There are more problems with bread than just carcinogenic elements; focus should be on quality of wheat

MUMBAI: Activists like to start with maximum firepower. In a news saturated world you must be heard, and an easy way to do that is by using the C-word: Cancer . As the recent drama over the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report over cancer-causing chemicals in our daily bread shows, there is no easier way to get media attention than to suggest that common food items could cause cancer.

But there’s a problem with this strategy – at least if the intention is to truly make a difference. Attention getting tools can also divert attention from the real issues involved. The more attention they get, the stronger the demand for quick, but possibly pointless fixes. And this danger is all the higher when it involves cancer, where the exact causes are usually complex. A good example is alphonso mangoes. Some years back it was alleged they were being artificially ripened using calcium carbide, which was carcinogenic.

This year some sellers have put labels on their alphonso mangoes promising that they were not ripened with carbide but in “government approved ethylene gas chamber, thus they are very beneficial for your health .”

There are more problems with bread than just carcinogenic elements; focus should be on quality of wheat

Calcium carbide may well be carcinogenic; most strong chemicals will cause problems of some kind after intense exposure. But the one study on this issue suggested that the risks fell on those who actually handled the calcium carbide at the sellers’ end, and not consumers. While this is bad enough, it’s fair to say that most consumers were worrying about risks to themselves, and not to the vendors. But calcium carbide is still a problem for consumers, because the artificial ripening it induces significantly robs the fruit of the complex, delicious flavours it gets from slow natural ripening, first on the tree and then in storage for a few more days. The ethylene chambers touted as the healthy solution are just another kind of artificial ripening. The chambers are fine for producers, who want to minimise the risks faced by mangoes on the tree (hailstones, monkeys, theft), and don’t want to spend on storage. But they aren’t great for consumers, especially when sold to them under a slightly misleading slogan of health. What are needed are ways to help farmers ripen mangoes entirely naturally, and consumers willing to pay a fair price for these.

As with mangoes, bread faces real problems, quite apart from fears of cancer. Growth in consumption of white bread with its almost pure carbohydrates is a factor behind rising rates of obesity and diabetes. The spread of its spongy blandness is a tragedy for taste buds, as it has come at the expense of rotis, chapatis, phulkas, parathas and other varieties of India . breads. And there is the puzzling question of rise in gluten intolerance which is very probably overstated, yet may have real roots.

Some activists have even alleged a conspiracy to force white bread on India. They trace its national growth to the famines of the 1960s, which brought food aid from the US in the form of wheat under the PL480 scheme. Pushing factory-made bread was the fastest way to consume all that wheat. It is certainly true that PL480 funds were used in the marketing of Modern Bread, produced by a public sector company set up under the Colombo plan to combat communism with Western aid.

But rapid acceptance by consumers of factory-made, pre-sliced white bread can hardly be reduced to a capitalist plot. The US might have facilitated production, but across the world, from Mexicans giving up tortillas to Japanese having bread for breakfast rather than rice, consumers show such a strong preference for mass produced white bread that it cannot all be indoctrination. Connoisseurs might sneer and health experts rage, but consumers want it bland, spongy, sweetish, pure white and packaged.

And why not? The alternatives might be nutritionally and gastronomically better, but they nearly always involve much more effort to produce – which fell disproportionately on women . It is easier to extol rotis or tortillas when you aren’t the one spending hours every day making them. White bread’s blandness actually made it versatile, adaptable to everything from Japanese milk toast to South African bunny chow to Indian bread pakoras. It could be sliced into sandwiches or used to sop up stews.

Even the whiteness was valued. Throughout culinary history, delicate white breads were for aristocrats, while the poor chewed heavy wholewheat. As prosperity spread it was only natural that the white bread was favoured. Whiteness was also seen as purity, which mattered since bakers were always accused of adulterating bread, adding fillers to flour, or baking in slovenly ways. Factory-made bread, ‘untouched by human hands’ as ad campaigns promised, was a shining white sign of pure and healthy bread. But making bread white has never been easy. The first solution was to process wheat grains to remove the dark wheat germ and coating, leaving just the light coloured endosperm which was mostly pure starch. This was still not white enough, though storing flour for a while fades it to whiteness (and develops the proteins which make bread dough elastic).

