This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, White vs. Wheat: The Food Fight of the Centuries, first released on March 24. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
STEVE JONES: I don’t like to be in the same room as white flour, and very white pastries and breads creep me out. They look too white. It’s just weird and it’s not natural and it’s odd. And it’s odd if you think you’re basically making paste that we made as second graders, right, out of white flour—is starch and gluten. It makes a very good paste. I don’t get it.
NICOLA TWILLEY: OK. Me personally, I can’t be in the same room as a delicious freshly baked white baguette and not eat it. But to be fair, I have the same problem with a good whole wheat loaf, too.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I actually do try to stay away from purely white flour bread because I feel like there’s something missing in it. I, of course, am Cynthia Graber, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
TWILLEY: This episode, it’s white versus wheat in the bread smackdown of the century. And I’m Nicola Twilley, lover of bread in all its glorious shades.
GRABER: Have we always had both whole wheat and white bread? Or is white flour some kind of newfangled technological fancy thing?
TWILLEY: And is industrial white bread, like Wonder Bread, is that even bread? Because how does it get so squidgy and bouncy?
GRABER: And does it really matter which one we eat? Or is choosing one kind of bread over the other just a kind of snobbery?
TWILLEY: Or, worse, eugenics. This is the ultimate food fight, one that has gone on for thousands of years. White versus wheat, let the showdown begin.
GRABER: First, just to set up the difference—to make white flour, you have to get everything brown out. That’s the bran, or the outside part of the wheat kernel, as well as the brown inside part called the wheat germ. What’s left is the stuff in between that’s white.
TWILLEY: White flour might seem like something modern and industrial, but actually, people have been separating out the wheat bran and wheat germ for a really long time.
AARON BOBROW-STRAIN: I mean, people have had the ability to sift and separate bran from flour for a long time. If they had the power to command the labor that it took. So there are mentions of something like shining white bread going way back in history.
TWILLEY: This is Aaron Bobrow-Strain, he’s a professor of politics at Whitman College, and the author of a book called White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.
GRABER: Aaron says back in history, it took a long time and a lot of human power to manually de-husk kernels and sift flour to get it fine and white. So why would rich people bother? What was so great about white flour?
JONES: So, if you look back in time, white bread, white flour was an elite product because it meant there weren’t sticks and rodent droppings and dirt in it and things like that and sand.
GRABER: Steve Jones is a wheat breeder and head of the Bread Lab at Washington State University.
TWILLEY: OK, so if you were rich in the past, your flour might be hand-cleaned while it was being hand sifted, so there would have be nowhere for rat poo to hide in that shining whiteness. But would it have also tasted better?
GRABER: We know Steve is creeped out by white flour, but Aaron says white bread has some advantages.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Well, I mean, some people would argue that it tastes finer. You can get a softer, lighter loaf as a result of that.
GRABER: So rich people could and did make white bread. But it wasn’t just fluffier and cleaner. White bread quickly took on a bigger symbolic meaning.
BOBROW-STRAIN: It very quickly goes from being a question of taste to being a question of how bread marks certain people as affluent or powerful.
GRABER: And, for as long as there’s been white flour, there’s also been a debate about it—not just what it means, but also whether or not we should be eating it.
TWILLEY: White versus wheat is one of the first recorded food fights in history: Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, had his students debate whether the ideal city should be fed on refined white bread or gritty, whole grain porridge.
GRABER: But the debate wasn’t really about what’s for breakfast, of course—it was about whether city dwellers somehow lost something important, some essential grit, just by living in a city.
TWILLEY: And these debates around bread have been going on so long and so intensely because the stakes are so high.
BOBROW-STRAIN: The biblical phrase “bread alone” is not far from the truth.
TWILLEY: Aaron is quoting from the book of Matthew here, “man cannot live by bread alone”—but actually, the only thing Matthew suggests that you need as a top-up for your all-bread diet is the word of God, so, really, most of your calories are still coming from bread.
BOBROW-STRAIN: In Europe, for example, it would vary by time and place. But, you know, people in Europe got between, say, 40 to 60 percent of calories from bread from, you know, at least the sixteen hundreds to well into the 20th century. In the United States in the 19th century, early 20th century, about a third of calories came from bread. So it’s an incredibly significant food product. Even the English word “lord,” its etymology goes back to the phrase “bread giver.”
GRABER: In Old English the word “hlaf” meant loaf, and “weard” meant guardian, and together the two words formed hlafweard, which eventually became lord. The one who ruled over the bread.
TWILLEY: Even the word “companion” is to do with bread and social hierarchy. Companion comes from Latin—the word “com,” which means together with, and “panis,” which means bread. So your com-panion is a person you’re able to share bread with because you’re in the same social class.
GRABER: So bread has been incredibly important for thousands of years. And throughout that time, the color of the bread signified your social standing. If you were rich, you could afford the labor to make that flour white. The very richest had the very whitest bread. And the poorer you were, the darker your loaf.
TWILLEY Which means that, for most of history, for most people, bread has been brown, and it’s been pretty damn rustic. Aaron says that was true all the way up to the mid-1800s in the US.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And, at that point, about 90 percent of the bread in the United States was baked at home by women. And maybe 10 percent was baked in small, mostly urban bakeries.
GRABER: Throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, the world was industrializing, but bread pretty much stayed the same. Until some enterprising engineers invented mechanical rollers in the early 1800s.
TWILLEY: Roller mills meant that bakers could produce white flour, and lots of it, with minimal effort—these steel rollers were a huge leap forward compared to the old stone mills, which really couldn’t get wheat very white without a lot of human effort to sift it.
