Eastern Europe, rye bread and whole grains are popular for their relatively high protein and lysine content. England, and various countries in the Mediterranean, preferred white bread because they had better access to other protein sources like fish.

Studies found that white bread is still popular as it is easier to digest, more appealing as it looks purer and more refined, better value for money and possibly more nutritious.

Part2: What you eat (or don’t) says volumes about what you think about your health, your religion, your social status according to a book I have recently been reading- “White bread Protestants”: Food and Religion in American Culture”

Bread type of choice all depends on history and your ancestors. In Germany to the Eastern Europe rye bread and whole grains are popular – From what I am told Germans eat white bread rolls for breakfast and dark bread for dinner. Rye bread has a relatively high protein and lysine content. My speculation is that countries like Scandinavia, England, and various countries in the Mediterranean, preferred white bread because they had better access to other protein sources, like fish, than other countries who tended to be land locked, relied on protein from their breads, and other grains.

As you may remember white bread has been a status symbol for a very long time, not only does it require less chewing, of all the grains and grasses, the wheat embryo (germ) and the outer layers of the seed are rich source of nutrients, and a very important source of these substances in poor people’s diets. Unfortunate, these same important nutrients can go rancid rather quickly. White flour can be stored for years, while whole grain flour tends to be good for only a few months.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, when large populations had to be fed on a massive scale, “there was a synergy between the desires of people (status) and the necessities of commerce (long shelf life of the processed product)” – and we get the white bread on a massive scale.  Governments needed to import wheat from other countries, such as Canada, and the USA that milled the grain into flour with new steam powered technology.  Side note: the baguette and croissant thought to have originated in France came from an Austrian baker August Zang who in the early 1800’s founded a Viennese bakery (“Boulangerie Viennoise”) at 92, rue de Richelieu in Paris. where he had a unique method of baking the baguettes in a mechanical steam oven.

During periods of war, famine and other calamities through out history, the governments of the time, were quick to protect the people’s bread. History tells us during the First World War, many regulations were passed controlling the bread trade. Experiments began to solve problems of keeping bread fresh, conservation of supplies and the stopping of waste. In the development (science) of bread, new and innovative ways were made to lengthen its shelf life and to preserve quality. Substitutes were introduces such as flour made of peas, arrowroot, parsnips, beans, lentils, maize, rice, barley, and oats. In the end, as with most things’ chemistry would prove to be the best at preserving breads shelf life.

During the Second World War, regulations were imposed on the baking industry. The ‘standard’ loaf was a grey colour, which may have been ok in taste, but not much to look at. Compared to all the varieties of bread loaves today, shape, texture, and flavour, still at a comparative low price, and available to all. Think for a moment only a few hundred years ago, it was only the ‘poor and common people who should eat poor and common bread’, and only the rich should be able to enjoy the real white loaves of bread.

In a 1950’s advertainment listed the benefits of White Bread here.

  1.  Easier to chew and swallow
  2.  More palatable.
  3.  White bread, rolls, and crackers are pleasing with just a bit of jam or cheese.
  4. Purer. Pure as the driven snow, snowy white linens. We all know you know that processors and vendors adulterate food. You suspect that it’s more difficult to add dubious fillers and extenders to white bread than it to add them to brown.
  5. Easier to digest. You know that whole grains or wholemeal bread tends to have a laxative effect, which you don’t need during a factory shift.”

Most of our food is so highly processed that it’s easy to forget that digesting is difficult, and energy consuming. We spend 10% of the energy we get from food just digesting.  For us sedentary modern city dwellers, a serving of whole grains is a good thing, in the book ‘Bread and the British Economy’ by Andrew Jenkins. The following points were made about bread at the time;

  1. Better value for money. Like most women who spend most of their budget on food you have a keen sense of what fills and satisfies the family. (Peterson has done the complicated calculations, concluding that compared to, say, barley, wheat’s weight per volume, ease and yield in grinding, and relatively low cost of baking made it only slightly more expensive than coarser breads).
  2. Possibly more nutritious, not that you would have put it this way, because being easier to digest, eaters got more calories and nutrients for a given weight of bread.
  3. A finer product. You knew that harvested grains had to go through a laborious sequence of cleaning, freeing of the dirt and grit of the field, threshing to get rid of the inedible outer husk, and grinding into flour. It made sense to sieve out the course, dark bits to leave pure white flour.
  4. What the rich ate. Lords and ladies who could afford it had always opted for white wheaten bread, leaving the rough stuff to those they regarded as inferior. If you could feed your family like the rich, well then you most certainly would.

Maybe it is less about food preference and more about the way we eat that has changed over the decades. And along with changes in society and the way people now eat bread let’s hope we go for a healthier, whole grain sourdough bread that has more nutritious benefits.