A couple of days ago, a reader contacted me to ask me to clarify my post on why our ancestors preferred white bread.
I checked the post. It’s been consistently one of my most popular. And it was written in 2011. So time for an update. This is a complete re-write of the original post.
Before white bread became ubiquitous
Bear with me while I lay out the background.
Only in the late nineteenth and twentieth century did large numbers of “our ancestors”–and obviously this depends on which part of the world they lived in–begin eating white bread.
For most of history, after the shift to agriculture, a large proportion of the world’s population depended on grains such as wheat, rice, corn (maize), barley, oats, rye, or millet for as much as 70-90% of their calories. This would have been true of farm laborers and their wives (and that’s what most of our ancestors would have been).
Even when the outer protective husks of grains had been removed they were hard to digest without further treatment: pounding, grinding, sprouting, fermenting and so on.
If grains are ground into flour, mixed with water to make a paste, and then that paste is cooked usually by dry heat, the result is bread.
Wheat bread was for the few. Wheat did not yield well (only seven or eight grains for one planted compared to corn that yielded dozens) and is fairly tricky to grow.
White puffy wheat bread was for even fewer. Whiteness was achieved by sieving out the skin of the grain (bran) and the germ (the bit that feeds the new plant). In a world of scarcity, this made wheat bread pricey. And puffy, well, that takes fairly skilled baking plus either yeast from beer or the kind of climate that sourdough does well in.
Most bread was dark, fibrous, dense, and usually flat. People chewed and swallowed their way through between one and two pounds of this dense, fibrous bread a day.
Today Americans eat six ounces of wheat flour a day, much of it as pasta, pizza, cookies, muffins, or some other alternative to bread. Thus we eat only a third to a sixth of the wheat flour that “our ancestors” did and we eat it in a much more enticing forms.
White bread ascendant
Between 1850 and 1950, the price of wheat bread, even white wheat bread, plummeted in price as a result of the opening up of new farms in the US and Canada, Argentina, Australia and other places, the mechanization of plowing and harvesting, the introduction of huge new flour mills, and the development of continuous flow bakeries.
In 1800 only half the British population could afford wheat bread. In 1900 everybody could.
In 1850, most Americans ate corn bread or mush. By 1880, except in the South, they had abandoned corn in favor of well over half a pound of wheat flour a day, most of it probably bread or crackers.
Why the shift to puffy white wheat bread? Well, how many reasons do you want? Here’s a list for the nineteenth-century shift (and that’s before convenient, sliced, long-lasting industrial bread became available).
Imagine it’s around 1880 and you are the wife of a laboring man. For one or more of the following reasons, you buy white wheat bread because it’s:
- easier to chew and swallow than whole meal. Sound silly? The family was eating a lot of bread and dentistry wasn’t what it is now.
- more palatable. White bread, rolls, and crackers are pleasing with just a bit of jam or cheese.
- purer. 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. Pure as the driven snow, snowy white linens, and by extension snowy white bread.
- easier to digest. You know that whole grains or wholemeal bread tends to have a laxative effect, which you don’t need during a mine or factory shift. (Most of our food is so highly processed that it’s easy to forget that digesting is a difficult, energy-consuming business. We spend about 10% of the energy we get from food just digesting. For us sedentary modern urbanites, a small serving of whole grains is a good thing, less so for manual workers in the past. Christian Peterson, ed. Andrew Jenkins, Bread and the British Economy, ca. 1770-1870 (1995), ch. 2 for this and the following two points).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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. Didn’t it make sense to sieve out the coarse, dark bits to leave pure white flour.
- 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.
White bread as trash
The French, the Australians, the Canadians and others made the same shift.White bread became more and more affordable and convenient. World War II, Japanese, Mexicans, West Africans and others became white bread eaters too. Now white bread rules the world.
When everyone can eat white bread, it’s all too easy for it to be devalued (my italics below).
“A few years ago, I attended an international conference in which the bread workshop opened with the moderator throwing a loaf that had been purchased in a supermarket into a bin. It was an industrially produced bread; soft, white pre-sliced and pre-packaged. To hundreds of millions of families worldwide this was good bread. But this loaf of bread was outside its community. To the group of people in that room it was not just bad bread: it was not food. It was trash.” William Rubel, Bread: A Global History (2011), p.59.
[Industrial white bread became] a ubiquitous menu item and a visual stand-in for a whole range of assumptions about low-class consumption. [It] called up a lack of pretension–unfussy and authentically American–but also irresponsibility and shame. Aaron Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (2012), ch. 6. How White Bread Became White Trash.
Instead for the counter-culture in the 1960s and 70s
“Whiteness meant Wonder Bread, White Tower, Cool Whip, Minute Rice, instant mashed potatoes, peeled apples, White Tornadoes, white coats, white collar, whitewash, White House, white racism. Brown meant whole wheat bread, unhulled rice, turbinado sugar, wild-flower honey, unsulfured molasses, soy sauce, peasant yams, “black is beautiful.”” Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988 (1989), p.48.
In short, now, as in the past, the bread you eat (or don’t) says volumes about what you think about health (‘wheat belly,’ ‘no grain, no pain), your religion (‘white bread protestant), your social status (‘white trash‘).
But what about taste? what about health?
It all depends. It all depends on income, alternative foods, quality of bread, quantity consumed, other foods consumed. There is no one, single, knock down answer.
But wouldn’t you have opted for white bread if you had been alive in 1900?
I did not want to bog this post down in the complex government definitions of different kinds of bread labelling. This Wikipedia article is as good a place as any to begin understanding the differences between brown bread, whole meal bread, whole wheat bread, whole grain bread, etc.