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Bread: The First Fast Food

Updated on June 22, 2011


Image Credit: The Wikipedia
Image Credit: The Wikipedia

What is a fast food? It is one that tastes good, can be prepared easily, is readily accessible to all, and that has a considerable shelf life. What is a fast food? It is a shortcut to acquiring nutrition. It is a way of feeding many, but lowering the nutritional value of what they eat. Can you name a fast food? French fries. Chicken nuggets. Hot dogs. How about bread?

Bread is the first fast food. It is the nutritional shortcut that is the mother of all shortcuts. It is what has allowed a small group of primates to spread their progeny over the whole globe, dominating and displacing other species. It is also the first step along the way to specialization, collectivization and class warfare. 

In other words, bread is what makes civilization as we know it possible. 

Introduction of Agriculture

The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on plants and animals that were to be found in their range area. They ate nothing except what was in season, so they were very much dependent on fluctuations in climate and food supply. Because of this, their population was relatively stable. They lived in small groups, bigger than a family, but smaller than a tribe.

The invention of agriculture changed this way of life forever. The Middle East was the site of the earliest organized harvesting of plants. Barley and wheat were among the earliest crops. Agriculture was developed independently of this in China, where the staple crop was rice. In Africa and in the Americas, agriculture arose as well.

By 7000 BC, agriculture was established in Egypt. It was bread that built the pyramids. At the same time, on the Indian subcontinent, wheat and barley began to be grown. When bread was first introduced as a part of the human diet, this source of carbohydrates was supplemented with meat, in the form of sheep, cattle and fish, as well as with dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter. However, it was bread that helped build the first great cities. It was bread that created the possibility of specialization of the labor force and the social stratification that went with this specialization.

Bread and Circuses

According to the Wikipedia, which I quote here: "Bread is one of the oldest prepared foods, dating back to the Neolithic era. The first breads produced were probably cooked versions of a grain-paste, made from ground cereal grains and water, and may have been developed by accidental cooking or deliberate experimentation with water and grain flour...The basic flat breads... formed a staple in the diet of many early civilizations with the Sumerians eating a type of barley flat cake, and the 12th century BC Egyptians being able to purchase a flat bread called ta from stalls in the village streets."

Grain could be stored undamaged for years. It could be ground up and sold as flour. The person preparing the bread could live far from the place where the grain was grown and harvested. Bread could be sold and even given away to people in cities who had never seen a stalk of barley or wheat in their lives. During a time when refrigeration and other forms of preservation were not a possibility, bread was a way to store energy, monetary value and security for the future. It was also a way to allow some people to live completely out of touch with their major food source and the labor that went into its production.

By the time of the Roman Empire, there were whole classes of people who contributed very little to their own livelihood. This included both the idle rich, who lived on the work of slaves, and the idle poor, who were given bread as a handout, to keep them from getting too rowdy.

The invention of bread and the rise of the welfare state are inextricably linked.  

Nutritional Value of Bread

The quickest form of bread is unleavened. In this kind of bread, the major nutrients are the carbohydrates from the ground grain that composes the flour. Carbohydrates can be converted into sugars by our digestive system, and they provide quick energy. However, man cannot live on bread alone, without suffering considerable malnutrition.

In ancient times, the poor were always hungry for bread, and as long as they never had enough calories to experience satiety, there was no danger of obesity from the consumption of bread. However, scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies, as well as the ill effects of not having enough essential fatty acids in the diet did take their toll.

We can produce sugar out of fat and fat out of sugar, but there are certain fats that our bodies are incapable of producing. We have to consume those fats in the form of animal flesh or nuts. The fast food solution of feeding humanity primarily on bread led to widespread illness and suffering throughout the ages.The bread-based diet is not a natural one for man. The hunter-gatherer, in a good year, ate much better than the average human after the invention of bread. The problem is that in a very bad year, a hunter-gatherer could starve. Just as we are doing today, back in antiquity humanity chose security over freedom; they preferred fast food over good nutrition.

If you go back to your Bible and reread the story of the garden of Eden, you will see that it is really a story about the invention of bread.