GRABER: Steve showed us a mini roller mill he has in a room in his bread lab.
JONES: I can turn it on if you want. SOUND. This is basically peeling a kernel of wheat like an apple.
GRABER: And it’s this type of mill that meant that white flour was no longer just an elite product. By the mid-1800s, the masses could afford it, too.
TWILLEY: And the 1850s was also the last time the majority of bread was made at home in the U.S..
GRABER: But, just like in Plato’s time, people immediately started arguing about whether we all should be eating this well-sifted flour. At the same time as those roller mills started coming on line, a man whose name you know better attached to a s’more started to fight against the spread of white bread.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Sylvester Graham, you know, I guess today we’d mainly maybe remember him because we associate his name with the graham cracker that some followers named after him.
TWILLEY: Crackers aside, Sylvester was a moral crusader and a food reformer who gathered a huge following during the first half of the 1800s.
BOBROW-STRAIN: He saw a white flour as a denatured product that was out of harmony with creation, that then would devastate the bodies and souls of those who ate it, inflaming their joints and fibers and unhinging their moral rectitude.
GRABER: Aaron calls Sylvester Graham America’s first significant white bread critic. And his followers certainly bought his argument and avoided white bread.
TWILLEY: At the time, the US was going through a major cholera epidemic and people were desperate for anything to keep them healthy. And Graham offered exactly that—a path to health based on what you, individually, ate and didn’t eat. Something you could control, as opposed to the public health approach of shared investment in prevention and sanitary water systems.
GRABER: The cholera epidemic eventually ended—not because people ate brown bread, of course. And while Graham’s followers might have continued to eat whole wheat bread, the rest of the country—the majority—were into this newly inexpensive white flour.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, white flour and white bread had some big shot advocates of their own.
BOBROW-STRAIN: So progressivism was a social and political movement of the late 19th, early 20th century. And it believed in the possibility of perfecting the nation. It was a moment when scientific expertise was rising in importance. And when there’s you know great concern about the upheaval of the nation that’s produced by massive urbanization: the United States going from being a largely rural country to being a largely urban country, at the same time that there is large-scale immigration happening.
GRABER: The progressive movement was made up of a lot of middle class white women. And this was at the time when everything was becoming quote scientific. Babies had to be born with doctors and not midwives. Home economics was a science.
TWILLEY: But not all of America’s newest citizens knew about these modern scientific ideas for domestic hygiene. That surge in immigration that Aaron mentioned—those people were coming from Eastern and Southern Europe, and there was a widespread fear in the middle classes that these poor people would bring their traditional ways of baking and running their households with them.
GRABER: The progressive reformers thought that new mechanized white flour and newly mechanized bakeries making white bread were pure and safe, and a huge step up from unclean immigrants who were baking most of the nation’s bread at the time.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And so in that moment, and the kind of production of anxiety around bread and food in general, the shining white loaves churned out by gleaming white factories offered consumers a reassuring sense of safety.
TWILLEY: Steve Jones, the wheat breeder who’s so creeped out by any form of white bread that he doesn’t like to be in the same room as it—his own immigrant great uncle ran one of these gleaming white bread factories back in the twenties.
JONES: So my great uncle’s bakery in Newark, New Jersey, was called the UpToDate Bakery. Years ago I thought, well, that meant he looked in the Polish-American dictionary under “modern” and saw “up-to-date.” The UpToDate bakery was a franchise. What it meant and their tagline is that “human hands did not touch the dough.” Those human hands were Southern and Eastern Europeans in many cases. So my uncle was encouraged to not put his dirty, in quotes, hands into the breads.
GRABER: We will get back to those racist overtones. But the technological innovations kept coming to help make those gleaming super clean hygienic bakeries even more sanitary. One important one was packaging.
BOBROW-STRAIN: In the past, you would either bake the bread at home and you would see the conditions under which it was made or you’d buy it from a nearby bakery and you could perhaps see it coming out of the oven. But now you’re getting it transported over a longer distance. And so there’s concern about what happens to that bread in between this fabulous palace of modern baking and when it gets to my store. So the kind of innovations around bread wrapping are essential to this moment.
TWILLEY: In 1908, cellophane was invented, and along with it, machinery capable of stuffing fresh white loaves into beautiful, clean cellophane bags. Even more untouched by human hands.
GRABER: Now, most bakers didn’t want to use packaging because it was expensive and complicated. But the national baking industry lobbied, they were the people who ran the massive industrial bakeries. And eventually, there were laws that required bread to be wrapped. Which of course favored larger industrial bakers that could afford new wrapping machines.
TWILLEY: But as exciting as wrapping and plastic are, they are not the best thing. The best thing since them would be … sliced bread.
GRABER: Which actually had to be invented.
BOBROW-STRAIN: So you’re referring to July 6th, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, where we saw a nearly bankrupt bakery owner get together with a down-on-his-luck inventor named Otto Rohwedder. And they achieved something that most of the baking industry had thought impossible at the time, which was slicing of bread as it emerged onto the assembly line. And people thought this was absolutely crazy.
GRABER: The blueprints for how to make such a machine had been around for at least a decade at the time, but it just seemed too wild, too impossible.
TWILLEY: People obviously sliced their bread in the past, but at home, as they needed it.
GRABER: Bakers thought slicing bread in the factory might destroy the structure of the bread, or maybe the flavor. Or maybe bread would get stale faster.
