Will White Bread Kill You?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 6 2012 10:55 AM

White Bread Kills

A history of a national paranoia.

Can gluten kill you?
For the last century and a half of our history, we’ve been intermittently spasmed by fears over bread

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

For some time now, a significant minority of the American population has considered bread suspect. Atkins and South Beach were down on bread long before the contemporary anti-gluten frenzy came into vogue. These days, everything from pizza to makeup is available gluten free, and no less a scientific authority than Jenny McCarthy has claimed that eliminating gluten from her son’s diet helped “cure” his autism. The problem is that gluten is everywhere, and avoiding it requires intense and sustained scrutiny. Dinner rolls are deeply suspect, of course, and so, for that matter, are dinner parties.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

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 libbycopeland@gmail.com.

But if the anti-gluten craze is new, fear of bread is not. For the last century and a half of our history we’ve been intermittently spasmed by fears over bread. In the 1920s and '30s, a bread panic called amylophobia swept the land, boosted by a leopard-skin-wearing diet guru named Bernarr MacFadden who toured the country and called bread the “staff of death.” Throughout the last century, fierce debates over white versus whole wheat pendulummed the nation’s eating habits back and forth. With  the rise of industrial bakeries, white bread was evidence of scientific progress, its very whiteness visual proof that it had been made by machines rather than dirty hands. But within decades, white bread was accused of causing deformities. “The whiter the flour the more rapidly it leads to the grave,” one expert observed. And through it all, just as now, whether or not one ate bread was as much a public as a personal act, declaring one’s social status and indeed, one’s moral rectitude.

Two new books trace the questionable science and vested interests behind bread fears and bread boosterism. As Aaron Bobrow-Strain makes clear in his epically well-researched White Bread, our culture’s tendency to focus what we as individuals put in our mouths often goes along with classism and xenophobia. Just as whole wheat acolytes pity white-trash white-bread eaters, and gluten-free converts showcase their discipline through vegetables and lean proteins, so, too, did turn-of- the-century crusaders attempt to spread the gospel of good food to less enlightened masses.

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Between 1890 and 1930, Bobrow-Strain writes, Americans transitioned almost completely from homemade bread to store bought bread—and specifically to bread made in large factories. Hygiene fears were a major reason. The emerging understanding of germ science led pure food crusaders to preach against the dangers of mother’s kitchen, which couldn’t hope to achieve the level of cleanliness of a large bread factory, nor the heat necessary to kill the “yeast germs.” “You and your little oven cannot compete,” one newspaper article informed women after the turn of the century. Scientists and food reformers also warned against mom-and-pop bakeries, whose reputation for substituting cheap substances like chalk and alum was further undermined by the presence of so many swarthy immigrant workers, whose hygiene was considered suspect.

White bread, untouched by human hands and carefully wrapped for hygienic transport, became a symbol of purity. As a doctor named Woods Hutchinson put it in McClure’s Magazine in 1906, with unsubtle racialism, “No race ever yet ate black bread when it could get white; nor even brown, yellow, or other mulatto tint.” And then: “White flour, red meat, and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest.”

But during the '20s and '30s, the nation was gripped by panic over white bread. A wave of experts with questionable pedigrees began warning about white bread’s nutritional content, harkening back to the teachings of 19th-century ascetic Sylvester Graham, who believed that refining wheat undermined God’s intent. (Graham had a number of interesting theories, including that consumption of meat, seasonings and rich foods lead to rampant masturbation.)

Dietician and radio show host Alfred W. McCann claimed that 400,000 children a year were sent to “little graves” because they were raised on white bread. Food pundits said that white bread could cause blindness and disfigurement. A 1912 article in a journal called “Life and Health” made the dubious claim that in countries where there was no white bread, there was no cancer. Bobrow-Strain writes that white bread was implicated in a slew of illnesses including “diabetes, criminal delinquency, tuberculosis … rheumatism, liver disease, kidney failure …” White bread’s fortunes sunk, and bakers, who preferred white flour in part because it was cheaper to mill and could be stored longer, were beside themselves.

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