Why Sliced Bread Was Never A Great Invention

by | Aug 13, 2012

Photo by mattburns.co.uk

Food marketers have been at it for nearly a century. They’re saving us time, making it ever easier for us to consume their products, and all they ask in return is to charge us a little extra for the “convenience.” Bless their hearts.

When pressed, most of us will acknowledge that the top priority of food marketers is not to make our lives easier or tastier, but to get us to eat (and spend) more. What’s truly remarkable is that despite knowing this, we still parrot and defend their ideas as ardently as if we’d thought of them ourselves.

Do you really believe Krispy Kreme makes the best doughnuts, Ben & Jerry’s makes the best ice cream or life is impossibly difficult without pre-sliced bread? My guess is you probably do, or at least did at some point.

But the reality is none of these things are true, and that we think they are is just a sign of brilliant marketing.

Food isn’t like other products. There are people who buy every single gadget that Apple creates, and if Apple started making twice as many products per year those people would still buy them all. But humans can only eat so much food, which makes it difficult for food companies to expand their market and be competitive.

Enter “added value.”

Sliced bread, instant oatmeal and single serving Go-gurt are all examples of foods designed to be easier to eat. And companies correctly assume that we are happy to pay more for the free time these conveniences allot us.

But does this freedom really make our lives better?

I would never argue that time doesn’t have value. Though I think there is a strong case for slowing down and taking time to eat mindfully, I certainly see the appeal of fast and portable food. As a PhD student, writer and website owner I know what it means to be busy.

But convenience is not the only thing you get when marketers sell you on their products. You also eat more, and you eat worse.

Because sliced bread is easier to eat, people tend to eat more of it, along with whatever they choose to put on top. Additionally, since real bread quickly becomes stale when cut into smaller pieces food companies have had to find new (non-ecofriendly) packaging and add preservatives, dough conditioners and other chemicals to keep breads soft.

The ingredient list on a loaf of Wonder Bread is truly remarkable:

Wheat Flour, Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup or Sugar, Yeast, Contains 2% or Less of: Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid), Barley Malt, Soybean Oil, Salt, Calcium Carbonate (Ingredient in Excess of Amount Present in Regular Enriched White Bread), Wheat Gluten, Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono and Diglycerides, Calcium Dioxide, Datem and/or Azodicarbonamide) Vitamin D3. Calcium Sulfate, Vinegar, Yeast Nutrients (Monocalcium Phosphate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Ammonium Sulfate, Ammonium Phosphate and/or Ammonium Chloride) Cornstarch, Wheat Starch, Soy Flour, Whey, Calcium Propionate (to Retain Freshness), Soy Lecithin.

In contrast the bread I buy at Acme, my local bakery, is made of flour, water, yeast and salt. Special loaves may contain olives or herbs, but you get the general idea.

I have to cut it myself and it doesn’t last long if I leave it on the counter (it freezes absolutely beautifully), but the bread at Acme is also some of the best tasting bread I’ve had in my life.

Are you shocked that my Acme loaf costs around $2, while Wonder Bread costs close to $4?

I don’t eat much bread, because it is not particularly healthy. But I enjoy burgers, pizza, sandwiches, naan and other traditional foods way too much to cut it out completely. Reasonable quantities of bread can easily be incorporated into a healthy diet, particularly if you exercise regularly. But bread is not health food and eating as little as you’re comfortable with is generally a good idea.

We do not need unhealthy foods to be more convenient or less expensive. And if you’re going to put health aside and eat them anyway they should also taste absolutely amazing, not good or even pretty good.

Does pre-sliced bread really make the cut? I don’t think so.

Sliced bread was never a great invention, it was great marketing. “The best thing since sliced bread” was derived from an ad campaign claiming it’s invention was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.”

The phrase may be perfect for describing brilliant marketing (“The best added value campaign since sliced bread”) but do we really need to continue propagating the message that low-quality convenience food is the best invention of the past 100 years?

If we want a true benchmark for greatness, maybe we should change it to “the greatest thing since the iPhone.”

Just for fun, here’s a video of Seth Godin’s TED talk about marketing and the sliced bread campaign.


How great is your bread?

Originally published September 1, 2010.

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35 Responses to “Why Sliced Bread Was Never A Great Invention”

  1. Agreed! My rustic baguette from La Farine costs $2.50 and is the most delicious bread I’ve ever eaten. I usually only buy one if I’m bringing it to someone’s house or if I’m having a dinner guest. Sometimes I’ll buy one, slice it up and freeze the slices so I can pull a few out once in a while to eat with walnut oil or sardines. Ingredients: flour, water, yeast. I’ve also been known to bake my own bread once in a while.

  2. David says:

    Great post.

  3. thomas says:

    what about those “instant” beans and lentils that seem as they are just broken, hence requiring less time to make (i think 4 minutes instead of 20 or something)?

    whats the weight on that $2 loaf?

  4. aubrey says:

    You summarized this beautifully. When I make it a general rule to only eat really really GOOD bread, I actually appreciate every single bite of it. Besides, skipping the crappy grocery store bread leaves more room for awesome veggies!