TWILLEY: But this particular bakery owner in Missouri was basically bankrupt, he had nothing to lose, and he got together with Otto Rohwedder, and together they gave sliced bread a try.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And the first loaves of industrially sliced white bread pour out of the oven off the assembly line in Chillicothe, Missouri. And it’s a spectacular hit. Newspaper reports talk about sales going up 2000 percent in a matter of days. They talk about housewives’ thrill of pleasure at seeing this fantastically modern new product. And still skeptical bakery journals compare this to other jazz age fads like dance marathons and barnstorming. They don’t believe it’s going to last. But of course, it does. Within a year, industrial sliced bread had spread to nearly every major city in the country.
GRABER: Another reason people were so into sliced bread is that actually it was really hard to slice factory bread at home.
TWILLEY: This new scientific factory bread—it wasn’t just untouched by human hands. It was also filled with modern chemicals—dough conditioners to make sure all the slices looked the same and there were no big holes, preservatives to stop it going moldy while it was shipped. And a handful of other additives that kept it soft and squidge-able.
GRABER: Which made it hard to slice. And this softness was actually key. In the past, people made their bread at home or got it nearby and they could tell if it was fresh, they knew when it was baked.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Now you don’t. And so squeeze-ability becomes the proxy for freshness. And so brilliant bakery engineers begin to redesign and engineer bread for softness, for squeeze-ability, because they know the more squeezable the bread is, the more fresh it will seem.
TWILLEY: So basically, compared to the rustic home-baked loaves that the majority of Americans were eating just a hundred years earlier, bread has had a complete makeover.
GRABER: It was also blindingly white. White had always been a color representing moral purity, but the brightness of the whiteness was a new thing in the 1920s. And that bright white pure modern look infiltrated architecture and kitchen appliances, and bread.
TWILLEY: Like we said, white bread had been the norm since the invention of the roller mills back in the mid-1800s. But it was a creamy white, not the blinding white that symbolized modernity and purity and all things futuristic.
GRABER: And so enterprising scientists invented a bleaching process for bread. Until the 1900s, millers actually let flour age for a few months, because as flour reacts with oxygen, it turns whiter. But that was slow and it took up space, and the flour could spoil. Instead, millers chemically bleached flour for the absolute purest white of all.
JONES: That purity movement was in direct parallel with the whiteness movement of eugenics in this country.
TWILLEY: We did promise a light dusting of eugenics. Today eugenics is usually associated with Nazi Germany, but it was quite the trend in the U.S. too.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Eugenics was reaching its height in the United States in popularity by the 1920s, 1930s. You know, you see eugenics displays and contests in, you know, the county fair.
TWILLEY: We actually have an episode on the forgotten story of how the eugenics movement met the dairy industry in 1920s America to quadruple the nation’s milk production. You should listen to it if you havent—it’s called No Scrubs.
GRABER: It seems like the eugenics movement should support white bread, because it’s, well, white, and some eugenicists did. It was all about racial purity and whiteness.
TWILLEY: There was a doctor and health writer called Woods Hutchinson who was popular at the time. Woods was a big fan of eugenics, and he regularly wrote columns explaining that white bread was one of the reasons Americans were so strapping, tall, intelligent, and brave compared to rye-bread eating Eastern European Jews and the like.
GRABER: This same doctor, though, he even admitted that whole wheat had more nutrients, but many nutritionists at the time thought that fiber was actually bad for you, and that all the bran and husk just passed through us and we couldn’t absorb what was in it anyway. So white was best, at least for white people.
TWILLEY: But the whole wheat boosters were not to be so easily defeated. They even used the eugenics argument in favor of brown bread, too.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And Alfred McCann, one of these crusaders, talks about the possibility of the white race collapsing because it’s too taken, too enamored with this weak and inferior food. And so in his vision it’s threatening the white race.
TWILLEY: Alfred McCann was another popular health expert with a daily radio show. And he was full of great stories about how white bread was actually poison.
GRABER: These were tall tales, of course, but they caught on. And many dieticians and activists warned against white bread—one woman from the League of Women voters said giving too much white bread to your children would cause blindness before they’re six.
TWILLEY: In his book, Aaron quotes an editorial from the Chicago Journal of Commerce, which described the quote wide-open expressionless eyes, pinched nose and contracted jaws that were typical for women who had been quote disfigured by the use of white flour.
GRABER: All of this took a toll on the popularity of white bread.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Such that by the, you know, the 1930s, white bread has taken quite a hit from critiques. You know, in the 1920s there’s a radio show in Chicago that coins the phrase, “The whiter your bread, the quicker you’re dead.” The Depression hits, which then, you know, causes something of a resurgence of home baking and the use of cheaper, less white grains. So in that moment, it’s really World War II that saves white bread.
TWILLEY: During the 1930s and early 1940s, Americans got more calories from industrial white bread than from any other food. They were also in really bad shape. Which was a problem because when war broke out, the military needed to expand its ranks … and lots of young men didn’t make the cut.
GRABER: Experts have calculated that malnutrition was the reason for at least a third of the rejections from the army. The youth were malnourished and people blamed white bread.
BOBROW-STRAIN: I remember a magazine story that raises the question, as World War II is looming on the horizon. It says, you know, paraphrasing here, but it says, you know, look at the Russians with their dark bread and their resilient defense of their homeland. The Germans with their rye bread and, and they’re fierce …. But then look at France, a nation of a fluffy white bread eaters. And they folded to the Germans. What will become of us, the United States, because we’re also a nation of fluffy white bread eaters?
