For many centuries white bread was regarded as an expensive luxury food, owing to the low yield of flour after the removal of bran and wheat germ during milling. Wholemeal and bran breads were eaten by poor people. Several factors contributed to the increased availability of flour, that made white bread available to the whole population more than two centuries ago. The agricultural revolution, followed by importation of foreign wheats, increased the supplies of wheat to the millers. The introduction of fluted steel rollers during the industrial revolution meant that wheat grains could be crushed and separated more effectively. The majority of bread now consumed is of the white variety, although a trend for reinstating brown bread has begun. The patterns of consumption of bread are tending to reflect the changes in custom of serving bread. At one time it was only the people who could afford good knives who could cut bread but now that sliced bread is readily available it has often become more acceptable to break bread at the dining table than to cut it.

Modern bread production

Much of our modern bread has an interesting origin in history. The Roman cottage loaf, the Viking crispbreads, the Georgian tin loaf are still available today. However the majority of bread purchased is sliced and wrapped and is the most popular type of convenience bread. The change to modern bread has come about for several reasons. Firstly, the type of flour we import has a higher protein content than home grown wheats, and this helps the bakers who require a well risen, opentextured loaf.

In order to achieve a satisfactory bread in home baking, it is necessary to buy high protein or strong flour which forms a more elastic dough and gives a better loaf. Secondly, an automated streamline method of bread production has been developed so that large batches of dough can be mechanically mixed once, risen once, baked, cooled, sliced and wrapped. Several finer qualities of bread are lost during this process but the advantages of cheapness, convenience and longer storage life are gained.

Brown v. white

People tend to underestimate the nutritional value of bread, but it is not just a starchy energy food. It contributes significant quantities of protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins to our diets. There is also a dispute about the nutritional value of brown and white bread. Wholemeal flour is made from whole wheat grains which have been milled but have had nothing added or removed. White flour is made from wheat grains which have been crushed and all the outer flakey covering (bran) and the plant embryo (wheatgerm) removed. These brown parts constitute thirty per cent of the wheat grain and the remaining flour is called “seventy per cent extraction,” or white flour. As there are several nutrients concentrated in the wheatgerm like minerals, B vitamins and vitamin E, people claim that white bread must be less nutritious. However, by law the millers have to put back into breadmaking flour many of the nutrients that are lost; thiamin, nicotinic acid and iron, and also additional calcium (which is poorly absorbed from wholemeal flour).

There is also a current theory that a lack of roughage in the diet leads to disorders of the gut, which can be remedied or prevented by eating more wholemeal cereal products which contain bran. Although there are slight nutritional differences between the different breads, they are insignificant in the context of a good diet, as was shown in an experiment after the Second World War on children who had been starved, but then grew equally well regardless of the type of bread they were subsequently fed.