Bakers don’t have time though, and this is where potassium bromate, the substance at the heart of India’s cancer confusions, came in. It oxidises and whitens flour fast. Other additives help standardise bread. One of the biggest problems with wheat in India is its inconsistency. Farmers sow different varieties, wholesalers don’t separate the types and government procurement agencies mix everything up further and then leave the grains in storage too long.

The resulting flour can vary so much that, especially when used on an industrial scale, it needs to have chemical additives added to smooth out the differences and produce the standardised sliced bread demanded by consumers. And this is the other problem. Unlike cakes and biscuits, which are made with inert ingredients, bread is made with a live one, yeast, and it is hard to produce standardised results. To meet consumer expectations, baking technicians have created systems, like the Chorleywood Bread Process which reduces variability, inevitably using more additives. These, in turn, need more additives to balance out the negative effect of the earlier additives – sugar, for example, to mask chemical bitterness.

And since consumers no longer want to go to the baker for their bread, but expect it to come to their local kirana or supermarket, the bread now needs preservatives to keep it good over greater distances and storage times.

White bread now also has vitamins and nutrients added – which ironically replace what the wheat had naturally had anyway. But these nutrients are mostly in the wheat germ which is removed from most flour because its essential oils are much less stable than the starch of the endosperm and liable to go rancid. This was less of a problem when there were many local chakkis where small batches of wheat could be milled and used soon by bakers and home cooks.

But the grain trade (which includes the government as a major player) prefers large volumes that can be stored over time, so this requires removing the nutritious wheat germ. To compensate, bakers started adding vitamins and other nutrients back in chemical form – and then proudly advertising the bread as specially nutritious. Some scientists now suspect that the rise of people claiming to have gluten allergies is linked not to gluten, the elastic protein that expands with the bubbles produced by yeast, but to this removal of natural nutrients and substitution with artificial ones.

White bread is such a problem now that the addition of one more problem, in potentially carcinogenic potassium bromate, seems hardly likely to make much difference. It should also be noted that the problems with potassium bromate are not universally accepted – the levels that remain after bread is baked may be within acceptable levels. Even then it’s not clear how much white bread people might have to eat in order to be at risk.

Yet in all the attention that bread has received in the wake of the CSE report, the focus has been on this relatively minor issue, simply because of the link to Cancer. And with the government quickly agreeing to ban it would seem to put the whole thing to rest. The baking industry will grumble, but will come up with another solution – quite probably involving newer additives whose properties are, as of now, unknown. But nothing has been discussed about the real problems facing bread.

This should not be seen as a blanket criticism of CSE. It is a campaigning organisation, and has its own imperatives and its overall aim of drawing attention to the problems in the products we consume is laudable. But the temptation to use the shock value of cancer claims should be seen for its limitations. At the very least, it should go along with a push for a larger discussion on the problems of bread.

Such a discussion would start with looking at the wheat varieties India grows, and if these suit our changing needs. It would look at how this wheat is handled post-harvest and how it needs to be protected against adulteration and mixing. It would look at a return to local mills that grind smaller batches of wheat meant for quick consumption. It would look at encouraging a revival of the local bakers that were a common part of Indian cities – joined by modern bakers adept in the techniques developed abroad which allow production of higher quality, naturally nutritious wholewheat bread.

And, above all, it would involve educating consumers about the value of such bread. Real wholewheat bread – not the artificially coloured versions, or even the partial versions made by including wheat bran but not wheat germ – should be seen as the important, nutritious and tasty product that it is. It may vary from time to time, might be a little less versatile than white bread and may be marginally more expensive (though the new techniques will help). But it will be real bread, an ancient, yet modern product, well worth valuing beyond the vagaries of soonforgotten media scares.

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