Nutritional Deterioration of Bread in Industrial America

The above analysis of the nutritional value of bread is actually biased to bread as we currently know it. In fact, ancient bread was a little better balanced nutritionally, because the primitive grinding practices that produced flour in those days left some oil and fiber and even protein from the grain kernel in the final product. In those days, bread was oilier, more textured and hardened quickly if not eaten at once. In fact, even the bread that I remember from my Israeli childhood in the previous century was oilier and more textured than the American bread available currently at Wal-Mart, Every succeeding industrial innovation has allowed us to grind the flour finer and drier and with fewer and fewer nutrients left over. Preservatives and emulsifiers keep bread from going stale and hard.

However, it would be a mistake to attribute great wisdom to the ancients in keeping bread more nutritious. The more oils food contains, the more readily it spoils. The more fiber processed food contains, the fewer calories per serving. The whole idea behind fast food is to maximize the efficiency and economy of delivering calories to the ultimate consumer. The ancients tried to grind their flour as fine as they could. They just hadn't come up with all the techniques for refining processed foods that are available to us today.

Old USDA Food Pyramid --circa 1992

The USDA Food Pyramid

Not too long ago, the USDA was still recommending that people eat six to eleven servings of bread and other cereal products to every two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish or eggs. The daily nutritional recommendations were delivered to the public in the form of a pyramid, as seen above. The intent was to reduce the fat intake of the average American by encouraging consumption of more carbs than fat. If you looked at the pictures on the pyramid, the message seemed to be: If you're really hungry, fill up on bread, rice, and pasta. Eat everything else in very small portions.

The wisdom of these recommendations has since been questioned. Michael Pollan, writing in his book In Defense of Food, has this to say: "...there is a growing body of evidence that shifting from fats to carbohydrates may lead to weight gain (as well as a host of other problems.) This is counterintuitive, because fat contains more than twice as many calories as carbs... The theory is that refined carbohydrates interfere with insulin metabolism in ways that increase hunger and promote overeating and fat storage in the body... If this is true, then there is no escaping the conclusion that the dietary advice enshrined not only in the McGovern report 'Goals', but also in the National Academy of Science Report, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us." ( In Defense of Food, pp 59-60).

Nobody in a position of authority has announced that a terrible, tragic mistake costing millions of lives has been made. Instead, reduced fat food is still being sold in the stores (along side low carb food -- most consumers don't seem to realize that low fat food is high carb and vice versa) , and a new food pyramid has been issued, see below.

New Pyramid-- Any idea what the percentages are?

Why a Pyramid?

The new pyramid is quite cryptic. Percentages or number of servings are not printed, and the vertical slices of pyramid don't even have enough room for the pictures of the food to fit in the slot intended for them. It's hard to tell what this is supposed to mean, other than that "variety is the spice of life." Apparently peach preserves are in the same category as a fresh apple, but is it a different category from sugar, honey and candy? I can't tell.

My daughter tells me that her fourth grade health teacher taught her class about this pyramid. When I asked what she had learned, my daughter said: "Eat enough from every food group but not too much." When I asked her what "enough" or "too much" meant, she just shrugged.

Regardless of the nutritional guidelines this picture is intended to convey, there is another question that begs to be asked. Why a pyramid? Why not just a pie chart?

Is it some secret reference to the eye of Egypt that looks at us from a pyramid on the dollar bill? Is it because triangles are prettier than circles? Is it a symbol of power? Is it because whoever rules the kitchen controls the country as a whole?

Pyramids are usually chosen to represent hierarchies and exponential growth. For instance, the trophic levels lend themselves to tabulation in the form of a pyramid.

Pyramid of Trophic Levels

Plants are producers. Herbivores eat the plants. They are the primary consumers. Carnivores eat the herbivores. They are secondary consumers. Other carnivores eat them. They are the top of the chain. The creme de la creme. The ultimate consumers!
Plants are producers. Herbivores eat the plants. They are the primary consumers. Carnivores eat the herbivores. They are secondary consumers. Other carnivores eat them. They are the top of the chain. The creme de la creme. The ultimate consumers!

The Trophic Levels or Who Eats Whom?

I think that the dieticians and nutritionists who put together the original food pyramid must have been influenced, consciously or subconsciously, by an illustration in their college biology class of the trophic levels. The tropich levels describe how the energy of the sun is captured by plants and then consumed by animals. The producers are the plants, because they alone are capable of photosynthesis. The herbivores eat the plants. They are the primary consumers. Secondary consumers are carnivores who eat herbivores. Tertiary consumers are carnivore who eat other carnivores who eat herbivores.

