White Bread Kills
A history of a national paranoia.
As with the contemporary fad for gluten-free living, there was a germ of truth in the backlash against white bread. Few nutritionists would now question the superiority of fiber-rich whole grain breads over pale, spongy Wonder Bread. By the same token, contemporary concerns over gluten arise from a real problem: Celiac disease, a genuinely dangerous condition, afflicts as many as 1 in 133 people. Celiacs who consume gluten can experience diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, arthritis, and worse. The less serious problem of gluten sensitivity, which is a newer clinical category and harder to diagnose, appears to cause abdominal troubles, fatigue, and headaches.
But less is known about how gluten affects the rest of us, and in pockets of our culture our concerns have crossed the line into ridiculous. “Something you're eating may be killing you, and you probably don't even know it!” read a 2010 story on gluten in the Huffington Post. According to an ABC News report, researchers believe that only “5 percent to 6 percent of those who claim they have gluten sensitivity actually have it.” Meanwhile, celebrities and athletes have embraced the gluten-free lifestyle as a means toward thinner bodies and faster times, and as with so many diets before, the message of restrictive eating is plain: That which I don’t eat makes me better than you.
White bread’s fortunes would reverse with as much fickleness (and as little basis in science) as they had fallen. Basically, the food industry got proactive. In a new book Fear of Food, historian Harvey Levenstein details the reversal of one influential white bread skeptic, chemist and vitamin scholar Elmer McCollum, who had once called white flour wholly “deficient” in nutrients. McCollum was gradually co-opted by the enemy, first by agreeing to advise the National Bakers Association, and then by signing on as a spokesman for General Mills. Soon enough he was railing against “food faddists who have sought to make people afraid of white-flour bread.” In 1930, bread producers pressured the USDA to formally endorse the wholesomeness of white bread.
By the ‘40s, bread makers had started enriching their products with vitamins, and, in response to wartime anxiety about the fitness of Americans, ad campaigns suggested that eating enriched bread was not just good nutrition but a patriotic duty. Wonder bread, with its promise to build strong bodies, was mainstream and middle class before it became shorthand for everything bland and processed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and, eventually, shorthand for poverty and apathy. White Bread informs us that whole wheat bread sales exceeded sales of white bread for the first time in 2009.
Bobrow-Strain, who teaches food politics at Whitman College in Washington state, is deeply concerned with how our good intentions go awry when we let food fears and food fads separate us from one another. He suggests that, again and again through the last century, food crusaders have chosen language and tactics that reinforce social hierarchies instead of dealing with the underlying reasons why rich and poor eat differently—including the availability of inexpensive, healthy food, and wages that make it possible to buy this food.
He also points out how often our choices about what we eat get mixed up with our perceptions of what is moral. “Today,” Bobrow-Strain writes, “showing interest in healthy eating is an essential piece of the performance of eliteness.” That’s why celebrities call their crash diets “cleanses,” and vegetables are confused with virtuousness. Food is shorthand for values. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s felt self-conscious buying artificially-flavored cake mix, as if the purchase of such a non-nutritious food made me a less wholesome person. Instead of bringing us all together, the dinner table is the means by which we define ourselves against everyone else.
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.