The untold truth of Wonder Bread

While Wonder Bread was not the country's first manufacturer of sliced, white bread, it's certainly the brand most commonly associated with it. When Indianapolis residents were promised the coming of "wonder" in an ad released in May of 1921, no one knew the entire country would soon experience that same wonder for years and years to come. 

Wonder Bread has been around for almost a century, and most Americans still recognize the iconic colorfully packaged loaves as a staple of their childhood. Wonder Bread has a pretty interesting history, and it almost went fully extinct in 2012. It's been steadily back on shelves but the path since its inception in the '20s is definitely more complicated than its plain white interior. Want the underground facts about the bread you used to effortlessly form into balls to hurl at your fellow classmates during lunch period in elementary school? Then read on for the untold truth of Wonder Bread.

The Wonder Bread name was inspired by hot air balloons

Ever wonder how this bread got the name Wonder? Well, a branding executive for Taggart Baking Company named Elmer Cline was really inspired by hot air balloons, especially the ones he saw at the International Balloon Race held at the Indianapolis Speedway in 1921. The glorious wonder of witnessing hundreds of hot air balloons dot the sky led him to suggest naming the now iconic white loaves Wonder Bread.

Not one to forget its branding roots, Wonder Bread has maintained its utmost respect for hot air balloons. In 2001, it commissioned its own company hot air balloon with the Wonder Bread logo emblazoned across it. The balloon visits states across the country and, of course, Wonder Bread encourages people to document sightings of the Wonder balloon on social media with the hashtag #SpotTheWonder. Pretty sure Elmer Cline would be pretty proud.

Wonder Bread was thought to be more clean than homemade bread

Lucky for Wonder Bread, its heyday happened before the term "processed food" was a bad word. Old school bread was made in the home. Eventually bakeries started do the bread making, but they weren't the cutesy bakeries we think of today. Early industrial age bakeries weren't exactly spic and span, and bakers sometimes allegedly compromised the quality of the product when they cut corners to save dough ("dough," in this instance, is both a cheeky term for money and the literal dough of bread). They may have even added stuff like sawdust to stretch what they had. 

When food-borne illnesses like cholera and typhus started to take people down at the turn of the century, folks started getting really paranoid about what was in their food. This fear often led to the nixing of bread baked locally. In short, folks worried about the safety of consuming what we would now probably refer to as locally sourced bread. Instead people turned to "factory bread," which they envisioned as being kneaded by the palms of angels in a giant, pristine, sparkling industrial kitchen, or something along those lines. The whiteness of staple bread brands like Wonder Bread only served to further solidify its reputation for purity and cleanliness. 

Wonder Bread didn't invent sliced bread

Wonder Bread might have capitalized on the concept of sliced bread, but it certainly didn't invent it. A man named Otto Rohwedder invented the first bread slicing machine (built to slice bread by the loaf) in 1928. A lot of bakers were skeptical though. Who's gonna care about their bread being sliced? Um, turns out, everyone. Finally a bread making outlet in Missouri, the Chillicothe Baking Company, took the plunge and gave Rohwedder's invention a go 'round. Ads promoting their "Kleen Maid Sliced Bread" praised the loaves for their convenience and efficiency. Sliced bread was a hit. It was the greatest thing since... well, we're not sure exactly what or who held the title for "greatest thing" before sliced bread took over and maintained top billing.

It was such a hit that by 1930, Wonder Bread was cranking out its own slicing machines, and in turn its loaves of sliced white bread, which became an American staple. While sliced bread had already proven itself worthy, Wonder Bread arguably took it to a whole new level of fame, which is why it's often associated with this then-novel concept.

Wonder Bread loaves were sold unsliced during World War II

Sliced Wonder Bread was seemingly having the time of its life in America, until 1943. For about two months of that year, it took a hiatus from the shelves of grocery stores. Why did Wonder Bread's star sliced loaf go out of sight? It was World War II and the US government decided our country needed both the manufacturing power and the materials dedicated to bread making and slicing to be instead dedicated to making weapons. Lawmakers issued a ban of sliced bread. Steel was needed for ammo, not bread slicers. Even the wax paper used to hold the sliced loaves together was deemed a necessity for the military. 

They also thought that if people couldn't get their bread pre-sliced anymore like they had grown accustomed to, they wouldn't buy as much bread. In turn, the demand for wheat would go down, which would decrease the price (flour had seen a 10 percent increase in cost) and give the military access to a lot more wheat.

Eventually the same year it was banned it was allowed to return. The government acknowledged that the savings from taking away sliced bread were not substantial. And the legendary Wonder Bread was able to resume slicin' and sellin' with fervor.

Wonder Bread wasn't always enriched

In the early 1900s, a disease referred to as pellagra was wreaking so much havoc, medical professionals at the time deemed it an "epidemic." Essentially, the individuals suffering were thought to be deficient in vitamin B3, and experiencing symptoms like dementia, dermatitis, diarrhea, and ultimately, death. While the cause of pellagra wasn't understood until decades later, experts then associated it with the lack of vitamins in the staple food southern Americans were consuming — white bread. Right before the initial pellagra outbreak was the beginning of the degermination of a staple element to that bread, corn. The brown bread that had been stripped to white bread got blamed.