Now, in one sense, this is just a hierarchy, which could be represented in a tree diagram or by some other means. But the reason it lends itself especially to a pyramid is the numerical relationship between the different levels.

How many gazelle does it take to feed a lion?

Producing one pound of lion requires ten pounds of gazelle and 100 pounds of the plants the gazelle feeds on.
Producing one pound of lion requires ten pounds of gazelle and 100 pounds of the plants the gazelle feeds on.

Exponential Development

From the illustration above we can see that it takes many more members on each lower level to support the life of a single member of a higher level. Not only that, but the numbers, looking from the top to the bottom, grow exponentially. We can use a "pound of flesh" unit of measurement to represent the relationships between the levels. For instance, it takes one hundred pounds of plant life to support ten pounds of gazelle, and it take ten pounds of gazelle to produce a single pound of lion,

A man-eating tiger (assuming it ate only humans who eat meat and nothing else), would, according to the pyramid, require 1000 pounds of plants, in order to support 100 pounds of goat meat, in order to produce ten pounds of human flesh, in order produce a single pound of man-eating tiger meat. Of course, if the tiger eats vegetarian humans, the equation changes. A tiger that eats vegetarians requires no bigger range than a lion that feeds on gazelle.

Every pound of plant life requires a certain amount of acreage. While that acreage varies depending on the method of cultivation, climate and the plant in question, there is a point of diminishing returns, which means there is a finite number of animals that this planet can support. People have used the trophic levels as an argument in favor of vegetarianism.

Is it possible that whoever devised the original U.S. food pyramid was really thinking about this? Instead of worrying about what is the healthiest diet for each human, could they have been wondering which diet would support the most humans per acre?

Pyramid of Hindu Castes

Brāhmaṇa, ब्राह्मण -- Teachers, lawmakers and scholars. Top part of the pyramid. Next:kṣatriya क्षत्रिय -- warrior class, more important than merchants but less important than scholars.   वैश्य vaiśya - merchant class. Shudra -- laborers.
Brāhmaṇa, ब्राह्मण -- Teachers, lawmakers and scholars. Top part of the pyramid. Next:kṣatriya क्षत्रिय -- warrior class, more important than merchants but less important than scholars. वैश्य vaiśya - merchant class. Shudra -- laborers.

The Pyramid of Class

The introduction of bread as a staple food brought about social stratification to an extent that we never had before. Yes, every group of chimpanzees has an alpha male, and a few subordinates and you can draw a tree showing the heirarchy. But chimpanzees do not work for others. They may occasionally work together to hunt a lower mammal, such as a collobus monkey, and males occasionally bargain for sex with females using meat as the payment. However, most of the time, each individual chimp harvests his own food and eats it right there on the spot. Among human hunter gatherers and nomadic herdsmen, women and men have specialized roles, and there are different social rankings for different individuals. But however stratified these primitive societies are, it is as nothing compared to what happened to human society after the invention of bread.

Above I have used the diagram of the Hindu caste system. I use it as a general reference. The same sort of thing happened throughout the civilized world, but the Hindu system is more formalized and thus easier to discuss for the purposes of this article.

The Brahmins were the scholars, law makers and teachers. They were at the top. The Ksatriyas were the warrior class, and they were one level below. Next were the Vaishya or merchant class. The lowest class were the Shudras. They were unskilled laborers.

Of course, I am not suggesting that these people ate each other, but there is a clear analogy to the trophic levels. I'd like to suggest that it took 1000 Shudras to support 100 Vaishya, and that it took ten Vaishya to support a single Brahmin. Even if I'm wrong about the exact ratios, surely you can see that this is more or less what the pyramid implies.

This pyramid, with minor modifications, is a good description of social stratification after the invention of bread. Here on hubpages many people have been deriding "the rich" for drinking expensive water or having gold flecked cereal for breakfast, and the implication, never stated, seems to be that if only the wealth of the rich were distributed evenly, then all our problems would be solved. Without offering any sort of moral argument, either in favor of or against the rich, I think this diagram shows the error of that kind of thinking.

The Brahmin cannot feed the Shudra or support them with his wealth, because they are supporting him! It takes a thousand Shudra to support a single Brahmin. You might as well suggest that people could live on the flesh of man-eating tiger!

