Research: The Rise and Fall of White Bread

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
We've all got our favorite breads, but it's unlikely that plain old white bread is at the top of your list. These days, if you refer to something or someone as “white bread”, it is emphatically not a compliment. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, white bread had a sterling reputation, and even served as a status symbol. So how did it go from being respected to being mocked?

White bread (and Wonder white bread in particular) has the reputation of being not only unhealthy, but classless. The term “White bread” stands for everything bland and uncool, but back in the Middle Ages, you had to really be someone to enjoy white bread. Refining flour cost a lot of money then, and only the aristocrat class could afford such a product. The peasants had to make their own bread from whole wheat flour. That was the status quo for a long time. Around the turn of the 20th century, 90% of bread was baked in home kitchens by women.

Industrialization took care of that. A combination of new technology that made the refining process infinitely cheaper, fear that home kitchens weren’t clean enough, and some good old-fashioned xenophobia about local bakeries run by immigrants led to a huge shift; by 1930, mass-produced bread claimed 90% of the market. Suddenly, everyone was eating white bread. And you know what happens when “everyone” is doing something. The counterculture shows up to disdain everything about it – what we’d call hipsters today.

In the 1960s, those in the counterculture identified white bread as the symbol of everything they hated. It represented big business. It was unnatural. It was boring. To be fair, this wasn’t the first time that white bread came under cultural attack. Anti-white bread sentiment stretches back as far as the 1840s. Once in a while, a nutritionist or diet expert would come along and blame all sorts of things – from cancer to insanity – on factory-made white bread.

Those critics weren’t wrong about some of white bread’s problems, though. The refining process may have given affluent citizens in the Middle Ages an excuse to pat themselves on the back, but it also removes all the components that make bread healthy. Necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber were being stripped away, and although everyone knew that was the case by the early 19th century, industrial breadmakers didn’t want to do anything about it.

Once wheat bread gained popularity as a healthful alternative, they started paying attention. In 1956, it became law to add the vitamins and minerals back into white bread, but by then, it was too late. People were fleeing in droves to wheat bread, which was billed as healthier and cooler than that stodgy old Wonder Bread your parents ate. The advertising did its job; Wonder Bread went into bankruptcy in 2004.

They’ve made some strides in clawing their way back onto the grocery store shelves, but white bread has never reclaimed the cachet it once had. It’s a little sad, given how important to the American table it used to be. So, in honor of this once great staple, a loaf of Wonder is in order. It should still make a pretty tasty grilled cheese.