By Talia Ralph
Like all true cultural icons, bread has had its ups and downs. What kind you prefer -- if you're still one of the brave few eating bread at all -- has been a powerful class symbol throughout the centuries. It turns out the humble loaf isn't always so humble.
White flour is made by separating the germ and bran from the wheat kernel before grinding. Whole-wheat flour, on the other hand, is made by grinding the full wheat kernel. During the "golden age of milling," in the mid-18th to mid-19th century, white bread was a luxury product: It showed you had enough cash that you could afford to waste half of your raw product. Whole wheat loaves were reserved for those who couldn't afford to mill their flour more finely. They were also fed to horses and pigs.
With the rise of the industrial revolution, however, making white bread became easier than ever before. When Wonder Bread debuted in America in 1921, shoppers across the country had access to the beloved, fluffy, easily-digestible white loaves. This affordable manufactured brand became the stuff of lunchbox sandwich dreams: enthusiastically eaten by a modern, more sedentary American society. The country's new high-speed railroad systems also allowed for quicker delivery and fresher loaves.
"When you could suddenly make bread that was really white like Wonderbread, obviously the bread goes down in the eye of the social elites," says Ken Albala, a food historian and professor at the University of the Pacific. "So they return to bread that is dark and misshapen. All of the sudden people revalorize the brown bread for reasons not just of class, but also nutrition."
Ah, yes, nutrition. The shift from white to brown took place slowly but surely, as the rates of obesity and heart disease rose in the U.S. Nutritionists and doctors conducted studies which found that eating three or more servings of whole grains lowered the risk of heart attacks, stroke, cancer and weight gain.
Then, of course, there are those who have banned bread from their lives altogether. From Atkins to South Beachers to Paleo disciples to gluten-free and Celiac disease sufferers, ours is a world in which bread, white or brown, is no longer a part of some people's lives at all.
"It's not really a staple anymore. It's not even on the table every meal. Bread has never been demonized like it has been in recent years," says Albala. "This is the first time that bread has a negative connotation in Western culture."
A breadless world: what a sad thought. But the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same -- we can't deny our love for bread.
To hear more from Will Rubel, Ken Abala, and others on food and technology, check out the Roger Smith Food Tech Conference, taking place in New York City from April 3rd through 5th 2014. For more info check out www.thefoodconference.com.
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