The FDA got involved when it instigated its "flour hearings" in 1940. Experts convinced bread makers to find a way to basically add back into white bread the vitamins and nutrients it had been robbed of, namely thiamin, riboflavin, and nicotinic acid. Thus, bread became enriched (and was required to be labeled as so), and pellagra was seemingly eradicated. It was seen as a health victory and Wonder Bread being a well-known white bread brand at the time became a hero.

One 1952 commercial for Wonder Bread promised eight health benefits

There's a slim chance of ever seeing the white flour products of today advertising to consumers by promoting their health benefits. Most tap into nostalgia, or just tastiness. However, in its early days, Wonder Bread definitely tried to woo consumers with promises of good health. One retro Wonder Bread commercial from the 1950spromises eight perks to pounding the white stuff — protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, niacin, and energy — and also alleges how much other food it would require to get those much needed elements to "build strong bodies." 

Today, Wonder Bread is encouraging folks to "feed their joy" in its commercials. Oh, and of course they tap into to the whole "wonder" motif with a boy on a trampoline turning into a man in space when he takes a bite of a sandwich made with Wonder Bread. It's certainly a far cry from the "eat this bread because all our additives will make your bones grow" marketing route.

A 1998 lawsuit accused Wonder Bread of racism

In 1998, Wonder Bread wasn't in the spotlight for being a beacon of conveniently packaged grub. Instead, it was tossed into the nation's legal system when 15 black employees at one of the company's plants sued for discrimination. The workers claimed that their white supervisors engaged in racist behavior including not allowing the black employees to gather together for fear of them forming a gang, telling racially charged jokes, and withholding promotional opportunities. They were asking Wonder Bread, its then parent company, Interstate Brands, Corp, and five of the local San Francisco plant managers, to fork over $260 million in damages. 

In 2000, a judge decided to award  17 of the plaintiffs, which had grown from 15 to 21, $120 million in punitive damages. All 21 were also awarded $11 million for lost wages, pain, and suffering due to discrimination. Interstate Brands said at the time that they planned to appeal the decision. 

Wonder Bread didn't offer a whole wheat flavor until 2006

Despite roots in fluffy white loaves, the whole wheat craze eventually became too rampant for Wonder Bread ignore. In 2006, it started selling a whole wheat version, well, two whole wheat versions, to be exact. If people who were still eating carbs at that time were going to insist those carbs be whole grain, Wonder Bread had to step up its game to stay in the actual game. The new breads were Wonder White Bread Fans (100 percent whole grain) and Wonder Made With Whole Grain White (part whole grain, part white flour). 

Nutrition experts were skeptical but a rep from the American Dietetic Association applauded wonder bread. The spokesperson, David Grotto, told CBS News, "For the general public this is a nice, kind of covert way of introducing whole grains and not beating them over the head." Whether it's actually nutritionally sound or just a marketing ploy, you can't blame Wonder Bread for trying.

It became difficult for Hostess to uphold the health benefits of Wonder Bread

In 2010, Wonder Bread's then parent company Hostess Brands was trying to convince the American public that their white bread was indeed (once again) a healthy choice. Advertisements promised perks like vitamin D, calcium and fiber gained through eating the bread. By that time, though, nutrition experts (and anyone who hadn't been living under a rock) knew that those virtuous qualities Wonder Bread was touting were actually additives put into the bread after it had been scraped of all nutritional value in the whitening process. Basically, everyone knew what "enriched" meant by this point. 

Wonder Bread sales had been declining — they were down 15 percent in 2009 — so Hostess was definitely grasping at straws for ways to market the bread to now health-savvy American eaters. Most had become hip to the fact that there were better ways to consume vitamins, and it was in foods where they were naturally occurring. There were even dietitians pointing out that there is such a thing as too many vitamins. Wonder Bread and Hostess had to do more to convince Americans who had been witnesses to the whole wheat gospels that there was still value in their sliced, white carb missiles. 

Flowers Foods Inc saved Wonder Bread after Hostess Brands went belly up

Can you believe Wonder Bread left us for almost a full year? When the bread's parent company Hostess Brands went officially out of business in 2012, Wonder Bread ceased to line the shelves of supermarkets. Thankfully, a savior swooped in. Flowers Foods Inc., which still owns Wonder Bread today, acquired five of Hostess's bread brands, many of which people were very upset to see go when Hostess called it quits.

Flower Foods decided to recapture the nostalgia associated with Wonder Bread by returning to its original packaging and even utilizing an early version of its recipe. It returned to shelves in September of 2013. It seems as though it's here to stay thanks to the help of Flower Foods, and perhaps people's willingness to support the bread after experiencing the sad reality of it not being available. You don't know what you got 'til it's gone — right, Wonder Bread?