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Enriched White Bread
Really?

Ross Hume Hall, Ph.D.
biochemistry, nutrition,  food technology.

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What do you call a highly refined wheat product that has been stripped of 11 known vitamins, half a dozen nutritionally significant minerals, as well as the essential fatty acids? Some would say nutritional junk.

Well, add back four of those lost vitamins and one mineral, iron. What would you call the product now? The government calls it ENRICHED FLOUR.

Believing the governmentís decision to call a refined food enriched is based on science, naive folk in the nutrition community promote enriched white flour as the equivalent of whole-grain flour. This is the equivalent of a mortician declaring the deceased is alive. When, in fact, the embalmed corpse only looks alive.

Enriched White Bread got Its Start in World War II

"Enriching" a nutritionally dead food got its start in the midst of World War II. The government in the interests of boosting the war effort wanted to boost the quality of the American diet. They chose the staff of life, bread, as their vehicle for improvement.

This is where culture and politics enters. The idea of persuading a population raised on the white cottony stuff to switch to whole grain seemed politically impalpable. People loved the easily chewed, bland, white bread. That brown, whole-wheat stuff? Only health nuts ate it.

Dietitians assured those who worried about nutritional value that the only difference between the two breads was lack of thiamin (vitaminB1) in white bread.

Curiously, they made this argument in spite of experiments by a professor H. Chick, Lister institute, Cambridge, England. Chick fed rats white flour bread enriched with thiamin and found the rats did "poorly" compared to rats fed bread made from whole-wheat flour.

Nevertheless, H.W. Sebrell, an influential nutrition scientist of the time, made a ringing statement in favor of enriching white flour with thiamin and two more Vitamins of the B series. . The upshot: the wartime government decided white flour should be enriched with three B vitamins and one mineral:

Niacin
Riboflavin
Thiamin
Iron

The editors of the authoritative journal, Nutrition Reviews (1943), were dismayed at the governmentís decision to got ahead with enrichment. The wartime British government faced with the same issue had opted to manufacture a less refined flour. The editors addressed the fundamental question of whether or not adding three B vitamins and iron to one food product improves the nutritional status of the nation.

"It is a curious fact that enrichment of white flour and white bread was promulgated with little direct experimental evidence to demonstrate the value of such a proposal to the human being."

The Modern, Enriched White Loaf

Until the nineteenth century, millers ground grain between two stones, one stationary, one rotating. Then a Hungarian invented the roller mill. The grain passes between serrated steel rollers, one rotating twice as fast as the other. The result: the grain kernel is torn apart rather being ground.

Roller ripping revolutionized manufacture and refining of flour. Ripping enables the miller to separate the three main parts of a grain kernel?

1) The outer layer or bran, which contains most of the B vitamins and minerals.
2) The germ or embryo, which contains essential fatty acids and vitamin E.
3) The endosperm or starch.

With stone-round flour, the bran can be easily sieved out. The germ and endosperm, however, remain. But with roller-ground flour, the germ can also be separated and discarded. Bakers were now able to produce loaves of white bread devoid of bran and germ, to say nothing of the vitamins and minerals the whole grain once contained.

Siegfried Giedion in his book, The Mechanization of the Organic comments: "The bread-making process refuses to be hastened beyond narrow limits, for mechanization here encounters a substance whose laws are inviolable. Whenever mechanization encounters a living substance, bacterial or animal, almost indifferently it is the organic substance that determines the law."

Giedion had not reckoned on the power of chemistry. By 1890 the modern, automated flour mill was in use in America and Europe. The mechanical aspects of flour and bread making had seemingly gone about as far as they could go. Millers and bakers, as Giedion points out, still had to contend with a living substance. Grain quality varies from harvest to harvest and from farm to farm. Millers and bakers had to second-guess how each batch would behave.

Modern manufacturers demand uniformity. A bakery turning out a million loaves of white bread a day wants flour that gives one million identical loaves. The chemical industry obligedówith chlorine.

Chlorinating the  Enriched White Loaf

Chlorine, a potent poison, does two things. First, it bleaches, that is, it destroys the yellowish pigments in the flour. The pigment is actually carotene, which your body converts into vitamin A

 Second, chlorine matures the flour by reacting with the gluten. The chlorinated flour makes a more elastic dough, better able to hold the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast.

