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Baking bread is one of civilization’s earliest activities. The ruins of Pompeii have revealed the existence of public bakeries where the poor people brought their bread to be baked. Bread, both leavened and unleavened, is mentioned in the Bible many times. Until the end of the 19th century, bread was made at home or in small bakeries. Shortly thereafter, bread factories made their appearance, and proved to be one of the most dubious offshoots of industrialization. In these commercial bakeries, the outside husk and the germ of the wheat grain which are rich in vitamins and minerals are removed, and the flour is ground from the remaining part of the grain, shorn of its nutrients. To further whiten the flour, it is bleached by adding potassium bromide, chlorine dioxide gas or benzyl peroxide. (My apologies if you are biting into white bread at breakfast while reading this. I was horrified myself as I learnt these details.) Brown bread, or whole wheat bread, on the other hand goes through lesser processing and as much as 85% of the bran in the bread is retained which provides roughage to clean out our intestines and retains about 30 essential nutrients that would otherwise be lost.

Also Read Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

While all of us may not know exactly how, over the past 10 years or so, through the surfeit of articles on health and nutrition, any educated Indian is aware that brown bread is a healthier choice than white bread.

Or so we think.

White or brown?

Like most consumers, I have been blindly picking up the brown bread loaf from my grocer’s. I was pleased to see that a brand English Oven manufactured by Mrs Bector’s offers variants of this like atta bread and brown bread. Being a chronic reader of package information, I examined their ingredients and nutritional chart. I found that both the atta bread and brown bread have only 5% atta! The rest of the ingredients, including hydrogenated vegetable oils (yes, the deadly trans fats) are exactly the same. Two questions beg to be asked:

Firstly, why offer us two variants of a product if they have exactly the same composition?

And more importantly, how can a loaf be called brown bread if it has just 5% of whole wheat flour? It is essentially just white bread with a token sprinkling of atta. How can this cunning be allowed in product labelling?

If we were to bake bread at home—a great idea given the stuff on offer—if we add 5% atta to 95% of refined flour and other additives, it would be impossible to attain the brown shade of the packaged brown bread. The atta’s features would just get lost in the mixture.

Which brings us to another point—the widespread practice of adding a colouring agent to turn white bread brown. Usually this is caramel, or burnt sugar. Apparently, when this sort of coloured bread is toasted, it will have many more dark spots as the sugar gets further caramelized.

Britannia whole wheat bread’s ingredients say wheat flour (41%) and whole wheat flour (21%). The innocent would think that’s a lot of wheat, and feel wrapped in a soft glow of goodness. But the smart consumer will notice that “wheat flour" is simply maida. Only “whole wheat flour" is atta. So this one, too, has only 21% of atta.

The stone-ground wheat bread from Harvest Gold, a popular brand from Delhi, challengingly asks on its packaging: “Are you wondering why this brown bread is not chocolate brown in colour?" It goes on to say that their bread is a natural “wheatish" colour of a chapatti because they do not use artificial colouring and retain the fibre of whole wheat. The whole wheat flour content is stated as 53%. I spoke to Harvest Gold’s quality department on the number they have given on the pack and they confirmed that no maida or colouring is added.

Stuck with commercial bread

However, in all commercial bread we consume permitted emulsifiers, class II preservatives and improvers. Not a very appetizing thought, but the inevitable consequence of mass production. To distribute nutritious whole-grain bread over long distances would require refrigeration during transport and storage in supermarkets. Even then, the bread would quickly spoil without chemicals. That would add to the manufacturer’s expense and cut profits, so no one will attempt it.

Production of truly nutritious bread therefore falls to small local bakeries. In India, unfortunately, bakeries can be very local establishments where they liberally use trans fat filled vanaspati or tony patisseries of a five-star hotel where a loaf costs 150 or more. Affordable good bakeries are scattered across the city and it is difficult to depend on them for day-to-day bread.

So we are sort of stuck with commercial bread. But we shouldn’t be stuck with misleading product labelling that makes us think we are buying healthy stuff when we are not. Or artificial colour that turns white into brown.

But then, adulterating bread goes back a long way. In the time of James I, there are records of bakers cutting up stale bread, soaking it in water, and mixing it with the new dough. The punishments on getting caught, however, were severe. In Egypt, where bread-making is said to have begun as a profession, a baker who adulterated his bread would find himself hung by his ears to the doorpost of the bakery.

Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd.

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