White Bread, High Society

Grilled Peanut Butter & Jam Sandwich on White Bread

Grilled Peanut Butter & Jam Sandwich on White Bread

I want you to ponder the question I am about to pose to you, and answer it honestly in your head, or out loud (depending where you are when you’re reading this): why do you eat white bread?

Is it the:

  •  Taste?
  • Texture?
  • Availability?

Or are you turned off by the ferulic acid smell emanating from whole grains?

I always thought it was the shelf-life that made white bread so appealing, both to consumers and manufacturers. But it seems the reason white bread is so popular – to the point where I actually can’t find 100% whole wheat bread at my local bakeries – is cultural. If you still love to fold up a fresh, warm piece of crusty Italian bread on a Saturday morning, don’t feel bad. You’re just trying to maintain your social status.

The idea that “brown” (whole wheat) bread is only for the lower classes started back in Roman times, where white

Bread Shelf at the Grocery Store

Bread Shelf at the Grocery Store

bread was prepared from flour that was sifted to remove the bran and germ. White flour was considered pure and fancy – a foodstuff of the rich. Only poor people (and as an indication the nutritional benefits of whole grains were known even then, athletes) ate brown bread. Thousands of years later and across oceans, the social stigma has stuck, but the methods we use to make white flour have become more sophisticated.

The process of refining (which also coincidentally means “humanizing” or “educating”) flour has evolved from sifting to rolling; running the grain through roller mills that separate the bran and the germ (brown bread parts) from the endosperm (white bread part). Steel rollers replaced porcelain ones in the mid-1800’s, producing cheap, light-coloured flour. And good thing too, because in the mid-1770’s the populus revolted when a flour shortage resulted in having to eat brown bread, which they considered a sure sign of poverty. At that point, brown bread still had its proponents, but some actually argued white bread was more nutritious because it was more easily digested. White bread also cost more because it produced more waste. As it is today, being able to throw away a good portion of your food is a sure sign of money.

You can also refine flour by hand (or using other natural energy sources like wind or water) using a stone mill, which

Author William Alexander kneading bread for his book, 52 Loaves

Author William Alexander kneading bread for his book, 52 Loaves

William Alexander did in his quest for the perfect homemade loaf in his book 52 Loaves. The endosperm gets powdered; the oily germ gets flattened; the bran flakes off. Presto – white flour. I could accept flour with its nutritious bits removed as a “natural” product, though you’d want to keep the germ and bran for another use to make sure you get your vitamins and fibre. I see that as being similar to chopping the tops off your beets or skimming the butterfat off your milk.

So that’s the flour – but if you think it’s the only ingredient in your bag of all-purpose, this next part may come as a shock.

Flour naturally oxidizes and whitens over time, but industrial flour producers don’t – and haven’t, since 1904 – had time to wait, so they started adding chemicals to speed up the process. Back then, a chemical (or any substance, really) was only considered toxic or unhealthy if it caused side effects at the dose contained in a single serving. So, by 1938, nearly all commercial flour was treated with nitrogen trichloride, nitrogen dioxide or chlorine gas to make it white.

Sifting UnBleached All-Purpose Flour

Sifting UnBleached All-Purpose Flour

The lurid details of flour refining and bleaching are laid out in Twinkie, Deconstructed:

“Bleaching using minute amounts of chlorine gas “simultaneously achieved three results: bleaching, oxidation (taming the protein or starch to the point where it is practically non-functional, so as to yield bread and cakes with a soft, delicate crumb); and balancing (reducing the pH by generating just a bit of hydrochloric acid to further tame the protein).” – Steve Ettlinger, in Twinkie, Deconstructed

If you think the kind of bread we eat isn’t influenced by social norms any more, try ordering your next sandwich at a work outing on whole wheat (or suggesting your caterer make the switch for every sandwich). Or, arrive in the lunchroom with a brown bag full of pizza on a whole wheat crust. Or try to order a Big Mac on whole wheat. We all know whole wheat is better for us, but nobody wants to make the switch.

The stigma still exists, but I’m taking a page out of my vegetarian handbook and leading by example. I know from experience that, over time, brown bread can become the norm…but it won’t be easy to break 2,000 years of tradition.


  1. Very good website you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics
    discussed in this article? I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get responses from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks a lot!

Leave a Reply