My children love white bread, and why shouldn't they? Loaded with added sugar, white bread has more in common with pastries than healthy foods.
Most of the vitamins naturally occurring in wheat are removed along with the germ, or become destroyed during the bleaching process. The USFDA requires that white flour must be enriched with the addition of vitamins to replace those lost by bleaching. Critics, however, claim that valuable trace minerals removed by bleaching are not replaced in the artificial re-enrichment process. In addition, most commercial white bread contains little dietary fiber in comparison with bread that retains the bran.
The bleaching process itself is also fraught with unhealthy practices. Modern white bread is bleached with potassium bromate or chlorine dioxide gas to remove yellow coloring; the bleaching process extends shelf life, but introduces toxic chemicals into our food (albeit in small doses).
Human fixation on white bread has a long history. Wealthy Romans preferred the more expensive white bread that was made from sifted flour. Whole wheat bread, conversely, was seen as the food of the poor, and gained the unfortunate sobriquet of panis sordidus ("dirty bread").
White is a color long associated with "purity" in Western traditions, and European elites continued the tradition of class-based distinctions in bread consumption. In the eighteenth century, items such as tea, sugar, and white bread - formerly the province of wealthy aristocrats - became commodities for the masses as global trade networks, sugar plantations, and improved agricultural techniques lowered prices.
The diet of English urban workers, in particular, became built around white bread, sugar, and tea by the end of the eighteenth century. One might argue that the physical demands of the modern factory required a steady infusion of easily-digested calorie sources and stimulants by factory workers.
Left: Poet Ebenezer Elliott
The British enacted a series of protective tariffs in 1815 called the Corn Laws that were designed to enhance the profits of domestic landowners, but which hurt the laboring poor in the form of higher prices for their bread. An 1831 poem by Ebenezer Elliott on Corn Law-era life for poor families captures the struggles:
What that tax hath done for thee,
And thy children, vilely led,
Singing hymns for shameful bread,
Till the stones of every street
Know their naked little feet.”
The economic historian Roger Koeneker argued that bread was a Giffen good in for the working poor in 1790; that is, bread became a product for which a rise in price makes people buy even more of the product. Giffen goods are named for economist Robert Giffen, who was credited as developing this idea by Alfred Marshall in his treatise Principles of Economics (1895).
As Mr. Giffen has pointed out, a rise in the price of bread makes so large a drain on the resources of the poorer labouring families and raises so much the marginal utility of money to them, that they are forced to curtail their consumption of meat and the more expensive farinaceous foods: and, bread being still the cheapest food which they can get and will take, they consume more, and not less of it.Most Americans have never known real hunger, the kind of gnawing madness that would make a person eat tree bark. Yet we may be only a few decades away from facing a national and global food crisis.
If current population growth, domestic food consumption and topsoil depletion trends continue, the US will cease to be a net food exporter by 2025 because domestic production will be needed to feed Americans. The US is currently the world's largest food exporter, and such predictive models suggest that we are overdue for serious global discussions on carrying capacity and sustainable growth.
I know that I should force my 12-year-old to eat the healthier whole grain breads, but sometimes we must choose our battles wisely. Besides, the whole grain bread is about double the cost of the white bread of which I have such nagging doubts.
I hope that my children's children will grow up in a world where food choices are like mine, and not those of the world of scarcity depicted by Ebenezer Elliott in the industrial London of 1831, or like those found in the some of the world's most populous cities today.