The staff of life.
Your bread and butter
Greatest thing since sliced bread
To break bread
Have you contemplated bread lately? Ancient cultures used bread as currency; even not so ancient peoples understood the concept of “working for your daily bread.” We commonly associate the word bread with something vital, valuable and life sustaining. Now, go take a stroll through the bread aisle at your local grocery store . . . can that soft, plastic wrapped loaf actually be the product that generated all those idioms and metaphors?
It is not.
We have a terrible habit of settling for second best when it comes to our food these days. And in terms of bread, perhaps we’re settling for third or fourth best.
Bread can seem a mystery to the uninitiated, but like all mysteries – once revealed appear obvious. There are only four items needed at any time to create bread: flour, water, salt and yeast. You may increase, ad infinitum, to that list but taking away will eliminate the ability to produce bread. I should mention, for the sake of argument, that yes you might take out yeast and still be left with a variety of flat breads, tortillas and such, but let’s agree that these are not true breads . . . for the sake of argument.
Adding “unnecessary” ingredients to bread is not a new idea. We like to think that it is the modern industrial machine, out to produce cheap knock offs of the real thing & make a profit on the unwitting consumer, that’s invented cutting corners and adding potential poisons to our food supply. I’m afraid to have to burst your “us vs them” party – food adulteration – it’s been going on for a long, long time-probably as long as one guy has been selling something to some other guy! As long as there’s stuff to be made and a profit to be had-adulterations, shortcuts and an extra finger on the scale are business as usual.
In 1758 a Dr. Peter Markham wrote a pamphlet entitled “Poison detected: or frightful truths; and alarming to the British metropolis. In a treatise on bread; and the abuses practised in making that food …” charging both millers and bakers with adulterating flour in order to either add weight or whiten the resulting bread.
Alum was the principal substance used for the whitening of bread, and here it’s important to understand the mindset of the 18th century bread buyer. White bread was considered better bread- almost a complete reverse of our current understanding! Numerous bakers established, in their defense, that the customer “must have it” in reference to the need to whiten their breads. Complicit or not, consumers often suffered the ill effects of the variety of adulterants used in bread during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Stomach ailments and digestive difficulties were just a few problems garnering attention as awareness about food adulteration increased. While the British crown wasn’t keen on intervening on behalf of it’s citizens, different layers of bureaucracy got involved from time to time in policing food and drink. As far back as the 14th century Britain brewers were subject to the judgements of “conners” whose purpose it was to sample each new batch of ale and pronounce it suitable for consumption. A great gig if you could get it!!
Not long after the conners appeared on the scene, the Grocers were awarded the task of “garbling” each shipment of pepper and spice coming into the country. These items were easy to adulterate, and garblers were quite busy on the London docks sorting and sifting through spices looking for all manner of impurities. It is a fascinating subject, and for an excellent book on the subject of garblers, conners and the history of tampering with food, see Bee Wilson’s Swindled.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that we see evidence of wholesale adulteration of flour and bread. Many claim the poor harvests preceding Markham’s 1758 treatise on poisoned bread motivated much of the tampering he railed against. Millers were faced with extremely poor wheat with which to produce flour and bakers were forced to find ways to manipulate that flour to create saleable bread. Early on, someone discovered that the addition of alum improved the performance of poor flour-and best of all whitened the resultant bread. As I’ve mentioned, white bread was considered premium, and there’s lots of evidence that people accepted a certain degree of deception as long as it afforded them the whitest of white bread. In a culture of rigid class distinctions folks were anxious to be seen adopting the tastes of the upper classes. Hmmmmm . . . not that we’d do anything like that!
The problem in 1757 is that with such a disastrous wheat harvest, bakers took the alum, and other additions, too far and created bread that was disgusting even to those previously willing to swallow a little adulterated white bread. I think it’s important to point out that even while we holler about profit centered Big Food producers feeding us crap – how complicit are we in our own demise? No company is going to continue selling something that no one will buy. If we know what we’re getting, do we really have the right to cry “foul?”
Back to the grocery store aisle: Do you know what you’re getting in your daily bread? I’m guessing not. A good starting point would be the list of ingredients, but even that is not going to enlighten the average person. Just picking up a random bread off the shelf I counted 17 ingredients in a loaf. Remember those four ingredients? Flour, water, salt, yeast? I can take those four things and produce bread! Even better I can propagate a sourdough starter and eliminate the commercial yeast and create even BETTER bread! But that’s another story . . . !
While those basic ingredients are necessary for bread making, taking them and multiplying them exponentially for use in an industrial setting presents some complications. Bread dough is sticky-I can dip my hands in water and mix on; however, the giant metal mixing arms must have a different remedy, so dough conditioners are added to the mix. The natural bread process takes hours, even days in the case of sourdoughs- factory bread must go from raw ingredients to finished products in the shortest time possible to create desirable profit margins; therefore, various conditioners and rising agents are added.
For an excellent description of the modern, factory bread process see Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters: The Sorry State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide for Baking your own. Chapter one contains an informative list of emulsifiers, bleaches, enzymes and preservatives typically found in the modern bread process. Don’t be surprised if they’re not all listed on the ingredients either! Industrial bread makers claim that these additives are used up in the production process and therefore not present (in measurable amounts) in the final product and therefore don’t need to be listed. Their claims have been supported by the very regulatory agencies that purport to protect consumer interests. Exactly whose interests are being protected becomes a fuzzy concept.
Food adulteration isn’t new, and much of it we willingly participate in! Consider “sugar free” for example- how many of us thought we were doing ourselves a favor by picking diet products? Then there are those ingredients we are completely unaware of . . . chlorine dioxide gas . . . used to bleach flour and “improve” the dough’s journey through the industrial machining process. And on and on it goes.
There are so many additives out there and for every one there seems to be an excuse justifying its presence in our food supply. However, it’s safe to say that virtually none of the additions are there for our benefit rather they exist to facilitate industrial applications and for the “improvement” of poor quality ingredients. It would be impossible to write a blog post identifying and describing just the additives in bread, let alone every other processed food out there! Here’s what I can tell you . . .
Knowledge is the first step. How can you identify what’s good for you if you don’t know what you’re eating? Grab a loaf of packaged, factory produced bread off the store shelf and take a look at the ingredients . . . and remember those four things I mentioned- flour, water, salt, yeast.