A Classic Pyramid Scheme

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Growth Economy and the Pyramid Scheme

What was most stultifying about the class systems of the old world was the fact that people ended up in the class to which they were born and were forced to stay there for the rest of their lives. There were some exceptions, of course, but the scarcity of land in the old world made it hard to cimb the social ladder and improve one's lot. When Europeans first colonized the Americas, it was the wide open spaces that created an opportunity for rapid social advancement.

Of course, the Americas were already inhabited. South America had advanced civilizations, agriculture and pyramids of its own. (Agriculture and pyramids seem to go hand in hand!) North America was inhabited mostly by hunter gatherers who lived a good life on large ranges. Yes, they cultivated maize, to some extent, but wild game and fish formed a major part of their diet. They could not withstand the ounslought of the European settlers and their lifestyle was stamped out. Native Americans remain, but their way of life is gone.

The payoff for the European settlers was that while they could continue to enjoy the security that the social pyramid allowed, there was suddenly a lot of upward mobility. You could arrive in America penniless as an indentured servant, a Shudra, and in a few decades end up a landowner, a merchant or even a scholar!

The greatness of the United States of America in the past two centuries was to be found in the juxtaposition of its wide open spaces and the freedom to experiment. People weren't fenced in. They had room to stretch. There were always new people arriving, being born, immigrating. There was room to grow!

In a growth economy, people starting on the bottom as Shudras can hope to climb several rungs on the social ladder during their own lifetime, retiring as Vaishyas or Ksatriyas. The lucky few may even make it as far as Brahmin.

The problem with this scheme, as with every pyramid scheme, is that eventually we will have more people than the land can support. Every animal, even man, has its population growth checked by the range of its habitat.

Many who are aware of the upcoming global ecological crisis see high yield crops and vegeterianism as the solution. The more calories per acre we can grow, the more people we can feed. Hence the food pyramid in its various incarnations. It's not about nutrition at all. It's about finding a solution to our ever burgeoning population. But that is no solution at all, because the more people we can feed, the more people we will have. The solution to our problem isn't baking more bread. Bread is what got us here in the first place.

The solution to our nutritional crisis, our ecological crisis and the social crisis is the same: reduce the population. We are not herbivores, and we don't do well if fed primarily on grain. We are omnivores who thrive on wild game and fruit and berries. as well as tubers and wild maize. We are not insects, so we don't like to live in a society that is highly specialized and stratified, the way bees and ants do. We can live that way if we must, because we are adaptable, but it isn't natural. and it is very stressful, especially when we find ourselves relegated to the lowest level of the hierarchy. We are primates, and we enjoy competitive relations in a close-knit society of intimates, where personal merit determines rank and everyone knows everyone else

We have gotten a lot out of the invention of bread. We don't have to discard all the benefits. We can keep science and art and music and the web. It's just the pyramids we can do without, This path we find ourselves on at the moment isn't sustainable. Maybe it's time to cut our losses. What do you think?

(c) 2009 Aya Katz 


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    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      5 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Wesman.

      I went through a phase like that, too, when I entered my thirties. Before, I lived on roast beef, and now suddenly it was bread. But it was a very bad thing for me to do. Thank goodness I kicked the bread habit long ago.

      I think the bread we have in the stores here, which also has corn syrup or sugar added, is very addictive. Best kick the habit and focus on foods high in fat.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Nice extensive essay!

      I've had some strange change in my diet in recent years. I've started eating bread regularly, and even craving bread when I have none.

      Growing up, I never ate bread at all unless it was in the form of a sandwich. My mother's family served bread with every meal, and I spent a lot of time with them, and at every single meal I'd be offered bread, and I'd turn it down. Every single time, no matter what, I was offered bread, turned it down, and received reproving or mystified looks for having turned it down.

      ...but nowadays I crave bread. What's up with that? At least I know better than to eat white bread, and of course GMO wheat is a major issue; but good luck knowing whether or not your store bought wheat bread is natural or not :/

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      6 years ago from The Ozarks

      ThomDavidson, thanks for your comment. Glad you found the information factual.

    • ThomDavidson profile image

      Thomas Davidson 

      6 years ago from Australia

      Good to know the history of bread as the first fast food. This is an interesting post. I am a nutrition online student and most of the informational you mentioned are factual and indeed of great help. I agree with the nutritional value of Bread and the USDA food pyramid. Thanks for the post.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      6 years ago from The Ozarks

      Kayus, thanks for your comment.

