The Crusade Against White Bread

cover (17)If anything has united health-conscious North Americans, it is the belief that white bread is inherently evil. Indeed, they have denounced refined white flour with a consistency that is matched only by the equally steadfast manner in which they have condemned refined white sugar. But this is a well-worn position that dates back to the very moment when the refinement process was patented in the mid-nineteenth century. The newfangled loaves had only just started to appear in American kitchens when health reformer Sylvester Graham set out on his quixotic crusade against white bread. His diatribes against the refinement of flour had all of the righteous indignation of an itinerant preacher’s altar call.

But Graham’s jeremiad was only heard in small circles, and even there he probably found some hard hearts. Americans liked their white bread, for the most part. They liked the look of it. They liked its ethereal fluffiness, and its delicate (some would say nonexistent) flavor. Besides, white bread stayed fresh considerably longer than its virtuous brown predecessor, because the refined flour from which it was made had been emancipated from its more earthbound, perishable parts. For Graham, the impoverished remnants of the denuded wheat berry that went into white bread represented everything that was wrong with the industrialization of the American food supply. He believed that something precious and essential was irretrievably lost during this violent process.

Graham’s sentiments have been recycled and reused by pure-food activists, almost verbatim, for over a century and a half. One Prevention writer described white bread as “pre-sliced absorbent cotton” with the nutritional value of sawdust, whilst another maintained that consuming it was a mortal sin: “Destroying God’s temple takes place when we ingest material that has been bleached, processed, and stripped of all its God-given nutrients.” Adelle Davis went so far as to claim that France was easily overwhelmed by the Nazis in 1940, in part, because of “the enfeebling French passion for white bread.” There was certainty and perhaps some comfort to be found in this stridency. Newly-minted health enthusiasts, still trying to figure out what was required of them, could be absolutely sure of at least one thing: white flour products were expressly forbidden.

Did it then follow that whole wheat bread—made of virginal, unsullied flour—was permitted? Not necessarily. Even the subject of bread could be thorny. Jerome Rodale, for one, stood squarely against the consumption of bread in any form to his dying day. “Bread,” as he so often declared, “has no place in the Prevention System. It is not the staff of life, even though it is whole wheat.” “To me,” he added, “this prescription against bread is one of the most important planks in the Prevention System, and applies to the organically-raised wheat as well as that raised with chemical fertilizers.” Unambiguously clear statements such as these left little room for amendments or innovation.

All the same, as if to keep Prevention’s six million readers on their toes, Robert Rodale successfully performed yet another doctrinal about-face in the late 1970s. On his watch, bread not only made it back on the table, it became a staple, one of the centerpieces of his new and improved, high-carbohydrate version of the Prevention System. Prevention magazine continued to sing the praises of whole-grain bread in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s. Jerome Rodale must have rolled over in his grave!

—John Faithful Hamer, In Healthy Living We Trust (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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