As I trawl my way through the food industry news every week (wanna know why? click here), I sometimes come across items of such mind-numbing stupidity that, in order not to explode, I just need to sound off. And no better place for it than right here.
So, on July 5th I read, that the (UK) Federation of Bakers (FOB), was not a happy bun(ny). The reason? UK bread consumption has been declining around 2% each year for the past few years. The worst affected category, to the organisation’s horror, was white bread (which, however, still accounts for the vast bulk of UK bread sales).
This heinous revelation made the FOB’s director Gordon Polson wail, “We’ve been too successful in saying wholemeal is good for you. What we forgot to say is that white bread is good for you, too. It’s our fault for promoting wholemeal!“.
Oh dear. What were they expecting? That people would start eating wholegrain bread in addition to white bread rather than instead of? And yes, having been exposed to food industry logic for over two decades, I have absolutely no doubt that this is exactly what they were expecting. The food industry routinely offers us ‘healthier’ options on the bizarre premise that sales of the standard stuff will not be negatively affected. If those sales do fall, they complain. If they remain stable, but the healthier version doesn’t fly off the shelves fast enough for their liking, they also complain.
But I digress. Anyway, in response to the FOB’s woes, nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton was duly interviewed on the bread issue, and she dared to venture the professional opinion that, although white bread was marginally better than sweets, there was really no point in eating it at all, from a nutritional perspective.
Well, the FOB did not want to hear THAT. Oh no. According to them, “there are no negatives to eating white bread. It’s not unhealthy, just different“. And besides, they hastened to point out, it was fortified with calcium and other good things.
It is true that white flour in the UK (and in many other countries) is fortified with a small number of vitamins and minerals. In the UK it’s calcium, iron, vitamins B1 (thiamin) and B3 (niacin) – this is a legal requirement. But why is there a law in the first place? Let me explain…
The milling process strips the grain of all its nutrients, except for the dead pile of starch you’re left with at the end, which serves as an energy source for the body, but nothing more. In fact, in order for the body to process and metabolise this depleted flour, several vitamins and minerals are required, which it now has to find elsewhere.
A British institution: The crisp sarnie – a sandwich filled with potato chips.
The flour fortification law was passed precisely because white bread is a public health concern, and not to add a little bit of extra nutrition for good measure. Bread is a staple food in the UK, and this means that it might make up a significant proportion of someone’s daily food intake, particularly among less well off socio-economic groups.
Nobody is going to develop a deficiency from tossing a poached egg on a couple of slices of white toast in the morning, but if all you can afford to eat, day in, day out, is flabby white bread crisp sandwiches, don’t expect to have any of your own teeth left by the time you hit 38.
So, does the addition of a handful of minerals and vitamins make white bread whole again? Not on your nelly. Only a tiny proportion of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements removed during milling are added back in. What about zinc? What about magnesium? What about fibre? What about folic acid and all the other B-vitamins contained in the grain, which, after all, is a seed containing the living embryo of a plant. For it to sprout and start growing, the grain needs a full complement of nutrients.
The pitiful, legally required effort of flour fortification is like knocking down Buckingham Palace and putting up a tent, and then saying to the Queen, “at least it’ll keep the rain off your head”.