Despite the prevalence of low-carb dieting over the past generation — a trend that keeps cycling back around with different names — grain-based foods have made up the bulk of people’s diet for the vast majority of human existence. Bread in various forms has served as the foundation of a meal and accounted for more calories consumed than any other food category. It’s only been since the 1970s and even more persistently since the late 1990s, that some people have truly shunned carbohydrates, and therefore, grain-based foods, to achieve what they believe to be a healthier lifestyle. 

The industrial revolution brought about many technological advancements, but the ability to mill flour on a larger scale made it possible to commercially produce bread. Previous to this advancement, most people baked their own bread with whole grain flour.

“These flours were milled and consumed on a shorter timeline and a smaller scale,” said Sarah Corwin, PhD, RD, senior principal scientist, plant-based, Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition, who studied carbohydrate chemistry and digestion at Purdue University. “By having large-scale refinement technology, we observed that the fat, B vitamins and proteins in whole grain spoiled the flour, so the shelf life was much shorter. This wasn’t a problem before because we were consuming it as it was produced, but now we’re able to create very large amounts of flour and baked goods way ahead of what we needed, so we needed to extend the shelf life of that flour.”

To do that, millers removed the bran and germ, extending the shelf life at the expense of the nutritional value. Most baked goods were then made with refined grain, but because grain-based foods made up the bulk of the American diet, it wasn’t long before nutrition deficiencies started showing up in the population.

To counteract that, the United States government began food fortification and enrichment programs: adding iodine on a voluntary basis to salt in 1924 and vitamin D to milk in 1933. In 1940, flour entered the spotlight with the Committee on Food and Nutrition recommending it be enriched with thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and iron. The US Food & Drug Administration established a standard of identity for enriched flour including these initial nutrients, and by 1942 much of the bread being produced in the US was meeting this standard voluntarily. In 1998, folic acid fortification was added to the standard of identity to address neural tube birth defects. 

“It’s been documented since that time that the incidence of neural tube birth defects has fallen precipitously, and it’s directly related to that,” said Glenn Gaesser, PhD, professor, College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, and member of the Grain Foods Foundation Scientific Advisory Board. “And you see that in countries that don’t have mandatory fortification you don’t see the same sort of benefits. It’s just one example, but it’s pretty clear cut.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that this addition has prevented neural tube birth defects in about 1,300 babies each year. These defects have decreased by 35% in the US since 1998.

While enrichment has certainly boosted the nutrition of refined flour — and complex carbohydrates offered by refined flour are also helpful to the human body — whole grains offer an elevated nutritional profile to consumers. While commercial baking may have been geared toward refined flour because of the ease of production and shelf life, the scientific community has been wise to the nutritional powerhouse that is whole grains for quite some time.

“In the mid-19th century, when nutrition science was only in its infancy, whole grains were a staple food in American health sanitariums,” said Kelly LeBlanc, MLA, RD, LDN, director of nutrition, Oldways. “In fact, many commercial whole grains today, such as graham flour and whole grain cereal, can be traced to the teachings of Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg, who were prominent and controversial health influencers of their time.”

Even at the turn of the century, Ms. LeBlanc pointed out that scientists noticed people eating brown rice in East Asia were significantly less likely to develop beriberi, a chronic disease that is potentially deadly, than their counterparts who were eating white rice.

“This finding paved the way for the discovery of vitamins and helped shape our understanding of the nutritional value that whole grains have to offer,” she explained. “Over the years, as nutrition scientists learned more about the importance of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, as well as other essential nutrients like fiber, it became increasingly clear that whole grains were an important part of a nutritious diet.”

This article is an excerpt from the May 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Centennial Report: Evolution of Healthy Bread, click here.