  5. Dominik says:

    Great post!

    I chuckled a little when I read the title, since I’ve come to accept that clever marketing really sells almost anything. I never once thought about how marketing even got us to buy sliced bread, something that’s clearly inferior to whole loafs. Thanks for reminding me of the evil powers of marketing – and of buying loafs again.


  6. Ashley says:

    I make my own bread. I have a quick bread and a no-knead bread that I do regularly, adding the various grains (whatever I feel like – millet, quinoa, barley!) into it as I go. I save SO MUCH money doing this with the additional benefit of knowing every last thing (whole wheat flour, yeast, salt and water) that goes into my loaves (and my 4-year-old niece can pronounce it all). I do eat a small amount of bread for breakfast, so I’m not as angelic about my diet as I could be I guess. I’m still not on the muesli wagon, although I do want to try it. 🙂 Great post!

  7. James says:

    Kudo’s. Great post, thanks!

  8. Beth says:

    So agreed. My homemade loaf pretty much makes itself with an overnight soaker/biga, mixes up in minutes in a stand mixer, and costs me just about $0.80 conventional / $1.25 organic. Once a week. Why on earth would anyone buy plastic sleeved “loaf” bread?

  9. Franz says:

    Thanks for the post as always Darya, very informative. I think as soon as one starts to think of food as “whole foods”, and not “food products” advertising has less of an effect. Also, I think it was a good decision to include Seth Godin’s talk.

  10. bobcat says:

    I agree with your post, but I’d have to argue with ending it by implying the iphone is such a great invention.

    If the iphone were that great, the instructions wouldn’t warn that it isn’t safe to put right up against your head (check the fine print carefully).

    My idea of a great invention is something that poses very few health risks when used how logic implies it should be used.

    • Norm Bellas says:

      She was speaking in irony about the iPhone. Earlier in the article she was pointing out that some people buy every gadget that Apple comes up with.
      BTW irony is saying the opposite of what you mean. If you say it with a straight face, it is dry wit. i.e., her opening statement:
      “Food marketers have been at it for nearly a century. They’re saving us time, making it ever easier for us to consume their products, and all they ask in return is to charge us a little extra for the “convenience.” Bless their hearts.”

      I love this!

  11. heidileon says:

    Excellent post Daria. I don’t eat bread regularly but when I decide to indulge on it, I always choose artisanal bread made only with food.

  12. Marie says:

    Dear Bobcat, iPhone and iPad are the greatest inventions since sliced bread. And ALL PHONES have fine print that say not to put it up against your head. That isn’t iPhone specific. Do the research.

    As for bread, I agree completely. Then again, I’m on a liver cleanse so no bread at all equals no problem in this department.

  13. Sandra says:

    Good post, and good call- sliced bread really is just added value to an inferior product. I have been making my own bread for at least six years now and never look back. I love having control on the ingredients and preparation. There is a study from the University of Utah that it takes 100 slices of white sandwich bread to equal the nutrition in homemade whole wheat bread. Amazing. And that doesn’t even take any note of all of the other garbage you would be eating in the white bread.
    That stuff is a sorry substitute for anything real.

  14. kaye says:

    For me bread is the greatest thing created when you are busy and when you dont have to cook . I love bread. slices bread. it taste nothing but i really love the taste. you can eat it with a jam, or a tuna or with salad.

  15. I totally understand where you are coming from here. I actually just posted a blog this morning about how convenience has led us astray from consuming adequate amounts of fiber. It’s important to acknowledge the sociological perspective that people have always been looking for a way to be taken care of. Perhaps it comes from the idea that many seek to ‘keep up with the Jones”. It’s why people love going out to eat and buying disposible items….someone else did the work. And though we can argue the wonder of modern marketing (which I certainly have a huge issue with), the motives of the customer are the main reason creating a need for which marketers define and attempt to fill (some better than others).

  16. Elder says:

    Way to promote thoughtfulness in one area an abandon it in another. The idea of the iPhone’s greatness is similarly reliant on an advertising campaign. Now, “the greatest thing since penicillin” is a saying I could get behind.

  17. Yvonne Moss says:

    Great info ! Thanks for informing, encouraging and challenging us to eat healthier and get moving.

  18. Cyn says:

    I’m with you but … don’t be hatin’ on the Krispy Kreme.

  19. Laura says:

    Great post, I agree with all of your ideas (I make my own bread when I can and keep an eye on ingredients when I can’t…) but I have to disagree with your pricing. While the loaf of wonderbread you pointed to might cost $4 where your local place costs $2, this is not the case for me. To buy a loaf the same size as one in the grocery at the bakery I would pay twice as much. For a family of four or five that goes through a lot of bread in lunches etc. this could make quite a difference.

    While I agree that our priorities are mixed up and that we should spend more on quality food for our health than other luxuries, I think your claim that good bread is cheaper actually is way off.

  20. Karen B. says:

    It’s funny that you are writing about bread today because yesterday at a market here in Tucson I went in for a long baguette to make my son a french bread pizza. The soft, doughy 3 foot baguette in the plastic wrap was 99 cents. The baguettes that were freshly made out of just a few ingredients were 2.49 for a small 5″ single.
    I’ve tried making them but bread doesn’t rise well here so I gave up after years of making crappy bread.
    Good food costs more where I live.

