WHITE BREAD: Not white trash

By Katherine Rich (in The Dominion Post) 7 September 2015

One of the more surprising recent headlines about the food industry was splashed across the front page of The Dominion Post newspaper as if heralding a dramatic piece of news. It read “Forget sugar - white bread’s the new villain”. With its accompanying graphic, it took up at least half of the page, so it was certainly eye-catching. Unfortunately it was unhelpfully false. And it wasn’t just the headline.

The article highlighted a New Zealand Medical Journal paper on the eating habits of Pacific Island children which found that most of them ate white bread. The finding should have been predictable, given that white bread is a staple food for many families and has been for at least 100 years.

For toddlers, white bread is particularly important, and Plunket’s advice to parents is to “hold off on high-fibre foods, such as heavy wholemeal bread, wholegrain bread...”. White or fine wholemeal toast is recommended. The Healthy Food Guide succinctly said, “white bread is for kids. For everyone else your daily bread should be whole grain”.

There is no doubt a concerning percentage of Pacific Island children become overweight or obese.  However, the article’s conclusion that white bread must therefore be the key factor driving weight gain of many of the children in the study was unwarranted. The research paper actually said the study “does not prove an association with obesity”. 

While it’s an important piece of work, it does admit some important limitations – it did not attempt to accurately measure food intake nor look at critical issues such as volumes of each reported food the children ate. White bread was a common product but that’s hardly enough to point the finger. The amount of bread eaten would have been revealing to help determine if bread eating (or overeating) was a driver of weight gain.  

Bread is an important part of the diet of most children, whether it’s toast in the morning or sandwiches for lunch. Casting white bread as a “villain” when it plays such an important role as part of a balanced and healthy diet adds nothing to the obesity discussion.  

The fact that many children eat white bread is not so surprising, given it’s the favourite bread for most families.

History shows there’s nothing new about taking unfair pot shots at white bread. Ever since the roll-out of large-scale bread manufacturing around the world in the 1900s, commercial white bread has been accused of causing all sorts of things, from anemia, liver disease, and “over-stimulated nervous systems”, to criminal delinquency. The headline from the New York Graphic in the 1920s that “Science finds that white bread develops criminals” was certainly a standout.

Bakers are well aware that most children rely on bread as part of their diet and that most prefer white. Over the past 40 years bakers have worked hard to improve the healthfulness of white bread, including adding extra fibre.  Many people might not be aware this has happened or how much the nutrition profile has been enhanced.

White bread now has a much lower energy content than many other common foods. It’s also low in fat and sugar, and is an important source of protein, as well as vitamins and minerals. 

Singling it out as the “villain” in obesity took the research beyond its findings. Over the years all sorts of things have been “linked” by academic research to obesity – from car ownership, TV watching, farm machinery, genetics, BPA in plastics, and sleep disruption, even church-going. 

Researching new angles on the causes of obesity appears to be a rich vein for funding, but there seems to be a tendency for researchers to strangle data until it comes up with the answer they want.