A hundred years ago white bread was an icon of progress, health and responsible parenting. Today, seen as devoid of nutrients compared to their whole-grain cousins -- the edible equivalent of the Boogey Man.
But is it really so bad?
“People who knew me looked at me like I was buying meth,” laughs Whitman College professor Aaron Bobrow-Strain and author of White Bread: A Social History of The Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon) about buying Wonder Bread at his local market. “I was just doing some research. Walla Walla’s a small town and people noticed,” says the food historian.
Most of the criticism is leveled at commercially-baked white bread, but the underlying message is that white flour and white bread are intrinsically “bad.”
It didn’t start out that way. Here's a little history.
Early 20th century health experts said that industrially-baked bread was the responsible thing to serve, especially to children, explains Bobrow-Strain. Dirty hands and unsanitary conditions in small bakeries would transmit deadly diseases as they had in the dairy and meat industries, experts warned. In 1890, 90 percent of families baked their own bread. By 1930, 90 percent of families bought industrial white bread. Bread was 30 percent of our caloric intake and industrial bakeries made it safe and plentiful. Small bakeries became the exception.
White bread proliferation was also democratizing as the rich historically ate whiter and lighter breads, while everyone else ate the darker, denser, chewier stuff.
Influenced by the 1970s natural food movement, industrial bakers started putting whole wheat breads on supermarket shelves in 80s. The bread machine fad of the early 90s (there’s probably one in your parents’ garage next to Tony Little’s “Gazelle” and Ron Popeil’s “Hair-in-a-Can”) created an interest in more rustic, handmade breads.
Even in the late 90s and early 00s, white bread held its exalted status. Amy Scherber of New York City’s Amy’s Bread and Nancy Silverton of LA’s La Brea Bakery pioneered a retail resurgence in the art of hand-made loaves. Industrial bakeries used additives, emulsifiers and preservatives to speed-up “proofing” (rising) and baking. Scherber and Silverton gave bread time to rise organically, developing taste and texture. Choosing which type of bread to buy in the 90s was a personal choice, not a moral one as it’s increasingly becoming today.
White bread, even then, was still king because, as Scherber puts it, “chefs were interested in taste.”
White bread slowly chugged along until dire warnings starting cropping up: it was nutritionally-deficient compared to whole wheat; it made you fat per Atkins, South Beach and Sugar Busters; “gluten,” the protein found in wheat could be making you sick/bloated/fatigued. White flour became nutritionally suspect.
That led to the current conventional wisdom that brown (i.e. whole grain) foods—bread, pasta, rice—are healthier than their refined, white counterparts. (That’s debatable. Italians eat semolina pasta, Chinese eat white rice and the French eat white bread. None of these countries share our obesity rate.)
“I’d like to challenge the assumption that white bread is unhealthy,” says Ken Forkish of Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Ken’s Artisan Pizza in Portland, Oregon and author of Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza (Ten Speed Press).
A former high-tech-exec turned down-to-earth bread-baking-zen-master, Forkish wants to clear up the confusion about the wheat flour that’s in most breads.
Wheat flour comes from grinding up wheat berries, he says. Wheat berries contain the endosperm, the bran and the germ. The endosperm (about 84 percent of the berry) contains starch and protein. The bran (13 percent) contains fiber and minerals. The germ (3 percent) contains fat and flavor. Whole-wheat flour contains the endosperm, bran and germ. White flour contains only the endosperm, but since the 1940s, it’s been fortified to replace nutrients.
And added Scherber, the "whole wheat" you are buying might not be as whole as you think.
All “whole grain” breads, artisanal or store-bought, she explains, are cut with white flour. “Bread made entirely from whole grain is very dense and heavy and not to most peoples’ taste,” she explains. “It’s a totally different product.” (Try making pancakes with whole-wheat flour and you’ll see.) It also means that the nutritional advantages of breads labeled “whole grain” varies from brand to brand and bakery to bakery.
The main difference between white and whole wheat is a fat, fiber and flavor, all important factors, with the first two being easily compensated for with other foods. White bread also contains some essential nutrients that many of us lack, including folic acid, iron, and B-vitamins.
Now it appears that the pendulum is starting to swinging the other way. The British Nutrition Foundation says that new research shows that standard sliced white bread doesn’t cause bloating, wheat allergies or weight gain and is in fact a vital source of vitamins and minerals. Nutritionists say that it okay to have some white bread, as long as half your grains are whole.
When it comes to taste, white break remains king, say bakers.
Forkish’s white bread outsells his whole-grain breads by a large margin. “What people are still buying, what I still see people buying, is white bread,” he says. “It’s what they want.”
White bread sells best, agrees Scherber, referring to both her retail and wholesale businesses. “White flour allows for a perfectly thin crisp crust with a soft center,” she says, and restaurants prefer it. Coffee bars and sandwich shops go for whole grains, she says.
So when the next “food-you-should-avoid” bounces out of the media echo chamber, take it with a grain of salt, and separate the wheat from the chaff yourself.