For thirty years, from 1881, medical and scientific men all over the world waged war against very white bread. The year 1881 is looked upon as the beginning of the fight, for it was in that year that the modern roller mill, with its apparatus for producing excessively white bread, began rapidly to displace the old-fashioned wind and water mills.
In the old mills the whole wheat-berry was ground between stones, the coarser bran being afterwards removed by sifting the flour through bolting cloths. In the new roller mills the wheat-berry was cracked, and then flattened out by being passed between a succession of steel rollers. Each set of these rollers enabled a separate portion of the wheat-berry to be removed, first the germ and then the successive layers of bran, until nothing was left but the white interior of the grain. This white interior was again sifted through very fine "silks," and divided into very white "patents" and darker "seconds" flour.
Other inventions enabled the miller to whiten his dark-coloured "seconds" flour by allowing it to fall in a fine shower through a chamber containing nitrous peroxide gas, a poisonous compound which has the property of bleaching the flour to any desired state of whiteness.
Not content with bleaching the flour, the millers, assisted by chemists, attempted to "improve" the natural product of the wheat further by adding chemicals, the action of which enabled the baker to produce a larger, but, of course, not better, loaf.
Thus, instead of getting flour from the mill containing all the nourishment of the wheat-grain, the baker was buying a flour which had been deprived of its nutriment by the steel roller process, then very often bleached to make it look white, and finally "doctored" with chemicals to make it produce a larger, lighter loaf.
It took at least thirty years for the people to realise how the millers, aided by the engineers and the chemists, were changing "our daily bread." Everyone who protested against the processes employed was dubbed " crank " and " faddist," although the .ranks of protestors from time to time included such famous men as Professors Church, Huxley, Carpenter, and Ray Lankester, with other eminent men of science.
Time showed a generation growing up suffering from dental decay, loss of hair, rickety bones, thin, anaemic, colourless faces, bad digestion, shaking nerves, unfit for hard labour, and lacking in the abundant vitality for which the men and women of the British Isles were once world-famous. Science proved that the "cranks" were right when they said that these painful defects were due, in large measure, to the fact that the children were being fed upon bread robbed of its nutriment and dangerously adulterated by the addition of chemicals.
On January 26, 1911, these facts were put prominently before the world by the medium of a "manifesto" published in the "Daily Mail" and signed by eight great medical men. There had been manifestoes before this, from the days of Huxley onwards, but no declaration had the instant effect of the one published in this journal. The interest of the nation had been aroused a few weeks earlier by the announcement that Sir Oswald Mosley, of Rolleston Hall, Staffordshire, a well-known baronet and land-owner, was so convinced of the dangers of white bread that he intended to bake the old-fashioned bread made from flour ground between stones in the old-fashioned way, and distribute it among his friends and neighbours. When the eight great doctors, who included such famous men as the surgeon to the King and the greatest authorities upon consumption in England, declared that bread should be "made from unadulterated wheat, flour containing at least 80 per cent, of the whole wheat, including the germ," the public began to demand such a bread from their bakers, and the bakers in turn began to ask the millers to supply the flour.
At first there was considerable difficulty in the way of the public obtaining this genuine "80 per cent.," or "standard," bread. (It was called standard because the doctors declared that bread should be "standardised"; in other words, should always be made of uniform standard quality.) Unscrupulous millers and bakers did not hesitate to supply a great deal of worthless, inferior flour under the name, pretending that it was "only a passing craze for dirty-looking bread," and saying that it did not matter what the public was given. These unworthy tactics did not succeed. The bread made from these false imitation "standard " flours was bad, and the bakers who supplied it soon found that their customers went to others who were ready to give them the real genuine standard loaf.
The movement was helped greatly by the fact that people who obtained genuine "80 per cent." bread found that it was sweet, nourishing, appetising, good for their minds and bodies, and well liked by their children. These people refused to take the old white bread.
A much-magnified section of wheat grain, showing its various parts
Schoolmasters also proved good friends to the new-old bread. After feeding their boys with it for a term they found that the boys increased in weight, strength, and activity, that there was less illness in their schools, and that the boys went home for the holidays full of praise for the bread. The discovery of the fact that the roller mills could, by adapting their machinery, supply the bakers with flour of the required standard was also helpful.
Three months after the movement started, the case against white bread was put with startling clearness in a report submitted by the medical officers of the Local Government Board, Drs. Hamill and Monier-williams, in which they described all the processes of bleaching and adding chemicals to flour, and quoted scientific proof that flour treated in this way was not only less nourishing, but might be actively harmful to the people who ate bread made from it.