TWILLEY: Other countries where white bread was popular were dealing with similar anxieties over the health of their populations. And they decided to tackle it by making their bread browner. In the UK, millers were legally required to keep in more of the wheat germ to create something called “War Bread,” which Aaron says wasn’t widely loved but did do wonders for the country’s nutrition.
GRABER: But we didn’t do that here in the U.S.. We decided that instead of just keeping in vitamins and minerals that are already in whole wheat, we should just drop these nutrients into white bread—we’d add newfangled wafers of synthetic vitamins and minerals into the white dough at the factory.
TWILLEY: Initially, people were suspicious of this new enriched white bread. Housewives apparently suspected it was more fattening because it was called enriched. Some people thought it must be a medical product meant for the sick and elderly. Others thought enriched was just a meaningless advertising word, and they didn’t trust bread labeled that way.
GRABER: But the U.S. government mandated across the board bread enrichment in War Food Order Number 1.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And there’s tremendous amount of advertising effort and education effort put into teaching Americans that eating vitamin-enriched bread would make them strong.
GRABER: There were all sorts of fun ads telling Americans it was their patriotic duty to eat enriched white bread. Fleischmann’s said that vitamin deficiency was a bomb so powerful it could stun a whole city—and bread fortified with Fleischmann’s enrichment products was the defense weapon the US government itself was urging the whole country to accept.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And you see this then flowing into the Cold War in the 1950s, where you see popular culture and advertising that poses America’s enriched bread as something that makes it powerful in the face of possible Soviet aggression.
GRABER: And that led to even more amazing war ads for enriched white bread. Like the one for Jane Parker’s loaf: “Reach Mom … It’s Loaded!”
TWILLEY: And this all culminates in the glory that is …
WONDER BREAD ADVERTISEMENT
BOBROW-STRAIN: So Wonder Bread is one of the iconic loaves, if not the iconic loaf of industrial sliced white bread. And it’s a loaf of bread that is, you know, if you fan out its slices, each slice is perfect and uniform. There aren’t large holes in the crumb.
GRABER: Wonder Bread actually was invented in the 1920s, but it really had its heyday in the 50s. My mom told me that nobody she knew was eating whole wheat bread in the 50s. And EVERYONE was eating Wonder Bread.
TWILLEY: Wonder Bread is a very curious substance. Obviously, you can use it as bread. But you can also squidge it up and use it to pick up little splinters of broken glass or clean your computer keyboard. It’s even pretty good at absorbing motor oil spills.
BOBROW-STRAIN: I think a lot of people think of it as something that you can scrunch up into a ball and play Ping-Pong with, because it’s so compressible.
JONES: I grew up on Wonder Bread. We’d roll it up and throw it against the wall, and we’d use it as a ball. Everyone jokes about it, but they still eat it, OK. So that’s a little odd.
GRABER: So everyone’s both joking about and eating white bread. Americans were eating a full three to seven slices a day of industrial white bread in the 50s. So they must have liked it …
TWILLEY: Weirdly, in the 1950s, the US government ran a big study on what the perfect loaf of bread should be
BOBROW-STRAIN: And one of the things they did find was that people universally purchased the softest bread possible, but they did not necessarily like the softest bread.
TWILLEY: In the government’s own blind taste tests, housewives described industrial white bread as doughy, gummy, soggy, and too airy. Nearly three quarters of them didn’t have anything good to say about its actual taste. But they’d been told endlessly how nutritious it was, and anyway, this was bread—this was just what it was.
GRABER: But then things changed in the 60s.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Yeah, I mean, so in the 60s, you know, white bread came to symbolize everything that was wrong with America. Right? It was bland, it was chemical, it was corporate. It was the man incarnate. It was the man in food form. And, you know, the slogan “Don’t eat white, eat right,” was popular.
TWILLEY: White bread was the opposite of hip. Fashion editor Diana Vreeland—the Anna Wintour of her day—she famously said, “People who eat white bread have no dreams.”
GRABER: Meanwhile the hippies saw brown bread as part of their fight against the man. Beatrice Trum Hunter, she wrote the Natural Foods Cookbook, she said bread baking constituted a revolt against plastic food in a plastic culture. It was a revolt against the mechanization of life.
BOBROW-STRAIN: In the 60s, whole wheat bread and home baking are seen as an act of rebellion, an act of revolt. And, you know, to bake and eat non-white bread was to be part of something bigger, a kind of collective social change.
TWILLEY: Industrial bakeries naturally felt a bit left out of this flower power fun.Their profits were down, Wonder Bread was no longer this spectacular modern marvel.
BOBROW-STRAIN: And by the 1970s, industrial bakers—who at that moment are kind of in the dumps—and they realize that they can capitalize on this aura of youthful health and rebellion around whole wheat and turn whole wheat and other kinds of artisanal-type baking into a highly dynamic profitable sector. I remember one of the baking journals at the time is very excited about whole wheat bread and the possibility of industrializing whole wheat bread. And they say, now we can sell Cadillacs, not just Fords, where, you know, the old industrial white loaf was the Ford motor car and, you know, the new whole wheat bread was the Cadillac.
GRABER: But the industrialized whole wheat bread wasn’t great. The companies added caramel color to make it look healthier. They added cheap wood pulp to pump up the fiber. They even promoted it as if it was something to brag about—Wonder Bread’s parent company advertised that its supposedly whole wheat Fresh Horizon bread had 400 percent more fiber than white bread—and that fiber came from wood cellulose.
