A Few Good Women

Here’s an observation: Though men mainly invent and manufacture (unhealthy) factory foods, women most often protect us from the consequences.  I keep a list of heroines of nutrition—women who challenged the established but erroneous beliefs of their day.  (There are a few good men on the list also.)  Although science is about the search for knowledge, reformers fighting for a new truth must endure the wrath of those invested in the old truth.  So it’s good to remember those who struggled to improve the world of nutrition—like May Yates (1850-1938).  To appreciate the story of this good woman, we need a bit of history:

In the 1870s a new process for making flour that used steel rollers instead of the traditional millstone was invented.  This new method also separated the bran and germ from the endosperm, making flour that was finer and cheaper.  (The lost bran and germ was fed to farm animals, lucky creatures.)  The new flour, pleasingly white and modern, quickly dominated the market—out with the old, in with the new.  This was a critical change because grains provide more of mankind’s daily energy than any other food group.

Food innovations often have unintended consequences and this was the case with the roller mill.  It took time to understand what had been thrown out with the bran and germ.  Vitamins had not yet been discovered, that was a generation off.  The function of the missing minerals was unknown.  And the importance of fiber and antioxidants was also a mystery.  By the time these things became known eating habits had changed and we, like the sheep who lost their way, were caught in history’s biggest food experiment:  “What happens to a civilization if the vital nutrients in grains are removed from the diet?” 

The harm was hard to measure as it happened before public health data was kept, and modern flour was only one of three food disasters:

•  Cheap sugar following the Civil War,

•  Refined white flour in the late 1800s, and

•  Trans fats in the early 1900s (via hydrogenated margarine and shortenings like Crisco)

Now back to our heroine.  May Yates was a society artist who lived in England after the consumption of refined flour was well established.  She took a vacation trip to Sicily, where people were still eating traditional whole grains.  Yates noted the robust physical condition of the Italians and contrasted this to the poor health of the English.  It was concluded that a primary cause of England’s declining health was the use of modern refined flour.  Yates was so moved by this tragedy that she returned home determined to return whole grains to the diet.  She devoted her life to this new cause, selling her jewelry to finance her crusade, and founding the Bread Reform League.  In 1909 the league successfully established ”standard bread”—made with 80% whole grains—as the norm in England.

Americans eat their weight (more or less) in grains each year, but 90% of the grains are not whole.  That’s a lot of lost nutrients—our goal is to reverse that ratio.  We started with breakfast cereal, this post is about bread, a future post will address the other grains in our diet. 

The other night we went through the bread aisle of the local grocery store, comparing the healthiness of a confusing number of breads.  We’ll report the findings in our next post.  In the kitchen we’ve been experimenting with bread recipes using whole grains—do you have one you like?  Also, please share your ideas for restoring whole grains to the American diet.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (35)

I make a loaf of this bread ( for my small family every week. I lower the amount of sugar called for, and still get a delicious chewy whole grain loaf without additives and preservatives.
Thanks for your blog and insightful information. I am always trying to eat and provide healthy/whole meals for my family, but far too often there is an all or nothing mentality which is hard to live by. The way you approach nutrition has been refreshing and simple.
I have replaced my soda with seltzer thanks to your challenge!

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkristin

I find myself turned off by the bread isle all together. Even the healthiest looking bread still has 20+ ingredients, which does not sit right in my mind. The bread that I eat, I actually found in the kosher section of the grocery store. It is simply whole wheat flour, water, yeast, salt. Nothing fancy! It tastes great and has a bit more of a chew to it, which I enjoy, come to traditionally pillowy soft breads.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

I've loved the whole wheat bread recipe I found here:

Easy to make and a delicious taste..

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTianna

In my area I have found a whole wheat potato bread (made locally) that has more fiber than sugar, and is delicious. I love me some potato bread! But I don't really eat bread often any way.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica @ One Shiny Star

I have a grain grinder and make homemade whole wheat bread for my family that is delicious! I would share the recipe but it is still constantly being tweaked. Llately I have been hearing that the wheat in the United States has been corrupted in a sense and has a much larger percentage of gluten in it versus traditional wheat found in other countries. Do you know if this is true or any information regarding this?

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I started applying the fiber>sugar theory to the bread after you suggested it for cereal. It is harder than I originally thought. Even the "100% Whole Wheat bread" has sugar as it's second ingredient.


I look forward to your further post.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAimee

Aimee, thanks for your comment. The bread companies don't get it. I counted 70 kinds of sliced bread alone in our grocery. These breads had 15-24 different ingredients, including a teaspoon of sugar in each slice. One really healthy bread would make most of us happy. More on this in Thursday's post. Best to you.

