White bread, a mainstay of the American diet since at least the 1930s, is under attack.
The Department of Agriculture is considering recommending that consumers drastically cut their consumption of fortified grains. They are used to enrich a wide variety of food products - particularly white bread, which is made from refined white flour.
The refined grains sector already has been battered by the popularity of low-carbohydrate diets. White bread came under additional fire from a recent study released by Tufts University in Boston that links the consumption of such bread to wider waistlines.
"First it was the diet crazies, then within the nutritionist community you have the whole-grain zealots and now you have the dietary guidelines committee," said Josh Sosland of Sosland Publishing and BakingBusiness.com, with headquarters in Kansas City. "It's a nonstop drumbeat."
The recommendation pertaining to cutting back on enriched grains comes from the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which is participating in the agency revision of the food pyramid. The pyramid came into being in 1992.
As it now stands, the base of the food pyramid calls for six to 11 servings daily of bread, cereal, rice and pasta.
Eric Hentges, who leads the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said the issue of recommending people cut back on fortified grains is offset by the notion that they should increase the consumption of whole grains.
The proposed recommendation calls for men to cut back on enriched grains by 51 percent and adult women to cut back by 39 percent.
"It's an issue of balance," said Hentges, who stressed that the center has yet to make any formal recommendations.
However, two professors at the Harvard School of Public Health, nutritionist Dr. Walter C. Willett and Dr. Meir J. Stampfer, in 2002 came up with what they say is a healthier pyramid.
In their prototype, the base of the pyramid is daily exercise and weight control. And while the Agriculture Department's pyramid is fairly simplistic, the one from Willett and Stampfer is more complex, made up of 11 elements, compared with six for the government's .
The next-widest part of the Harvard pyramid is divided equally between whole-grain foods and plant oils, including olive, canola and peanut oils, with recommendations that they should be consumed at most meals.
Next comes vegetables, which are recommended "in abundance." The suggested number of daily servings of fruit is two to three.
The next level is comprised of nuts and legumes, with a recommended one to three servings a day, then fish, poultry and eggs with 0 to 2 servings a day. The next level up has dairy or calcium supplements at one to two servings. It also suggests multivitamins "for most people." Topping off the tip of the proposed pyramid are red meat, butter, white rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta and sweets, which are to be consumed sparingly.
Changing the dietary recommendation would be just the latest blow to the grains-based food industry, including Interstate Bakeries Corp., the largest wholesale baker in the United States and maker of the iconic Wonder white bread, and American Italian Pasta Co., the largest pasta maker in North America.
Mark Dirkes, spokesman for Interstate Bakeries, said a recommendation that consumers cut consumption of enriched grains would be misguided. If people do decide to go in that direction and eat more whole-grain breads, he said, Interstate would give them what they want.
"We're in the business to sell consumers what they want, and while we make an awful lot of white bread, we also make a lot of wheat bread," Dirkes said. "If our customers make a shift, we're willing, ready and able to address those needs."
About 45 percent to 50 percent of bread sold in grocery stores is white bread, he said, adding that he doesn't think people are going to stop buying bread, which he notes has nearly the highest penetration of any item sold at grocery stores.
Dirkes said that sales of white bread at Interstate have been declining about 5 percent annually for the past few years. Dirkes said he thinks the decline has more to do with changing lifestyles than dietary concerns.
Nicholas Pyle, president of the Independent Bakers Association, which represents small and medium-sized baking companies, including many family-owned ones, said he hasn't seen any published recommendations.
He said, however, that some of his members are concerned, although perhaps not as much as those at large baking companies such as Interstate.
"Our members are more readily able to adapt and develop new products than the big guys," Pyle said. "But certainly bread, and white bread in particular, has become a very convenient bashing point as this country talks about the obesity issue."
From his perspective, Sosland said, he doesn't think that the baking industry yet realizes what sort of implications a drastic recommendation from the Agriculture Department could have on its industry and ancillary ones.
"In a war and in a fortress there are a number of walls that the enemy needs to breach," Sosland said. "And I don't think that people are picking up that another major wall or fortification has been breached."