Article Thumbnail

The Bowel-Bursting Rise and Fall of Bran

For nearly a century, bran was prescribed for all that ailed us. But it was mostly a clear-cut case of the supposed cure being worse than the disease

To an American of a certain age — probably if you were born before 1985 — you recall a time when your parents advised you to eat certain foods principally because they contained bran, with the same straightforwardness someone would use nowadays to encourage you to drink water. The Western world spent the better part of a century developing an absolute obsession with the outer layer of a cereal grain, which is the portion that was commonly separated from the whole grain and fed to farm animals. 

The curious thing about this generational affection for bran is that it appears to have been promulgated by pairing a generous extrapolation of medical advice with the illogical but still common belief that if a little bit of something is physically good for you, then megadosing on that same substance must therefore be even better. People understand overdosing when it comes to drugs, but rarely when it comes to food.

When we begin our tale in the 1910s, we find that most discussion of bran’s benefits was confined to its ingestion by livestock. An Albion News article from 1910 explained that bran was an excellent feedstock for horses due to its richness in “nitrogenous matter.” Meanwhile, an edition of Vermont’s Poultney Journal from November 1913 provided a pacifying statement to farmers about the feeding practices of common chickens when they’re presented with a hopper full of bran in the early morning: “They won’t eat more bran than is good for them.”

This statement is retroactively trenchant, inasmuch as even chickens had the good sense to know when they’d eaten too much bran. Unfortunately, it would take humans nearly another century to acquire the same knowledge.

Bran Consumption Becomes Medically Advisable

Only a few years later, doctors in the U.S. were cautioning patients that white flour was “an impoverished food,” and that separating the bran from the grain dispensed with many of its mineral elements and much of its protein. However, in the same breath, the medical writer for The Eskridge Tribune Star warned the readers of his 1917 column that “an excess of bran is almost as undesirable from a standpoint to good digestion and nutrition as a complete absence of bran.”

“Too much bran subjects the delicate mucous membrane lining the intestinal tube to an undue scratching, an excessive irritation, which is decidedly detrimental to the health of the digestive organs,” the columnist concluded.

It’s flabbergasting how clearly and succinctly this was stated so early in the ascendance of bran, considering it would take more than 80 years for this knowledge to be reintroduced to the American public. In the meantime, bran was soon roundly praised for its vaunted ability to add heft to fecal matter and effectuate its movement through a human sphincter. Countless articles from the 1920s attested to this fact, including feminine beauty columns that promoted bran as a key tool for maintaining a flat tummy.

Bran received a further reputational boost in the 1930s as a supposed low-calorie alternative to fat in the sourcing of vitamin B, as if anyone in their right mind would prefer bran to a New York strip steak in the pursuit of any nutrients shared by both. By the 1950s, bran was undeniably the world’s foremost way to prompt regular bowel movements, and both newspaper ads and television commercials openly promoted bran’s inducement of stool-driving regularity.

The Bowl-Bursting Bran Movement 

By the early 1970s, bran was everywhere. As a sign of the times, Kellogg’s was simultaneously advertising two bran-based cereals — All-Bran and Bran Buds — neither of which made any attempt to hide the fact that they were essentially a laxative in a cereal box. To underscore that point, Bran Buds was introduced to the marketplace as “the modern laxative cereal,” and displayed that slogan prominently on its box.

That’s when things went completely haywire. Multiple diets emerged on the scene promoting bran as either the foundation of a healthy nutrition plan, or the secret weapon for preserving a rapid weight-loss strategy. Several bran chews hit the market, too, the most prominent of which was the Bran-Slim tablet. Consumers were advised to take the six-calorie chewable tablets in between meals, or whenever they were struck by hunger pangs. The stated science proposed that the bran would expand in the dieter’s stomach, thereby satisfying their hunger without requiring them to ingest any calories that might cause them to exceed the 1,200-calorie dietary target.

From there, Wayne K. Wood unleashed The Bran Diet on an unsuspecting American public in the summer of 1979. Resorting to advertisements that looked deceptively like newspaper articles, Wood exhorted readers to try a bran-heavy diet that would soon have them rapidly losing weight, scandalously informing people who weighed 120 pounds on their normal diets that they could soon weigh only 86 pounds, as if such an outcome would somehow be both desirable and safe.

Wood also promoted bran as a major preventer of disease, and went so far as to attribute the emergence of many diseases in the latter half of the 20th century — now widely attributed to the accumulation of sugar in the American diet — to a reduction of bran intake in comparison to the earlier part of the century.

The Voice of Reason

It was at this point that research began to emerge that opposed the voices trumpeting an overindulgence in bran. In November 1979, nationally syndicated columnist Dr. Lawrence Lamb responded to a reader’s question as to whether or not there could be such a thing as too much bran in a person’s diet by reminding everyone that they could certainly have too much of a good thing, even if that good thing happened to be labeled as nutritious and delivered in a cereal bowl.

“Yes, there is such a thing as too much bran in the diet for some people,” Lamb argued. “The increased bulk appears to decrease the absorption of some vitamins and minerals. For this reason, people who take large standard amounts of bran won’t hurt their system any if they use one standard all-purpose vitamin tablet a day that contains iron.”

Lamb’s belief was affirmed the following year by a Georgetown University study that identified bran as being detrimentally efficient at preventing the body from absorbing zinc, which was a trait not shared by other sources of fiber. Despite this finding, the bran arms race continued throughout the 1980s: Slim-Fast advertised its two grams of bran per serving as a distinct advantage it enjoyed over Cambridge Diet beverages, while Total cereal was promoted as a whole grain cereal capable of providing its customers with more vitamin content and a sufficient quantity of bran in fewer bowls. This admittedly effective approach to cereal advertising was famously lampooned during a fantastic Saturday Night Live parody sketch.

However, by this point, the knowledge of medical specialists had finally caught up with that of the reasonable medical practitioners of the 1910s. “Using too much bran can lead to uncomfortable bloating and to constipation if not taken with sufficient water,” explained registered nurse Denise Vilven in a 1985 edition of the L.A. Times. “Those who have become dependent upon bran as an aid for elimination may find it difficult, if not impossible, to have a normal bowel movement without the use of bran.”

By decade’s end, this renewed understanding was accompanied by the revelation that bran overindulgence hinders the absorption of minerals other than zinc, too — like iron — and also that too much bran in one’s diet could lead to intestinal blockage.

The Bran Bubble Finally Bursts

As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s and then the early aughts, bran’s death grip on the diet industry was loosened, and then its hand ultimately went completely limp. 

Aside from the revelation that other sources of fiber were just as beneficial as bran without inhibiting mineral absorption, an increased understanding of protein’s value reduced the attractiveness of carbohydrate-rich cereals. Moreover, the spread of awareness with respect to gluten allergies and celiac disease served to permanently separate the American public from its intuitive belief that bran is full-stop healthy. 

And thus, the rise and fall of bran had reached its messy, feculent conclusion. Again, back in the 1910s, it was reported as common knowledge that chickens instinctively knew when enough was enough with respect to bran. It’s a shame that it took humans more than eight decades of tangling with bran — at both the breakfast table and on the toilet bowl — to achieve a chicken’s level of food sensibility.