I hesitated when Beacon Press offered to send me a copy of their recently-published book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Why would someone like me, who’s passionate about whole grains, want to read a book about white bread?

After only a few pages, the answer to that question was clear. Bobrow-Strain weaves a fascinating, meticulously documented tale that gives invaluable context and background to the work that the Whole Grains Council does every day. I was hooked a few pages in, and devoured White Bread cover to cover.

My nine years running the Whole Grains Council have been rewarding, as I’ve seen interest in the health benefits of whole grains grow, with more and more people switching to whole grains every day. We’ve been here before, though, according to White Bread – which reminds us that pendulums swing in both directions.

Many of us have heard of Sylvester Graham’s efforts to champion whole wheat in the 1830s; his name ended up immortalized in the Graham cracker (which, ironically, is often made largely with refined wheat). But I, for one, did not know that major campaigns in favor of whole wheat bread took place off and on throughout the last two centures, including one in the 1920s when:

  • An early radio personality named Alfred McCann railed against the dangers of “white bread poisoning,” going so far as to say that “Millers will never know how many babies thay have handicapped… from their commercial disregard of the laws of Nature…”
  • A League of Women Voters spokesperson concurred, saying “giving [too much] white bread to children will cause blindness before they are six.”
  • Lewis Rumsey of the American Institute of Baking published a lengthy “Résumé of Statements against White Bread” in 1927.
  • The oft-repeated slogan “The whiter your bread, the quicker you’re dead” was coined by radio personality Dr. P.L. Clark.

And yet, before another decade passed, the push for whole grain bread petered out, with the distractions of the Depression and impending war; the advent of enriched bread in 1941 undercut some of the drive for a healthier loaf.

Bobrow-Strain, an associate professor at Whitman College who specializes in the politics of the global food system, makes the persuasive argument that the changing fortunes of the factory-made loaf of white bread illustrate many bigger concerns we have with our food supply and with society. Food choices are rarely based solely – and often not at all – on nutrition.

In the late 1800s, for example some of the nation’s first large-scale commercial bakeries used concerns about “dirty immigrants” to sell their loaves as the clean, scientific alternative – “untouched by human hands” – to bread made in uncontrolled conditions in dark basement bakeries on the nearest street corner. Today, we’ve turned that concern on its head, with leading voices In the local food movement arguing that better quality food comes from the corner artisan than from giant commercial interests; we want those human hands.

I won’t give away all the cool information in White Bread because you should read the book yourself.  Find out why factory bread is so much softer than bakery bread or home-made bread. Learn when, how and why home bread-baking has gone in and out of favor. Discover why whole wheat bread started its latest comeback in the social upheaval of the 1960s.

As he no doubt intended, Aaron Bobrow-Strain left me reflecting deeply on the many issues that are interwoven in any discussion of nutrition and food policy. I’m hoping that with a better understanding of these issues, Oldways and the Whole Grains Council can be even more effective in our work promoting whole grains and other healthy whole foods.  (Cynthia)

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