      I took a look at the blog you linked. It seemed to be recommending a low fat diet to diabetics. I think that's a very bad idea.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      this is very intriguing and informative.Aya you write up was thoroughly researched and it is an eye opener to how bread came to being the first among fast foods.

      hope i could leave this link on calorie intake

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thank you, NicolerKilPatrick.

    • nicolerkilpatrick profile image


      7 years ago

      Glad to visit this hub.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Skellie. Bread is certainly one of humanity's achievements, and like all our achievements, there is both benefit and detriment to be derived from it.

    • skellie profile image


      7 years ago from Adelaide

      I just love bread of all descriptions. Have even made it myself from scratch, a couple of times. There is nothing better the bread, mixed with a variety of other foods. Very informative hub, great work and a huge effort. :)

      Useful and up

      Cheers Skellie

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, thehemu!

    • thehemu profile image


      7 years ago from New Delhi, India

      that is pretty informative.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      OpinionDuck, thanks! You may be right that the triangles issued by the government have changed, but not the basic pyramids they are modeled on!

    • OpinionDuck profile image


      7 years ago


      The triangles have probably changed since this hub was published.

      A lot of work on your part, thumbs up.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Lgali, thanks!

    • Lgali profile image


      9 years ago

      very nice history thnaks

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Cgull8m, thanks for your comment!

    • cgull8m profile image


      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Great post, good to know about the history of the bread, we have to thank them for keeping them well fed at that times. They managed well with few varieties, they should be commended. We complain even with wide variety of foods.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Ngureco, thanks for your comment. There's a lot of good material for thought in what you have written.

      One of the virtues of chimpanzee reproductive practices is that they do NOT produce a new pair every year. Chimpanzee infants remain highly dependent for three years following birth and need their mother's care and close attention until they are well past five years of age. Young are produced less frequently than in the case of humans who are not on contraception -- and all without artificial means.

      If every person, from whatever country or region, agreed to have only one child to replace him or herself, then we could at least keep the population from growing. It wouldn't change the ratios in terms of race, religion or nationality.

      From there, people who didn't actually want children could help out by not having any.



    • ngureco profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi Aya Katz,

      This is a nice hub you’ve come up with. How many pairs of chimpanzees placed in an enclosed area can be produced in 50 years from one pair of chimpanzees if each pair gives birth to a new pair every year starting with the second year? In arriving at the solution to this you may need to learn about golden triangles and additive growth.

      I agree with you that he who said "man cannot live on bread alone" must have been very wise.

      It never occurred to me that agriculture is now 9000 years old.  That is a long time. Richard Leakey et all are telling us that the Turkana boy is 200 million years old meaning it took about 200 million years to start agriculture. The hunter-gatherers we have today seem not interested to change. They are happy living without the bread.

      It is interesting to learn that male chimpanzees will occasionally bargain for s*x with females using meat as the payment. Do they do it for pleasure like man or….?

      The validity of "People weren't fenced in" in the United States of America may vary greatly depending on whom you ask.

      It is true the solution to our nutritional crisis, our ecological crisis and the social crisis is to reduce the population. But the Americans will have to do it first, followed by the Europeans, then Chinese, Indians, Asians and Africans. And numbers are important when it come to dominance. There will be struggle and its only mother nature who will be able to sort it out for us with or without bread.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Jerilee, thanks for the input! You're right. Necessity will eventually change our way of life. Necessity will sort everything out, whether we like it or not. The question really is how much human suffering and destruction will result from the eventual solution. If we voluntarily curb our excesses now, it will save a lot of pain in the future. Either way, though, there is no fooling mother nature.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Great hub Aya! You are right about the triangles being complex and intertwined. I'll certainly be thinking on all of this for awhile, and looking at bread in a whole new light.

      I think we're going to be cutting our losses by necessity, most being unaware of how this ever came to be in the first place.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Debby, thanks for your comment! I love Israeli bread, but not American. The issues that are intertwined with bread production are fairly complex. I didn't realize so many triangles could describe them until I started researching this article.

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 

      9 years ago

      That's a lot of triangles. You worked hard on this piece. Thank you. I love bread.


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