In 2012, Andrew Whitley asked ‘is it time for a new National Loaf?’
‘The bread I eat in London’, said Humphrey Clinker, ‘is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution’. That was in 1771 when adulteration with everything from sawdust to white lead was common. We’ve got rid of the more toxic contaminants (or perhaps they’ve been replaced by ‘processing aids’), but chalk [calcium carbonate] is still added to all UK flour except wholemeal – only now this is known as ‘fortification’.
The decision to ‘fortify’ flour was made in 1941, after a long battle between the industrial milling and baking interests and public health nutritionists who were appalled at the inadequate diets and poor condition of many people in a pre-NHS, very unequal Britain. Leading the case for better flour was Jack Drummond, whose 1939 book The Englishman’s Food contained a comparative analysis of white flour milled through stones or rollers. The introduction of steel roller-milling from the mid-19th century made possible an almost complete separation of the endosperm (the white middle part) and the outer layers of bran and germ where most of the vitamins and minerals are found. Its widespread adoption from around 1870 turned out to have been a nutritional watershed. In Drummond’s words: ‘From that time to the present day a large part of the population of England has been subsisting on diets containing considerably less vitamin B1 than is physiologically required.’ In fact it was only in 1953 that vitamin B1, along with nicotinamide and iron, joined calcium carbonate on the list of mandatory additions to most UK-milled flour. And so it has been for the past 59 years.
Many traditional flour millers, organic producers and a growing number of Real Bread bakers complain that adding minerals and synthetic vitamins to flour runs counter to their principles. Meanwhile, serious questions have been raised about the efficacy of fortification, especially with iron, which is added to flour in a form that is poorly assimilated by the human body.
Official surveys suggest that, despite much-heralded choice on supermarket shelves, some people do not get adequate nutrients from their diet. There is evidence that the mineral density of modern wheats is declining. If more portions are needed for nutritional satisfaction, personal weight control becomes harder. More is understood now than sixty years ago about the importance of minerals such as zinc and magnesium, yet these are seriously depleted in roller-milled white flour. Should we add these also to the list of fortificants, along with the folic acid that is currently under consideration? There is little logic to the status quo but even less appeal in a fortified future in which flour is no more than a carrier of multiple nutritional supplements.
The time has come to get all the adulterants out of our breadmaking flour and the Real Bread Campaign is well placed to make the case. However, simply removing the four mandatory substances and leaving it at that would be irresponsible and would play into the hands of the industrial millers who don’t like having to add the stuff but who won’t admit to the nutritional poverty of the underlying product.
Expecting people to make good the deficiencies of something as ubiquitous as flour from other parts of a ‘balanced’ diet is disingenuous. Experience suggests that an important minority, including the very young, the old and infirm and the economically disadvantaged, would still lack sufficient nutrients. If our objective is to feed all our fellow citizens better, we need minimum standards of nutrient density in the flour used to make the breads, buns, pizzas etcetera that are ordinary people’s everyday fare.
This flour could be called National Flour, as it was when minimum standards were imposed on the milling industry in 1941. Highly refined white flour would not be banned per se but it would not be legally used to make products aimed at (and priced for) daily consumption.
With a clear, open and officially monitored baseline of nutritional density for breadmaking flour, citizens would be able to make better dietary choices uninfluenced by advertising or confusing ‘health claims’. Average nutrient levels in grain would be measured annually (to hold plant breeders and farmers to account) and the minimum extraction rate (the amount of the whole grain left in the flour) would be adjusted to ensure constant levels of minerals and vitamins. Heritage/heirloom grains, and landrace populations of intercrossed varieties might come into their own. Stone millers might have a natural advantage, but roller mills could be reconfigured to meet the standards by enlisting the undoubted ingenuity of their engineers. More importantly, a basic legal standard for everyday flour would encourage the industrial millers to examine their processes from the perspective of human wellbeing.
For the Campaign, helping to achieve a national breadmaking flour standard is clearly consistent with our definition of Real Bread as having no additives and being processed with due time and care. But we will need solid agreement among ourselves that roller-milled white flour as it is currently produced is nutritionally inadequate. We will need to work creatively to turn the new flour into all kinds of wonderful breads that combine adequate lightness and softness with enticing flavour and the kind of natural vitality that cannot come from synthetic additives.
The first National Loaf was an inspired response to a wartime emergency, when over-refining of flour was halted so that the available stocks of wheat made more loaves with more nutrients in them. Let’s triumph over our present ills in similar fashion. Since this is about real people and their health, let’s call ours the Common Loaf and let’s imagine it being baked, in a thousand different shapes and sizes, in every community in the land. That, after all, is what we do.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 11, April 2012