The shocking truth about bread

An article from The Independent newspaper that I didn’t want confined to the deep midst of the internet or lost when the newspaper took this particular page down.

Flour, yeast, water and salt – a traditional loaf needs only four ingredients. So why are calcium propionate, amylase, chlorine dioxide and L-cysteine hydrochloride now crammed into our daily bread? Andrew Whitely, Britain’s leading organic baker, reveals how our staple foodstuff was transformed into an industrial triumph, but a nutritional and culinary disaster. And, overleaf, he shares essential recipes for making your own slice of homemade heaven

Back in the early 1960s, the national loaf was fundamentally redesigned. The flour and yeast were changed and a combination of intense energy and additives completely displaced time in the maturing of dough. Almost all our bread has been made this way for nearly half a century. It is white and light and stays soft for days. It is made largely with home-grown wheat and it is cheap. For increasing numbers of people, however, it is also inedible.

Now, as technology finds ever more ingenious ways to adulterate our bread, so science is revealing the havoc this may be causing to public health. As recent research suggests, we urgently need to rethink the way we make bread.

British industrial bread commands little respect. This isn’t surprising when it is promoted with such mixed messages. Some loaves, described as having ‘premium’ qualities, seem barely distinguishable from others being sold at less than the price of a postage stamp. ‘Healthy-eating’ brands, adorned with images of nature and vitality, make detailed claims about the virtues of this or that added nutrient. But the big bakers keep quiet about nutrition when pushing their ‘standard’ loaves, which still account for over half of the market and are sold on price alone.

You might think that keeping prices down would be a good way to increase sales. But with bread, low cost and low quality have become so intertwined that conventional economics are turned on their head. We produce some of the least expensive bread in Europe, but our bread consumption is also one of the lowest.

It will take more than clever branding or a little soya, linseed and omega-3 to dispel the prevailing image of British bread culture as one dominated by pap.

If that seems a harsh judgement, take a look at what actually goes into your daily bread.

In 1961 the British Baking Industries Research Association in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, devised a bread-making method using lower-protein wheat, an assortment of additives and high-speed mixing. Over 80 per cent of all UK bread is now made using this method and most of the rest uses a process called ‘activated dough development’ (ADD), which involves a similar range of additives. So, apart from a tiny percentage of bread, this is what we eat today.

The Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) produces bread of phenomenal volume and lightness, with great labour efficiency and at low apparent cost. It isn’t promoted by name. You won’t see it mentioned on any labels. But you can’t miss it. From the clammy sides of your chilled wedge sandwich to the flabby roll astride every franchised burger, the stuff is there, with a soft, squishy texture that lasts for many days until the preservatives can hold back the mould no longer. If bread forms a ball that sticks to the roof of your mouth as you chew, thank the Chorleywood Bread Process – but don’t dwell on what it will shortly be doing to your guts.

This is Britain’s bread: a technological marvel combining production efficiency with a compelling appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. It is the very embodiment of the modern age.

Below is a breakdown of the additional ingredients – aside from flour, water, salt and yeast – in a typical CBP loaf. Bread made with just these four ingredients was the basis of my bakery business for 25 years. Even yeast (as an added ingredient) is unnecessary with natural leavens or sourdoughs. So it is reasonable to ask: are these ingredients necessary? And, if not, what are they doing in our bread?

Enzymes are modern baking’s big secret. A loophole classifies them as ‘processing aids’, which need not be declared on product labels. Additives, on the other hand, must be listed. Not surprisingly, most people have no idea that their bread contains added enzymes.

An enzyme is a protein that speeds up a metabolic reaction, and are extracted from plant, animal, fungal and bacterial sources. Chymosin, for example, is the enzyme used to curdle milk for cheese-making. It is either derived from rennet from a calf’s stomach or synthesised by genetic engineering.

A whole host of enzymes are used in baking. Their status as processing aids is based on the assumption that they are ‘used up’ in the production process and are therefore not really present in the final product. This is a deception that allows the food industry to manipulate what we eat without telling us. In their own trade literature, enzyme manufacturers extol the ‘thermostability’ of this or that product; in other words its ability to have a lasting effect on the baked bread.