TWILLEY: And then to get the extended shelf life without using un-hip chemical preservatives, industrial bakers filled their wood pulp loaves with sweeteners like molasses, which made it really sweet and kind of moist and gummy in texture.
GRABER: But it’s not like the home-cooked whole wheat bread at the time was so great, either.
JONES: So when I was in college as an undergrad, we were making some really bad whole wheat bread. It was dry. It was crumbly. It didn’t hold together. It was yeasted. It was . . you know, there was probably milk and all kinds of weird stuff. So the reputation of whole wheat—first of all, I’d say if you don’t think whole wheat is going to taste good, you should try again. But also, if you have a bread book from the 70s, 80s or even 90s, I’d put it on a shelf where you can’t reach it, right.
GRABER: That bad rep of whole wheat bread is just what Steve’s trying to change—Steve’s made it his mission to once again turn everyone on to whole wheat.
TWILLEY: Steve was a student at Chico State University in California during those heady days of 70s counterculture.
JONES: So at Chico in the 70s, they had a program where they taught city kids how to farm. So it was the end of that wave of the back-to-the-land movement. So there were 100 hundred undergrads and probably 10 out of that hundred were farm kids. The other 90 were like from the Bay Area or L.A.. And we were just kind of being groovy, you know. So we wanted to grow stuff. So you could lease five acres of land from the farm and grow a crop. And I had the opportunity to grow wheat, and I did. I planted it November 10th of 77. And every day from November 10th of 77 until June of 78, when I harvested it, I went and looked at it. And I just sort of became haunted with the beauty of it.
GRABER: Steve became completely entranced by wheat. And so he became a professional wheat breeder.
JONES: And then I came up here to Washington in 91 and then became the winter wheat breeder for the state in 94-95. And then in 2008—I was a commodity breeder up until then, and I sort of fell out of love with the whole notion of what a commodity is. And I really fell out of love with white flour.
TWILLEY: Steve had fallen in love with wheat’s beauty. But beauty turned out to not be part of his job description.
JONES: So if you’re breeding commodity wheat, you have one goal in mind. And that’s a maximum amount of white flour per acre. There’s no room for novelty or nuance or flavor or nutrition or something like that. So my program has been in place since 1894, no one to this day ever asked me to look at flavor or nutritional value.
GRABER: The problem is, since Wonder Bread had to be exactly the same, slice after slice, it meant that all wheat that was being grown had to be exactly the same, and optimized for white flour.
JONES: So if you’re making Wonder Bread by the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of loaves per day, that flour all better act the same. So that’s where a commodity system comes in, is just that strict predictability of how it’s going to perform.
TWILLEY: So the bread is more uniform, which means the wheat is more uniform, and then the industry as a whole gets much more centralized.
JONES: So about 100 years ago, at the turn of the last century, in a generation and a half, we lost 25,000 flour mills, about, in this country. So 25,000 communities lost jobs. They lost the input. They lost a place for market. They lost all of those things. Today, the scale of mills in this country, there’s 166, and 20 of those produce, I think, 95 percent or so of all the flour consumed in this country. 20 buildings, not 20 individuals or groups. 20 buildings do that much flour.
GRABER: Steve might have fallen out of love with commodity wheat, but he didn’t give up on the plant all together. Instead, he found high-yielding varieties of wheat that had been grown in the Pacific Northwest in the past, and he bred them to try to find a variety that would make great whole wheat flour today.
JONES: We were here in 2008. We grew our first crop in 2009. We harvested it. We milled it here. We had it baked and it was some of the best-tasting wheat we’d ever seen. And that opened up the whole world for us, that I never—I’d been working with wheat since 77. And this was 2009. I had never talked about the flavors of chocolaty and spicy and things like that in wheat. And we were finding that.
TWILLEY: The wheat that Steve’s been breeding since 2008—on the one hand, its kind of anti-commodity. He’s looking for those unusual flavors and even colors—breeds of wheat that would never be suited to becoming industrial white flour to make an industrial white loaf. But Steve’s also not a Luddite—he doesn’t want us all to go back to growing heirloom varieties because their yield is too low and that means farmers can’t make a living. So he’s still focused on that more conventional side of breeding, too—yield, resistance to disease, and so on.
GRABER: And on top of all that, Steve is looking for wheats that are particularly well-suited to a given region—like ones that grow well in cold and rainy Washington State, or ones that thrive even over New England winters. Bringing back tasty whole wheat flour to Steve also means bringing back local wheat economies we’ve lost.
TWILLEY: But most importantly, Steve is breeding for grains that will become whole wheat flour
JONES: We developed the first variety released in the United States since the 1800s that’s never been made into white flour. So that’s. And the funny thing is, all of our previous varieties have these beautiful names. This one’s called 1109. So, it just, it was a cross that we made in 2011, it was the ninth cross. So we re-selected it, and we’re going to name it Doris, after Doris Grant. She was a food person in the UK during the war. She made the—World War II—made the Grant Loaf, which is 100 hundred percent whole wheat loaf that you can do in an hour and a half. And she was an uncredentialed food scientist, and her whole career, she just received tremendous grief from the food industry, because she talked about dead white flour and the living of whole wheat and things like that. She’s a—she’s a major hero for us. So we’re going to rename it Doris.
GRABER: As we said, during World War II, white bread-eating countries were stressed that their soldiers weren’t healthy. And the response of most countries—not the U.S., but most of the others—was to go back to whole grains to help keep their people healthy. Like Doris did with War Bread in the UK.