February 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I've been doing this since the cereal advice as well. For some reason I thought the rule was double the fiber as sugar. There's one kind of bread at my grocery store that does that (Orowheat Ten Grain, but be careful because some of the other Orowheat's are not so fiber-ful). It is delicious! I've also been using this tip with tortillas, hot dog buns, crackers and on it goes.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I take my responsibility to steer my family seriously and as I'v learned more and more about nutrition I've fought hard to get us to natural (real) foods...truthfully, my husband was my hardest challenge...still we're a HFCS-free, fruits and vegetables family...we've still a lot to learn, but we've come such a long way. I love your blog and look forward to the recipes you'll be sharing.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I have been making my own bread since I moved abroad and the only two breada that I actually liked could only be bought in one store on the other side of the town and were really expensive (to add to that, you couldn't count on the store actually having it once you managed to get there). And I haven't looked back since (nor have I bought bread other than occationally since then). It doesn't really have to be complicated or take a lot of time, when in a hurry, I now only need about 1,5 hours a week to bake bread for me, and of that time 1 hour is for growing (?) the dough and 24 for baking the bread in the oven. Usually I give it a bit more time though, why rush an enjoyable task like bread making? I will however look into substituting some of the wheat flour with whole wheat flour, I just need to find some first! Thanks for the reminder!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

A few ideas on restoring whole grains to our diets:

-eat brown rice instead of white
-make a pot of beans a week ; the possiblilities are endless...veggie burgers, soup, etc.
-make your own bread; don't be intimidated by the bread making process
-try new grains; our family loves quinoa (often substituted for rice) and kamut cereal.
-make your own granola

I think one thing I have learned is that is takes a little effort and maybe a tad more work to get healthy whole grains into our diets but it is well worth it!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRaina

Ever since you posted about the cereal I've been spending a LOT of time in the cereal isle trying to find one that had more fiber than sugar and I just can't! Am I missing something here? Can you suggest a specific brand you know adheres to this rule?

Where I come from, we eat black bread, also called rye bread. I especially love the kind that has big seeds in it. I hear it is a lot healthier than white bread!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterM.

I would like a good sprouted bread recipe. I buy Harper's Homemade bread which I like the taste and it has 5g of fiber and 4g of protein with 1 gram of sugar. But, I just looked at the ingredients and it uses enriched wheat flour. Dang! Homemade is always the way to go!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterneenee

I love your blog and its message! In recent years I have realized the follies of our culture's eating habits and have been working hard to eat more whole foods. I still have a sweet tooth, though, and love to bake. But besides that, my meals are pretty healthy - lean meats, whole grains, no processed ingredients, etc. My favorite place to grocery shop is the farmer's market as I keep trying to incorporate more vegetables into my diet.

Here's my current favorite whole wheat bread recipe.

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenae

Marie, you asked about breakfast cereals that meet the whole grain and fiber>sugar rule. In the post, "Trouble in the Cereal Aisle" we listed cereals that meet the rule, including the unsweetened shredded wheats, Grape Nuts, and the cereal by Uncle Sam. These work when you can't cook your own cereal. Whoops, I forget to ask what country you live in. Sorry.

March 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Whole Wheat Bread
2 cups and 2 Tablespoons of Warm water
1/3 cup of veg oil
4 1/2 T honey
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup dry milk
4 1/2 T gluten ( buy at whole food or Kitchen kneads like cooking store) improves bread texture
4 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/2 tsp dry yeast

Put in bread maker or mixer in order, set bread mixer to dough cycle, remove when proofed and form into two loaves. Let raise until you finger makes a small indentation in top of dough. Don't let it raise too much or it will fall while baking. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle T.

Emily asked if wheat in the U.S. is problematic as it may be higher in gluten than wheat strains in other countries. Gluten is a concern because some are intolerant to it and also because of celiac disease; about 1% in the U.S. have either of these conditions. Gluten provides the "chewy" texture of bread, the elasticity that holds the bread together, and helps the yeast make the fluffy bread many prefer. Modern wheat strains are different from the wheat of antiquity--yield is much better today and gluten is higher. The big question I have is whether these wheat-related diseases are a result of the newer strains, or of the modern diet and lifestyle. There is a genetic risk, but not everyone with the "at risk" genes get these diseases, so there must be other factors. We know that breastfeeding reduces the risk of these diseases, especially if it overlaps gluten introduction to the diet. We also know that celiac is linked to a greater risk of type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune diseases as well as certain cancers. I'm no doctor, but if I was trying to reduce my family's risk to a wheat-related illness I would do four things: 1) Be supportive to breastfeeding children through gluten introduction; 2) eat whole grains but a mixture, not just wheat; 3) be sure my diet was rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts with a little meat and dairy, and 4) do the other inflammation-lowering stuff like adequate exercise with a little sunshine, plenty of sleep, and avoidance of excessive stress. After this, we just have to accept there is risk in life. When the scientists offer a better plan, I'll likely follow it.

March 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thanks Skip for the informative response to my question on wheat!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Great blog.

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchristie

One thing I've wondered about is what people using whole grain flours did/do for cakes. I imagine people were making cakes before the steel mill was invented, right?

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNikkita Cohoon

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