  21. Chris says:

    “The greatest thing since the iPhone” is a much better benchmark for greatness. A true invention “outside the box” that others can only try to imitate. Thanks, Darya. Let’s make this the new phrase for greatness.

  22. Sebastian says:

    I alwas buy pre-cut bread. Here in Germany nearly all bakerys have a bread slicer and offer it as a free service. I tried to slice it at home, but even with a bread knive I find it a bit hard and always end up with slices that are very thick. But I have the impression that a lot of the bread that is usually consumed in the US, doesn’t have a hard crust, like the bread that is sold here. Nearly all kind of breads my bakery offers have a very hard crust an are made from whole wheat, stelt or rye.

  23. Tribble mom says:

    Great post!
    I decided to start making bread about 2 years ago so my family is spoiled. During the hottest part of summer my husband usually buys at least 2 loaves of bread and it always tastes disgusting!

  24. Aaron D says:

    I work at an organic grocer and, when griping, we commonly say “that’s the worst thing since sliced bread!”

  25. Katherine says:

    I agree with the essence of your post Darya but I also think all lived bread is made equal. Yes, big brand name “wonder” type sliced bread is terrible, but there are good sliced breads available. I buy an organic sliced loaf that has all organic ingredients that I can recognize. And it really doesn’t last very long at room temperature. Also, my local bakery has a slicer that I take advantage of. I find that the slicer make really thin, even slices which I wouldn’t be able to obtain at home.
    I am also surprised to hear you say that local artisan bread is cheaper than wonder bread. Here in Montreal, artisan bread is definitely more expensive than factory made sliced bread you can buy at the supermarket. Of course, I think buying the locally made bread is absolutely worth the additional dollar (or two or three) extra.
    I’m sure homemade bread would be more economical and I may experiment with that in the near future.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Hey Katherine,

      Thanks for your comment. Of course there are some exceptions, this was more of a post about psychology, perception and marketing than of bread per se. I guess we’re lucky here in SF though that our amazing Acme bread is so affordable 🙂


  26. Convenience is the driving force behind a lot of our modern “food.” People want/need quick and easy food because they have such hectic lives that it’s simpler to go that route. Once we get used to eating a certain way, it’s very hard to break that habit.

  27. Jean P. says:

    Do you know why people stop using their bread machines? Slicing bread is messy and you end up with crumbs all over the place and uneven slices.

    Can any inventors out there come up with a neat and tidy way to slice home made or whole loaf bread?

  28. Dee says:

    Me and bread…..

    I try to avoid getting bored with food, and bread is something you can become bored an mindless with…

    My bread is always great!
    1. My mom’s home made bread is the healthiest and most delicious! Flax, wheat germ, whole wheat flour, olive oil, water, yeast etc.
    I get that sometimes…
    2. When I buy bread from the bakery I go for whole wheat loaves sometimes with additions e.g raisin, walnut, granola etc. also Because I have 2 year old, I buy tiny bread servings to make sandwiches e.g. Dinner rolls, mini bagels, mini croissants… I keep them in the freezer, every time it’s like fresh out of oven
    3. I see the supermarket brands manufacturing and slicing ‘artisan oven classics’ breads – e.g marble rye with oats…
    4. Off late I have been using opportunities to substitute bread with starchy vegetables

    I cherish good bread more when I know I only have one serving to eat per day!

  29. Caroline says:

    Great read. I agree with (almost) everything. I live in Canada and if you buy fresh artisanal bread from a local baker, it is definitely more expensive than the crap at the grocery store. Also, you mentioned that bread is unhealthy and that got me thinking. If it’s homemade with whole grains and no preservatives, what’s unhealthy about that? Whole grains have nutrients that we need. I would argue that a lot of bread is unhealthy, but to say that ALL bread is unhealthy I think is a bit of a stretch. If you have scientific evidence to prove me wrong, I would love to see it.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Good questions Caroline. The health issue with bread is that it’s made from flour, not intact grains. The processing strips out most of the nutrients we “need,” though you get much more nutrition from whole foods other than grains. Most flour is fortified to replace some of the lost nutrients, but this doesn’t make it a healthy food, similar to how eating instant ramen with a multivitamin isn’t as good as a bowl of vegetables and meat. The nutrient value of bread is really minimal, and virtually irrelevant in the context of an already healthy diet. There are also serious issues with eating processed, rapidly digesting carbohydrates that spike blood sugar and insulin. Like I said in the article, I think there is a place for good bread in a healthy diet, but that doesn’t make it a healthy food.

  30. Rami says:

    Great article, probably the best I’ve read in a while, meaningful just like Acme bread.

  31. Rami says:

    But I have to admit that while I do agree with the article, I believe artisanal bakers have to get some blame too for not being able to adapt with the changing lifestyle of consumers everywhere in the world, after all, it doesn’t hurt if the artisanal baker got a $50 slicer and saved my precious minutes.

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