TWILLEY: Which totally makes sense. Because the husk and the wheat germ—the parts you lose when you make white flour—they are packed with nutrients. The husk has a lot of fiber—that’s bran and you lose that. And the wheat germ is the lunchbox for the future baby wheat seed, so it’s full of vitamins and minerals. And you lose that too.
JONES: It’s quite odd, really, that we would take something like a wheat kernel that’s so nutrient dense and strip it down to where there’s nothing left. It’s quite barren. Right. Again, it’s just starch and gluten. A wheat kernel is 10 percent fiber on average. White flour, zero. Not a little—zero.
TWILLEY: According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, which is the authoritative study on what is causing people to die, lack of whole grains is a bigger killer than lack of fruits or vegetables. In fact, the study concludes it’s pretty much the leading cause of diet-related premature deaths in the world.
JONES: We can solve that so easily. Right? That’s a bit of a frustration. These things are quite solvable. Substitute white flour for whole grain.
GRABER: And, something Steve is thrilled about—these varieties of wheat he’s breeding make flour that tastes better, too.
JONES: The beauty then is within that variation we can find these things like nutritional value, iron and zinc and things like that. Those add to the flavor, which is beautiful.
TWILLEY: But wait, there’s more! Steve says eating whole wheat isn’t just the key to making bread taste better and saving our lives, it’s also going to help feed the world.
GRABER: When you make white flour from grain, you lose 30 percent of it—the bran and the germ make up 30 percent of a kernel of wheat. With whole wheat, when you put a pound of grain in and mill it, you get a pound out.
JONES: And what that does too is that raises the yield of that wheat by 30 percent. That’s massive. So 50 billion pounds of fiber, discarded every year. And we talk about wanting to feed everybody. Right?
TWILLEY: So for more than a decade now Steve has been out there at Washington State breeding better wheat for better flour for better bread. And luckily enough, it just so happens that as he was doing this, the world of bread was changing.
GRABER: The artisanal baking revolution hit.
JONES: And then what happened too in bread was it became trendy, and it became this really cool product. So bakeries in San Francisco and other places do this super groovy loaf and it sells for 15 bucks. And it’s the it thing. Everyone needs that bread.
GRABER: You’ve probably seen it or tasted it yourself. Gorgeous crusty loaves from Tartine in San Francisco, or frankly any of hundreds of bakeries around the country. They’re absolutely delicious.
TWILLEY: Of course, a lot of these beautiful breads are still white bread.
BOBROW-STRAIN: In the defense of artisan bread, what you do get is a bread typically that has been fermented for a much longer period of time, where flavor can be developed slowly, without the need for all the kind of extra flavoring and additives to bring out flavor that had been eviscerated by the industrialization process.
GRABER: So this new white bread is a lot better than the sliced stuff in the stores.
TWILLEY: And artisanal bakers have mostly stuck to using white flour, in part because it’s easier.
GRABER We already have great recipes for white flour bread. And it’s what bakers were largely trained on in, say, France, when they learned to make baguettes.
TWILLEY: Plus, there are technical challenges to replacing white with whole wheat. Whole wheat spoils more quickly, and the tiny bran particles in the flour actually slice through gluten strands, making it hard to trap enough air to create a light loaf.
GRABER: And that light loaf is something we’ve come to expect from high end French-style breads.
TWILLEY: For all of these reasons, artisanal bakers tend to use a blend of white and whole wheat, even in their whole wheat loaves. It’s not easy to reinvent how you bake to go 100 percent whole wheat.
JONES: So one of the reasons that we created the Bread Lab was because we didn’t want to burden bakers with the notion of, hey, shut down your lines and test out this stuff. It may not work well.
GRABER: The Bread Lab is Steve’s solution to the challenges of transitioning to whole wheat. It wasn’t enough to breed new varieties of wheat that would have great yield for farmers and produce grain better-suited to whole wheat flour. He also needed to figure out if the varieties he was growing would work well for millers and bakers.
JONES: So we can look at hundreds of things easily. We bake most days. We bake many days. We look at tens of thousands of different wheats each year in the field. We grow tens of thousands of different types. And then we’ll bake. And it helps us then see, well, it absorbs too much water or not enough. Or, you know, it’s too strong or too weak or whatever. It allows us as breeders to set new targets.
TWILLEY: And it also allows Steve and his colleagues to help bakers work with these non-standard whole grain wheats. Steve says some pastries are actually pretty straightforward—you often just need a little more water.
JONES: If it’s a pastry, if it’s a cookie, a common mistake that bakers make is they’ll go online and look up whole wheat cookie recipe. You know, it has 20 ingredients, it tastes like a walnut shell, right, by the time it’s done. The key to almost any pastry—and there is not a pastry that can be made that cannot be made at 100 percent whole wheat, we say that now, we know that as a fact—it is to adjust your formula some, add more moisture and just do it. Don’t get so crazy on it. If you want to make 100 percent whole wheat chocolate chip cookie, take out the white flour, put in whole wheat. It’s that easy.
GRABER: He says it’s easy—but it’s not always that easy.
JONES: One of the toughest things to make is what we did first in the lab and that’s a 100 percent whole wheat croissant. That was baked by Jeff Yankellow. He’s a baker at King Arthur. And a few years ago, he went to Paris, France, to compete in the Coup du Monde de Boulangerie, which is just what it sounds like. It’s sort of the Olympics of bread. And we said, “Could we do it?” And he perfected that right there.
TWILLEY: Steve has a giant photo of Jeff Yankellow’s perfect whole wheat croissant on the wall. And it really is perfect.
