Learn about Life in the 1920s

1927 Debate on Brown Bread vs White Bread

THE campaign of the New Health Society in England, in favor of brown bread, led by its president, Sir Arbuthnot Lane, who had described white bread as "the greatest curse of our civilization," has been given some space in the daily press.

Now, we are told in The Journal of the American Medical Association (Chicago), comes a counterblast by Sir Thomas Horder and others in the lay as well as the medical press. In a joint letter to The Lancet, he and V. H. Mottram, Professor of Physiology at London University, H. E. Roaf, Professor of Physiology at the London Hospital Medical School, and T. B. Wood, Professor of Agriculture at Cambridge University, say:

While we readily admit that vitamin B, which is essential to health, is present in whole-meal flour and practically absent from white flour, we do not subscribe to the statement that it is not contained in white bread. The fact is that any lack of vitamin B in white flour is remedied when the flour is made into bread by the addition of yeast, which contains plenty of it. The case for whole-meal bread has been overstated. The allegation that white bread is responsible for certain grave illnesses is not supported by scientific facts. Altho wholemeal bread is a good article of diet for many people', white bread of good quality is also a wholesome and nutritious food. There are no good reasons for thinking that the substitution of whole-meal bread for white bread in the national diet would make for material improvement in the national health and physique.

To this R. H. A. Plimmer, Professor of Physiology at St. Thomas's Hospital Medical School, says in The Lancet that not enough yeast is used to compensate for the loss of vitamin B removed from the grain in milling. Ten per cent. of bakers' yeast is needed to make good the loss, while bread, as usually baked, contains from 1 to 2 per cent. The Journal goes on to quote him:

As much white flour is consumed in the form of cakes, pastry and puddings, in which there is no yeast, as is consumed in the form of bread. The argument of Horder that "it is of very minor importance" as to whether we use wholemeal bread or not because "other common foods—namely, eggs, peas, beans, lentils and nuts—are very rich in this same vitamin" is fallacious. The quantity of vitamin B in these foods and the quantity of these foods actually consumed is disregarded by Horder and others. If the quantities of these foods which are eaten are actually measured, it will be found that we do not eat enough of them to compensate for the absence of vitamin B from white flour, sugar, chocolate, fat and meat. Reviewing the average daily consumption of all the foods supplying vitamin B in the ordinary mixed diet, the total is not sufficient to balance the white flour, meat, sugar and other foods devoid of vitamin B. The easiest and cheapest way to insure enough is to use nothing but whole-meal flour in all bread, cakes and puddings. Absence of vitamin B leads to beriberi, which is seldom or never seen in this country [Britain]. McCarrison has pointed out that the early stages in the disease are digestive and heart troubles. The symptoms found in animals and birds on too little vitamin B were dilated heart, intestinal stasis and swollen appendixes. On the shortage of vitamin B these symptoms are chronic instead of being the early stages of beriberi. They are the common, everyday troubles from which many people suffer, and their cause is most probably from a shortage—i. e., too little— vitamin B. This is the crux of the food question. There is no doubt that the daily food contains too little vitamin B. In many cases there appears to be too little vitamin A and D as evidenced by rickets.

Sir William Arbuthnot Lane says that poor children depend largely on bread and margarin and jam (mostly made of sirup with very little food in it), and it is essential to them to have the whole meal of flour. Most decayed teeth and rickets are due to this diet. It is absurd to waste money on dentists and dental clinics and on cures for rickets caused by bad teeth due to a poor diet. For well-to-do people who have access to a variety of good food it doesn't matter whether they eat brown bread or white.

This spectacle of eminent physicians and physiologists unable to agree on such an apparently simple question as to whether people should eat brown or white bread is not edifying for the public. They must conclude that medicine and science are far apart, "not on speaking terms," wrote a brilliant American journalist, the late Harold Frederick, when residing in England some years ago.

Source: The Literary Digest for November 5, 1927




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