The best thing since sliced bread? A ban on sliced pan
White bread – or, rather, ‘water standing up’ – can kill swans. So should we be eating it?
A sign at the Spanish Arch in Galway city urging people not to feed the swans.
Declan Ryan, Cork, with some of his Arbutus bread. A small and obsessive band of bakers has grown up in Ireland. Photograph: Alan Betson
When the British Labour party politician Alan Johnson recently played out his fantasy role as “king for a day” in the Guardian, his plan for a better world tapped into a widely held wish: as monarch, Johnson said he would ban the sale of Coca-Cola.
He’s not the only one who sees the banning of fizzy drinks as the first step towards a healthier life for families. The high-profile American food writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan have both asserted that the first step towards better health is to get people to stop drinking what Americans call “soda”.
It would be a nice fantasy to imagine that the country that once banned the sale of alcohol, less than 100 years ago, might find the concerted will to act against one of the great menaces to human health.
But the idea that it could happen is just that: a fantasy. A proposed 1 per cent soda tax in San Francisco, for example, has been opposed by the soft-drinks industry, who have spent $7.7 million in the city opposing the proposal.
Back home, any proposal to ban sugary, mass-market drinks is not going to turn up on the desk of Minister for Health Leo Varadkar any time soon.
You might just as soon ask him to ban chewing gum.
But getting exercised about the noxious elements of soda seems to me to be missing an important point about the health of families in the developed western world.
If you were suddenly granted monarchical powers tomorrow, the foodstuff to ban with immediate effect wouldn’t be soda pop.
If you want to improve the health of families and the health of the nation, what you should ban is commercial bread.
Just think about that slice of toast you had for breakfast a little while ago. What was it you particularly liked? The sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate? Yum. The l-cisteine? Delicious!
Were the enzymes good for you? You didn’t know there were enzymes in the bread? Well, the manufacturer isn’t required to tell you they are there, so it’s not your fault.
In his great poem Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin wrote:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Larkin was a great poet, but he was wrong to believe that the modern world began in 1963. In fact, the modern world started two years earlier, in 1961, when one of the most cataclysmic developments in post-war society came into being.
In 1961 a system of making bread called the Chorleywood bread process came into operation. In her book The Food We Eat, the campaigning food writer Joanna Blythman describes the innovation as “a disaster for British bread”.
Blythman’s response is temperate. In 1973, Maurice Frohn, a consultant surgeon, wrote to the Daily Telegraph to say that “not only does the white loaf do no good, it is actually harmful to the body. Every encouragement should be given to the abolition of this foul food . . . the white loaf is not even fit to be given away.”
The Chorleywood system is an industrial, computer-controlled process that can produce a loaf in 3½ hours from start to finish. The machines can fire out several thousand loaves an hour.
In the craft-baking trade, the industrial white loaf is known as “water standing upright” because water – and a lot of yeast – is really what you are buying.
What you are also buying are what are called “improvers”, though you will have to decide for yourself whether chemicals used to bleach the flour, sterilise it, whiten it, increase its volume and prevent mould can truly be called improvements.
Anyone who has ever stood by the side of the River Corrib, at Spanish Arch in Galway city, will be familiar with the sign that urges people not to feed white bread to the resident swans: “Do not feed white, yeast, stale, or moulded bread to the swans. It causes illness and death!”
In other locations in the UK, the RSPB and RSPCA post warning signs that point out that feeding white bread to swans “can cause serious vitamin deficiencies, especially in younger or older birds”.
If it’s not good for the swans, can I suggest that it’s not good for you, either?
So, what would happen if my industrial white bread ban came into force tomorrow? Hopefully, many people would quickly look to an alternative. And the good news is that there is an alternative.
Over the last decade, a small and obsessive band of bakers has grown up in Ireland, and some of these artisan bakeries are already well known: Arbutus breads in Cork; Arun bakery and Tartine in Dublin; Cloughjordan wood-fired bakery in Tipperary; Firehouse bakery in Wicklow; Slow Food Co in Donegal – to name just a handful.
They are the newest outpost of what was a proud tradition in Ireland, the tradition of the local bakery, whose breads were baked and distributed in their immediate vicinity.
Some parts of the country have held on to their local bakeries – Co Kerry still has a good handful, and Northern Ireland has a stubborn and enduring tradition of local bakeries.
So, if you want to hand on health and wellbeing to your family, feed them bread that has been made from flour, salt, water and yeast, and nothing else. And tell them King John said to eat it up.
John McKenna is the author of Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way. See guides.ie