from Slate

White Bread Kills

A history of a national paranoia.

By Libby Copeland

Can gluten kill you?

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

For some time now, a significant minority of the American population has considered bread suspect. Atkins and South Beach were down on bread long before the contemporary anti-gluten frenzy came into vogue. These days, everything from pizza to makeup is available gluten free, and no less a scientific authority than Jenny McCarthy has claimed that eliminating gluten from her son’s diet helped “cure” his autism. The problem is that gluten is everywhere, and avoiding it requires intense and sustained scrutiny. Dinner rolls are deeply suspect, of course, and so, for that matter, are dinner parties.

But if the anti-gluten craze is new, fear of bread is not. For the last century and a half of our history we’ve been intermittently spasmed by fears over bread. In the 1920s and ’30s, a bread panic called amylophobia swept the land, boosted by a leopard-skin-wearing diet guru named Bernarr MacFadden who toured the country and called bread the “staff of death.” Throughout the last century, fierce debates over white versus whole wheat pendulummed the nation’s eating habits back and forth. With  the rise of industrial bakeries, white bread was evidence of scientific progress, its very whiteness visual proof that it had been made by machines rather than dirty hands. But within decades, white bread was accused of causing deformities. “The whiter the flour the more rapidly it leads to the grave,” one expert observed.

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