In our foodie culture, white bread is toast

By Greg Beato
Sunday, August 15, 2010

In July, one of the longest losing streaks in the history of culinary combat finally came to end. According to the Nielsen Company, 52-week dollar sales of packaged wheat bread topped those of white bread for the first time in U.S. supermarkets. Call it a victory for health -- but nutritional aspects alone don't account for this reversal of fortune.

For years -- no, make that millennia -- the public has chosen white bread over its darker, grainier counterpart. In 77 A.D., Pliny noted in his Naturalis Historia that his fellow Romans preferred to mix the "swarthy" wheat of Cyprus with the "white wheat of Alexandria" to produce a lighter loaf. As humanity marched forth into the supermarket era, its tastes remained unchanged, and white bread commanded far more shelf space than wheat. To overcome such entrenched consumer preferences required more than just a superior supply of fiber and antioxidants. It required superior marketing, too.

Indeed, it's not as if we've only recently learned that bread made from refined white flour -- which includes the starchy endosperm of the wheat berry but not the nutrient-packed bran and germ -- is not as healthy as bread made with whole-wheat flour. In the 1830s, the furiously chaste Presbyterian minister and baker Sylvester Graham railed against the evils of refined white flour.

In 1913, a Parisian professor named Letulle published, in the words of a contemporary report in the New York Times, "an energetic protest" against white bread. "The childishly unfortunate idea that the peasant's black bread is less fine and desirable than white bread is a national peril," the professor thundered. "France has changed an essential of her nourishment."

Around the same time, a British professor observed that in his country, "the general public, and especially the working classes, prefer the white bread produced from the higher grade flours of the roller mill."

In the late 1920s, whole-wheat-bread evangelists apparently had some impact on eating habits in the United States. "The fanatical food faddists that lurk in the so-called intellectual centres of the self-sufficient East have, through their insidious and poisonous propaganda against the use of white bread, cut down the national consumption of wheat to the point where the farmer must produce it at a loss," exclaimed one irate white-bread loyalist representing 6,000 Kansas hotels and restaurants that aimed to "return white bread to a semblance of its former prestige."

Apparently their effort worked. In 1935, white bread was back in favor, at least in New York, with local bakers reporting that it accounted for 83 percent to 95 percent of their bread sales. In 1943, English, Scottish and American soldiers released from Nazi prison camps expressed their desire for white bread and cigarettes. In 1947, a survey of 5,000 U.S. homemakers conducted by the Department of Agriculture found that only 16 percent of them were using whole-wheat bread "most frequently."

In that era, a loaf of Wonder Bread still had cachet. It was bread as machine-made staff of life, the yeast-and-flour analogue to an Eames molded plywood chair: streamlined, utilitarian and built to last. Each slice was exactly like all the others, a product of extreme capitalism that paradoxically projected more than a little all-for-one-one-for-all collectivist spirit. Each slice was a squishy, 60-calorie serving of America at midcentury.

But even a major dose of calcium propionate cannot preserve a brand's popularity forever. In 1970, a dishwasher studying to be a Zen priest submitted his book of bread recipes to a hippie publishing company in Berkeley, Calif. The "Tassajara Bread Book" became a surprise hit, helping launch an artisan breadmaking craze. Many of the fancy new loaves that started showing up in restaurants and grocery stores were still white bread -- think seeded sourdough boules and potato rosemary ciabatta -- but they all reinforced the idea that good bread was handmade from a limited number of ingredients that didn't take a PhD in food science to decipher.

In the decades that followed, funky health-food stores evolved into the designer supermarket Whole Foods. Ciabatta trickled down from Chez Panisse to Jack in the Box. And now, everywhere you look, stylish, discerning rebels reject the anomie of highly industrialized, global consumerism in favor of a more local, picturesque, upscale version. They drink small-batch vodka infused with heirloom beets at underground farmers markets. They wear limited-edition blue jeans made in historic North Carolina denim mills using vintage shuttle looms.

In this new world of pandemic connoisseurship, there's no place for standard supermarket white bread. Forget its lack of nutritional value and its status as a symbol of technological progress. It has no interesting story to tell. It isn't made with locally harvested anything. Slightly obsessive bakers using painstaking old-world traditions never laid their hands upon it.

In his book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," Michael Pollan demotes products such as Wonder Bread from food to "foodlike substances." They're not authentic. They have no provenance.

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