JONES: What makes it perfect is a—is certainly the layers, the honeycomb look to it. Then the glassiness of the bubbles that were in there. So you see the glistening within it. That’s a perfect croissant.
TWILLEY: But still, a year to develop the perfect whole wheat croissant—you can see why many bakers might just stick with white flour. And whole wheat bread is a whole other set of challenges.
JONES: Breads are more difficult. With breads, you add more water, so you bring the hydration way up. That’s what it takes. So it’s possible, right. You have to adjust how you do it, and you do it. The key is it doesn’t have to be crumbly. It doesn’t have to be dry. It doesn’t have to be dense.
GRABER: After we spent some time gazing hungrily at the whole wheat croissant photo, we walked into the Bread Lab’s kitchen to see what Steve and his team had been baking that day.
GRABER: I love how today’s menu is: bread.
TWILLEY: I know. Does that change ever?
JONES: It’s been up for a while.
TWILLEY: Bread was on the menu, and bread was what we ate. Several slices of freshly baked new whole wheat varietals that Steve and his colleagues are evaluating.
GRABER: Very good. It’s just really good.
TWILLEY: It’s delicious. Mmmm.
JONES: I think an important point, too, is they don’t have to taste good. So part of the breeding process is, is some of these may taste delicious. Some may not. Some—you’ll see the volume of these. Some had tremendous strength and just blew up beautifully. They had a lot of spring in the oven and then others are kind of flat. A lot of people come through and we’ll have a bunch of breads that look like we don’t know how to bake. It’s more the wheat than us.
GRABER: So Steve and his team are baking bread every day to try to figure out how the varietals are doing. Obviously they can’t quite keep up with eating it all, so they take the leftovers of these big round crusty loaves that we tried to the food bank.
JONES: And we’d feel great and we were doing so well. And then one day they said, “You know, no one’s taking your bread.” I said, “Oh my God.” And they said, “Two reasons.” One, it doesn’t look like bread. So it was some rustic batard, you know, that’s over-fired. And it’s not sliced. We said, “What do you need?” And they’re the ones that informed us upfront. It needs to be soft. It needs to be sliced. It needs to look like bread.
TWILLEY: Because this is the problem with the artisanal bread movement. This bread is not for everyone. I mean, part of it is a lot of people don’t have a good-enough knife to slice up these gorgeous crusty loaves. But the other part is that, for a lot of people, these rustic batards aren’t really what they think of as bread.
JONES: People do want soft sliced sandwich bread. I mean, it sounds like I’m, I don’t know what, the anti-something here. Right? But they do. That’s what I have every morning, is toast. So I have that with peanut butter on it. This is the most popular style of bread in this country, the most popular style of bread in the UK and in much of Europe. In France, it is the most popular style. We’re not going to change that.
GRABER: And there’s also an economic aspect to this, too. All those gorgeous crusty loaves that people swoon over at artisanal bakeries, they’re expensive.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Now we’re in a moment where we have industrial white bread for people who are extremely cost conscious, and then whole wheat bread and artisanal bread are more elite niche market items. So it’s an interesting moment where a lot of people are eating healthier bread and better bread. But it’s happening in a way that both mirrors and is also reinforcing the growing inequality in our society.
TWILLEY: Every year, the Bread Lab hosts a conference called the Grain Gathering. And, soon after his food pantry breakthrough, Steve raised this issue of who their bread was actually for.
JONES: We got together at the Grain Gathering a few years ago, and we said that we’re pricing people out. So where is the big need? And the big need is in bread as people recognize it: soft in a plastic wrapper. And sliced. And it’s going to last for a week, let’s say, before it’ll mold. Can we do that? We can.
GRABER: A couple of years ago, Steve started to work on this new idea, this supermarket-style whole wheat bread. First he recruited the baker who’d created the whole wheat croissant. And then he invited a whole group of bakers to join in.
JONES: We work with bakers that say the last thing that I wanted to do as an artisan baker was cook in a pan, make it soft, and slice it. These people are doing this now.
TWILLEY: The goal Steve set was clear. Make something that functions exactly like industrial white bread, but without the crappy ingredients.
JONES: We’re going to make something just like it. It’s gonna be light in color. It’s going to be 60 to 100 percent whole wheat. And it’s going to sell for no more than $6 a loaf.
GRABER: And they’ve done it. It’s rectangular and puffy and a little sweet and it’s sliced. And it’s 100 percent whole wheat, with no more than seven total ingredients. Steve calls it the Approachable Loaf.
JONES: The way it works is it has a little olive oil in it and it has a little honey in it. And it’s a long ferment. So it’s a sourdough. Some bakers spike it with a touch of yeast at the end to kind of puff it up. And there’s a skill to it. It’s amazing what you can do if you kind of don’t say no. So you want soft bread that’s going to last a week and doesn’t have 20 extra ingredients in it. Why is that impossible?
TWILLEY: Steve says it’s not impossible. But honestly, I wasn’t convinced that Steve’s Approachable Loaf was really going to be like an industrial white sandwich loaf. It’s just too big a leap from a delicious crusty sourdough to a squidgy square thing in a plastic bag.
GRABER: So, of course, we tasted it.
GRABER: OK. So this is the 100 percent.
LAURA VALLEY: Yeah.
TWILLEY: This is 100 percent. Beautiful, soft. Can I throw it in a ball at the wall? Is that—is that the idea?
TWILLEY: It has a tiny bit more tooth to it, but it’s pretty sandwichy.
