Magazine article Psychology Today

The Wonder of Bread

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Wonder of Bread

Article excerpt


Real bread is a transformative food that bolsters nutrition and general health. By Daniel A. Marano

FOR MUCH OF recorded human history, man, indeed, did pretty much live by bread alone. Our close relationship with the staff oflife goes back atleast 6,000 years to Egypt, where still today, the words for "bread," aish, and for "life," aisha, share the same root Even in whole grain form it's not a complete food, but we make it more so usually by spreading some sort of vegetable or animal fat on it.

For millennia, most of the world got most of its calories from bread. Increasing wealth has brought other sources of sustenance. As recently as the first half of the 20th century, Americans still consumed about 30 percent of their calories in the form of bread. And until shortly before then, bread baking was done much as it had been since the days of the pharaohs, who paid their laborers' wages in bread. Some sort of wheat berry was ground into flour, mixed with water, and left to ferment slowly before beingbaked into something all of us could recognize and most could digest.

In every sense bread is a transformative food, central to many cultures and religious traditions but also a great conceptual advance in the conversion of raw ingrethents. Starting from a hard, nubby living seed that is harvested, killed, and pulverized, it comes to life again with various strains of yeast and bacteria that develop dough biologically, then succumb duringbaking- but not before they lighten, shape, flavor, and transmute the loaf into something that can sustain us.

As much as our hands shape bread, bread shapes us, too. According to Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington and author of White Bread:A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, mid-19th century American industry embarked on what turned out to be a 150-year experiment to bring to the table the purest of refined commodities.

Starting with grains stripped of nutrient-rich bran and germ to favor extended storage, the highly milled flour was easy to work, amenable to quick chemical rising, andreadily shaped into large loaves. Itwas also easy on the palate, its sugars rapidly released through the action of digestive enzymes on the naked starch. Whiteness in food was equated with virtue.

But over time, white bread has descended from a status symbol of uppercrust refinement to a stand-in for white trash and the empty, sugary promises of industrial food. The year 2009 was a pivotal one for bread; for the first time in the history of American commercial bread production, sales of whole-wheat loaves surpassed those of white, part of a wider reconsideration of what we eat.

Although bread has been demonized by the low-carbohydrate diet fads of the last decade and recent concern about celiac disease (a debilitating intestinal condition triggered by intolerance to a key protein in wheat's gluten), it survives as a staple in much of the world. What's more, for the past two decades, it has been undergoing a renaissance in the U.S.

So important is bread as a source of nourishment that wheat is by far the most-traded commodity in the world. The real wonder of bread lies not in the grain of wheat, rye, or any of their 30,000 variants, but in the intricacies of transformation through two types of fermentation: by yeast and by bacteria, namely lactobacilli, the same ubiquitous microorganisms that convert milk into yogurt. …

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