Chemical treatment of the flour, a boon to millers, brings all batches of flour up to a pre-set standard. Millers and bakers use several other chemicals, all with the same goal of leveling inconsistencies in the organic nature of the flour, producing a chalk-white product.

Here are some of the chemicals they use:

Aluminum chloride
Azocarbonamide
Benzoyl peroxide
Calcium propionate
Calcium sulfate
Chlorine
Chlorine dioxide
Nitrogen dioxide
Potassium bromate
Potassium iodate

You wonít find any of these chemicals in the home kitchen. Only trained personnel, wearing protective gear can use them. Does all this bleaching, maturing and adding a list of toxic chemicals to flour and white bread add to nutritional value? Not one wit.

Then, are they that harmful? The chemical residues in baked products may be small and not immediately threatening to health. But such highly aggressive chemicals leave other sorts of residues.

They react with components of the flour creating a variety of byproducts. The byproducts remain in the flour and thus in the products baked from the flour. The toxic effects on human consumers of the chemically treated baked goods have never been investigated. The manufacturers seem to have the attitude, "if there are any problems with these residues, we donít want to know."

The enriched, white flour made from wheat introduced in the 1940ís remained the government standard for almost 60 years. The only change occurred in 1995, when a fourth B vitamin was added to the mandatory standard, folic acid (folate).

From a cellís-eye view, enriched white flour lacks whole-wheat flourís nutritional depth. Three B vitamins erased during refining, biotin, pantothenic acid, and pyridoxine (B6) are not restored. Vitamin E is a casualty of bleaching. Essential fatty acids are discarded, part of the unwanted germ. And then thereís bran. Not nutritional perhaps, but sure helps to make digestion more efficient and the bowels regular.

If enriched white flour were a small part of a personís diet, the argument could be made that folks get missing vitamins and minerals in other foods. But enriched white flour appears in so many common American foods: breads, rolls, hamburger buns, muffins, all kinds of baked goods, to say nothing of pastas and crackers.

The United States Department of agriculture (USDA) makes grains the base of its food pyramid. For Americans, two grains make up that base: enriched white flour from wheat and white rice. White rice like enriched white flour has lost its spectrum of vitamins and minerals. A curious combo to form the base of the countryís nutritional well being.

Of Mice and Fortified Breakfast Cereal 

Some years a go, one of my students conducted a test, feeding mice fortified breakfast cereals (enriched with a dozen or so vitamins). The control mice ate whole grains.

The objective of the experiment was to feed pregnant mice the enriched breakfast cereal and study the offspring. The idea was to to see if what, if any, effects mom's diet had on the next generation. A week or so after the student started the experiment, I was in my office when he came in looking out of sorts. "Whatís the problem?" I asked.

"My experiment is a failure."

The worried look came from the fact he believed he wouldnít be able to write a term paper based on the experiment. "So whatís gone wrong," I said.

"The control mice did fine. But the pregnant females are dead."

Yes, the females never gave birth. They died within a week of starting to eat the enriched breakfast cereal.

Trying to Rescue Low-grade Foods by Enrichment

The original wartime idea, of trying to enrich the American diet by enriching white flour still prevails. In fact, modern food manufactures have expanded the list of products they now enrich (fortify), from breakfast cereal to candy bars.

But the manufacturers have failed to do what proponents of enriched white flour also failed to do back in the 1940ís. They havenít demonstrated that "enrichment" of a highly refined food, loaded with chemical additives, benefits the human being.

Hot Tip

The baking industry makes a variety of products in addition to cottony white bread. Many retain the nutritional goodness of the original grain(s). Here is a simple ranking of different breads. 

1st Rank: Whole wheat or mixture of whole grains
2nd Rank: Whole grain mixed with unbleached white flour
3rd Rank: Frozen dough breads
4th Rank: White and brown (it's caramel color) breads, the squeezable kind

For more information about bread and grains see my book, The Unofficial Guide to Smart Nutrition

 © Ross Hume Hall, 2001. All rights reserved.
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