GRABER: Yeah. Has a little more going on. But it’s not like, oh my gosh, this isn’t recognizable as what it would usually be.
TWILLEY: It’s got the same squidge-ability that I get in a sandwich that I buy at the supermarket.
GRABER: It is very mushy.
JONES: So you bring that home, that will last on the counter easily five days and retain its softness. After that, throw it in the freezer. And if your bread is lasting five days, you’re not eating enough anyway. So just eat it instead. But now the classic Approachable Loaf would stay soft for about five days. And it can go—it depends, up to 10 days to 12 or 14 without molding at all.
GRABER: The Approachable Loaf was genuinely delicious, and kind of surprising. I brought some back to my brother’s in Seattle, and my niece first wouldn’t try it and then went back for seconds. I brought some home, too, and my partner Tim, who is a fantastic home baker, he could barely believe it was 100 percent whole wheat.
TWILLEY: Yeah, you know, I’m spoiled because there are so many great bakeries near me in LA and I buy their delicious rustic looking bread. But this was good and for some things—like a grilled cheese or a PB&J—it was actually better.
GRABER: I imagine some of you listeners will want to try it, and there are a few bakeries and supermarkets around the country that are already making and selling the Approachable Loaf.
TWILLEY: And we have the link to the recipe on our website at gastropod.com in case you want to make it at home.
GRABER: But we’re not all going to be able to buy approachable loaves any time soon. The wheat being grown commercially mostly isn’t the right kind to make whole wheat flour. The system we have today is based on storing flour for a really long time, and whole wheat flour goes bad faster. Today’s industrial packaged loaves are meant to sit on shelves forever
JONES: We have one in the lab that the sell by date was June 3rd. That was June 3rd of 2018. And it’s still soft and squishy and never molded.
GRABER: Like Steve said, the Approachable Loaf can last for a while, but not that long.
TWILLEY: Still, the Approachable Loaf is a solution to part of the problem—but only part of it. For one, there isn’t enough of the right wheat being grown. There also aren’t enough mills to grind whole wheat. And frankly, there aren’t enough bakers working with whole wheat yet, either.
JONES: What we’re constantly working on is the affordability and the puzzle of scale.
GRABER: Things are changing. Scientists and doctors have made it clear that whole wheat flour is a healthier choice than white, and people who can afford it have been buying more of it.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Yeah, I think it was in 2009 is when the total value of whole wheat sales are greater than white bread sales for the first time.
TWILLEY: And Steve is still pushing. Next up: 100 percent whole wheat hamburger and hot dog buns.
GRABER: All this sounds great. As Steve said, white flour has all the good stuff taken out, so if everyone can switch to whole wheat bread, so much the better.
TWILLEY: And yet I’m afraid I’m going to have to do a yes but—because, of course, yes—but, at the same time, this white versus wheat debate—it’s never been just about bread. That’s the whole point of Aaron’s book—whenever we talk about what kind of bread people should be eating, we’re talking about values too.
GRABER: In the past, eating brown bread meant you were poor, or, in racist terms, you were a dirty immigrant.
TWILLEY: And eating white bread meant you were progressive and modern, and, yes, white.
GRABER: Today, calling something white bread can mean it’s boring and bland. And also, most of the people who eat industrial white bread today tend to be poor—Aaron says in popular culture now, white bread often signifies quote white trash.
TWILLEY: And the brown bread eaters—the stereotype is they’re the foodie elite, who are constantly trying to get poor people to put down the Doritos and eat more delicious purple sprouting broccoli.
GRABER: The white versus wheat debate still splits along class and income lines, it’s just flipped.
BOBROW-STRAIN: Yeah I mean the story of debates about white bread is really the story of well-meaning reformers who are trying to improve the nation by changing what people eat. You know, in some cases that makes some really important improvements and changes. But more often than not, it mostly ends up reinforcing and deepening forms of exclusion and existing kind of social hierarchies. It can exacerbate class divides, for example.
TWILLEY: And the economic inequalities underlying those class divisions are, obviously, not actually about bread and who buys which kind, they’re about how our society is structured and the opportunities or lack of them for different groups.
BOBROW-STRAIN: I’m always wanting to say, you know, we need to focus a little bit less on what other people are eating and a little bit more on the underlying dynamics of inequality and social power, corporate concentration in the baking industry, for example, that make our food system the way it is, rather than focusing so much attention on changing the way individuals eat, because that has such a long and fraught history of ending up targeting people as irresponsible and worsening forms of social difference.
GRABER: I support Steve’s effort—and so does Aaron. It’d be great to have tastier whole wheat flour, more local mills, and better whole wheat bread that people want to buy and can afford to buy. But neither of them want the discussion to spill over into a critique of who people are based on what bread they eat.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Steve Jones and his team at the Bread Lab for hosting us and feeding us such delicious bread, and cookies, and also beans.
GRABER: Thanks to Aaron Bobrow-Strain, his book is called White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. He also has a new book out called The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez, a Border Story.
TWILLEY: You can go to gastropod.com for links to those and for the Approachable Loaf recipe—let us know if you try it!
GRABER: We’d also like to thank Ashley Belanger, our absolutely amazing intern, who helped us with this episode. And is the only reason our tiny team is getting our shows out this spring.
TWILLEY: We hope you are all staying as healthy as possible in these anxious and challenging times. We’re continuing to make Gastropod in the hope it keeps you entertained and even distracts a little from the grimness. Hang in there.
GRABER: Til next time.