Manufacturers have developed enzymes with two main objectives: to make dough hold more gas (making lighter bread) and to make bread stay softer for longer after baking. Many bakery enzymes are derived from substances that are not part of a normal human diet. Even if such enzymes are chemically the same as some of those naturally found in flour or bread dough, they are added in larger amounts than would ever be encountered in ordinary bread.

And now the safety of bakery enzymes has been radically challenged by the discovery that the enzyme transglutaminase, used to make dough stretchier in croissants and some breads, may turn part of the wheat protein toxic to people with a severe gluten intolerance. This development is important because it suggests that adding enzymes to bread dough may have unintended and damaging consequences. Surely no one can seriously suggest that bakery enzymes should be omitted from bread labels.

I think we should be suspicious of bakery enzymes for four additional reasons:

Enzymes can be allergens and should be identified on labels in the same way as the major allergen groups.

Failure to label enzymes prevents people from making informed choices about their diet.

There is a fundamental dishonesty in treating enzymes as though they had no effect on baked bread when this is patently why they are used.

Judgements about ingredients should take into account the whole food; an enzyme may be harmless in itself but may be used to make an undesirable product.

Modern baking is schizophrenic about time, on the one hand wanting to reduce it to nothing, on the other trying to extend it indefinitely. And it is also in two minds about its raw materials, torn between the desire to remove things that get in the way and the impulse to add things that will make the bread easier (for machine production), bigger, softer, cheaper, longer-lasting or more apparently healthy.

Baking technologists just can’t leave well alone. There’s always some functional advantage to be pursued, some marginal value to be prised from dumb nature, as if the human race had never quite mastered this business of bread.

We have evolved an industrial bread-making system that, in a variety of ways we can no longer ignore, produces bread that more and more people cannot and should not eat. Some would say that the pappy, bland nature of CBP bread is reason enough to consign it to the compost heap of food history. But these qualities are ultimately matters of personal preference. The use of additives, on the other hand, especially those whose provenance or purpose is not apparent to the consumer, raises serious questions of accountability and trust. Above all, the baking industry must respond to the growing body of research that is charting the profound unhealthiness of making bread quickly. From wheat to finished loaf, industrial baking needs to be reconstructed from first principles, of which the most important is a proper respect for time.

If you are dismayed at the covert corruption of our daily food, you may agree with me that bread matters too much to be left to the industrial bakers. More and more people are taking control over their lives and health by making their own bread – bread you can trust and believe in.

What’s in our bread

Hard fats improve loaf volume, crumb softness and help it to last longer. Hydrogenated fats have commonly been used, though large bakers are phasing them out, possibly replacing them with fractionated fats. These don’t contain or produce transfats, which have been associated with heart disease.

L-ascorbic acid (E300) can be added to flour by the miller, or at the baking stage. It acts as an oxidant, helping to retain gas in the dough, which makes the loaf rise more and gives a false impression of value. It is not permitted in wholemeal flour, but permitted in wholemeal bread.

Chlorine dioxide gas is used by millers and makes white flour whiter. It has some “improving” effect on the flour – bleaches have been used as a substitute for the natural ageing of flour.

Used as L-cysteine hydrochloride (E920), cysteine is a naturally occurring amino acid used in baking to create stretchier doughs, especially for burger buns and French sticks. It may be derived from animal hair and feathers.

Widely used in bread “improvers”, soya flour has a bleaching effect on flour, and assists the machinability of dough and the volume and softness of bread, enabling more water to be added to the dough.

Widely used in bread improvers to control the size of gas bubbles, emulsifiers enable the dough to hold more gas and therefore grow bigger and make the crumb softer. Emulsifiers also reduce the rate at which the bread goes stale.

Calcium propionate is widely used, as is vinegar (acetic acid). Preservatives are only necessary for prolonged shelf life – home freezing is a chemical-free alternative.

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