What is it about whiteness?
There is nothing quite like it. At one time it is probably the most common colour in the world, and at the same time it is not really even a colour. It evokes the bitter chill of snow or the scorching heat of the most ferocious flame.
White is instantly symbolic. It can signify the end of things: the wave of a flag offering surrender at the end of gruesome wars; or it can signify the absolute beginning: the proverbial blank canvas on which we create.
Throughout history and the world we associate and have associated whiteness with myriad ideas, especially purity, peace, grace and perfection. For Christians, it is the colour surrounding the pearly Gates of Heaven. It is the appropriate, peaceful dress for devout Muslims attending Friday prayers and Japanese Shintoists on pilgrimage. It makes Edward from Twilight sexy. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf reaches the pinnacle of his wizardry powers only when he becomes ‘Gandalf the White.’ It is the white dove of peace, the white feather of cowardice, the white knight of salvation. It is what makes us feel safe, if depressed, at hospitals – for how can something so white and shiny possibly be dirty and covered in germs!
It is natural that the symbolic power of colour extends to the food we eat. If we believe the dubious legends attached to pizza margherita and insalata caprese, then this obsession with colour was a good thing: the desire to make meals representing the colours of modern Italy’s tricolore flag just happened to produce one of the most delectable flavour and texture combinations in Italian food: tomato, basil and mozzarella.
But we follow colour – particularly whiteness – in food even to our own detriment. More often than not, we polish rice to make it white but nutritionally deficient, and we strip the goodness out of wheat to produce white flour. There is no real logical explanation for why we do this, but here are a few thoughts on what happened to get us to where we are.
For almost as long as humans have been eating wheat flour, we have been trying to make it white. Or, at least, the elites of societies have been showing off their ability to obtain white flour, for millennia much rarer than whole-grain. In ancient Egypt, slaves and plebs wore their teeth down by eating coarsely ground flour, while royals and the wealthy insisted on eating bread made only from finely sifted flour. In imperial Rome and Plato’s Athens, fineness of flour was an instant indicator of social status, and rulers of medieval Iraq chomped down on bread made from the whitest flour available, while commoners made do with unsifted, chunky wheat and barley flour.
But none of this ‘white’ flour was the stuff we know today. It was far from white, as the stones, pestles and mortars used to grind it could not separate a wheat kernel’s constituent parts, so the bran, germ and endosperm were ground together into what we now call whole-grain flour. When the germ of a wheat kernel is crushed it releases oils that give the flour a light beige hue. This flour was then simply sifted to remove larger chunks and become ‘white’. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that everything changed; not just the colour of white flour, but also who ate it and how they ate it.
The invention of the steel roller mill allowed the endosperm of a wheat kernel to be separated from its outer casing (bran) and inner embryo (germ). This endosperm, when ground to a powder, gives us what we now call white flour, infinitely less perishable but scarily nutritionally inferior to flour made by milling the whole wheat kernel together.
Here was the realisation of our aesthetic ideal. Flour could be whiter than was previously imaginable, unpolluted by flakes of bran and the germ’s oils.
But it was not just the whiteness that made it desirable. It could be produced on a massive scale, it would no longer have a short shelf life (whole-grain, stone-ground flour would turn rancid within a week or so due to oxidation caused by the germ’s oils), and it could therefore be transported, stored and consumed far away from where it was produced. White flour was suddenly affordable and accessible to a wide range of society, not just the elite.
Also towards the turn of the 20th century, industrialised countries underwent rapid urbanisation. In these huge, dirty cities, many citizens struggled to find enough to feed their families, and diseases were rampant as poor workers and families crowded into cramped, unsanitary spaces. White bread, made in sterile factories, which had become possible thanks to the increased shelf-life of flour along with the advent of commercial yeast (which eliminated the time and uncertainty of naturally occurring sourdough yeasts and bacteria), was a miracle: it was relatively cheap, it was widely available, and it was a symbol of purity and cleanliness. White was clean and good, brown was dirty, unsanitary and dangerous. It is no surprise that Colgate first started producing tubes of toothpaste around the same time, promising clean, healthy, white teeth.
As the desire for whiter and whiter flour grew, so did the flour-milling industry. Roller mills rapidly improved to separate the endosperm more completely and attain an ever whiter flour, and the obsession with whiteness went to a whole new level with the introduction of big milling companies adding bleaching chemicals to flour such as chlorine gas.
But people were not naive about the nutritional consequences of replacing whole-wheat flour with refined white. In Europe and North America especially there was plenty of opposition to white bread, with hundreds of nutritionists, politicians and scientists speaking out passionately against the dangers of eating only white flour. But the only argument that mattered for most people was putting food on the table, and white bread was the safest way to do that.
Opposition to white bread became harder as milling companies turned into gigantic, industrial corporations, employing thousands and lobbying governments. And the strong nutritional argument of anti-white-flour dissidents was dampened in the 1940s, when many flour-producing countries adopted legislation requiring white flour to be enriched with essential nutrients. This very marginally restored some of the lost nutritional value, but it gave milling companies an ideal chance to market their white flour as nutritionally beneficial, rather than detrimental.
So white flour, thanks largely to white bread, won. The big mills and gigantic bakeries continued to grow, and over the course of the twentieth century white bread wove itself through the fabric of societies. For example, it entangled itself with the Suffragette movement: industrial white bread, made by men in factories, ‘freed’ women from the laborious task of making bread at home. After World War Two, particularly in Britain, white bread, which had been basically impossible to obtain during the war, was embraced vigorously, a sign of better times after the dark days of war and food rationing. White bread’s immense scales of industrial production and long shelf-life also helped to take wheat global, infiltrating areas of the world previously dominated by other grains, where it was preferred to traditional staples for its imperishability and its ease to obtain and consume without labour.
Many of us no longer desire the whiteness, but thanks to how everything about flour and bread developed over last century, the whopping majority of wheat consumed globally by humans today is in the form of refined flour.
So now we revolt, against nasty white flour and its evil corporations.
We don’t want purity and cleanliness. The current trend is the opposite: the dirtier and more fumbled by artisan hands the better, ideally torn straight from the ground to us, still covered in dirt, rather than pumped out of factories by the thousand. Now, brown is good.
But we take this a bit far. We buy white bread with caramel colouring called ‘brown bread’ thinking it is a better choice. Same with brown eggs over white, or white sugar that has had some molasses added to it and is now ‘brown.’
It seems some things we cannot change, some things are just human. Maybe obsession and association with colours is one of those.
Because even our rejection of whiteness – and acceptance of brownness – shows that, as much as we read and think and talk about how far we have come with food science, with nutritional understanding, with knowing what we are eating, with ingredient lists and daily recommended intake values printed on packages, there is still something about the damn colour of food that trumps all of that logic.