I Believe our Daily Bread can and Should be Better
There’s been a resurgence of artisanal baking but most bread available in this country is of poor quality with little nutritional value
Article by Sam Sinha
You may have become immune to the word sourdough as it seems to be on every menu and sandwich board. Whilst cynics would argue it’s just a trendy addition to add value to a menu, there’s a lot more to sourdough than that; in fact, this supposed newfangled way of baking is actually a return to where it all started.
Sourdough baking dates back more than 3,000 years, and was the original method of leavening breads without the use of manufactured ‘baker’s yeast’, only used for around 150 years.
Sourdough fermentation is the process of naturally occurring yeasts and a Lactobacillus culture (bacteria) forming a symbiotic relationship. When warm water is introduced to the flour, which already naturally contains the yeasts and bacteria, they become active and feed off different parts of the flour. This starter is left to ferment in a warm place and refreshed with more flour and water to keep the organisms active. The bacteria produce acid which lowers the ph of the starter, and the yeasts feed off the sugars in the flour, producing by-products which feed the bacteria, and crucially, carbon dioxide gas which is what makes the dough rise.
This is the original and traditional way to raise a loaf and involves the smallest number of ingredients. Once the starter is fully active it is incorporated into a dough, and salt is generally added. After the dough has fermented to the desired acidity, it can be shaped and proofed ready for the oven.
When made correctly sourdough fermentation produces a more complex flavour profile than mass produced bread, with the higher acidity and flavour from the wild yeasts, and because it is usually produced with organic stoneground flour, more of the nutrients are kept in the flour, meaning more vitamins and minerals are present in the final loaf.
Modern bread-making practises have evolved to mass produce bread and maximise profits with no consideration for the nutritional content, flavour, or quality of the final product.
In 1961 the Chorleywood Bread Process was devised, which enabled bread to be made very fast with low-protein wheat, but necessitated the addition of many more ingredients than the traditional flour, water, yeast and salt. These additives are necessary to produce the uniform, high volume loaves very cheaply, but many have negative effects on health and the quality of loaves made in this way is so poor that they should hardly be called bread.
Fats, emulsifiers, reducing agents, preservatives and even bleach are all typically used to make loaves that hold more gas, and therefore give the perception of better value; last for longer before becoming mouldy; and are uniform in colour and shape. This may not seem a bad thing, after all this is what the public wants. The problem though, is that these additives give no nutritional benefit to consumers and the way in which the flour is milled for this method precludes any of the natural goodness from being present in final product. This results in a loaf lacking in flavour, with a flabby crumb and soft crust, which has little to no nutritional value. But there are more additives argued to be contributing to the decline in the health of bread eaters, and turning some off bread altogether.
I’m referring to the enzymes which are typically added to industrially produced bread. These are produced from animal, vegetable, fungal and bacterial sources but amazingly do not have to be declared on the packaging, having only to be specified as ‘processing aids’. This not only means that vegetarians could be unwittingly eating something derived from a pig’s pancreas (phospholipase, used to improve the loaf rise), but there are also potentially harmful effects.
Transglutaminase for example, used to improve the consistency of dough, has been implicated in the recent surge in serious cases of coeliac disease and it is probable that the sharp rise in cases and the trend for avoiding wheat containing products is due to the lack of quality in the bread we are eating, rather than the presence of gluten in the product. We have eating gluten for thousands of years with no issues, it is only since the industrialisation of bread-making that this has become a problem for many people.
It is clear to me that there is a huge problem with our bread industry and it is indicative of our food industry at large. Products have gradually declined in quality for the benefit of big business with no regard to nutrition or flavour. People become used to eating poor quality products and like the cheap price tag, and we end up with an obesity epidemic and an ailing food culture.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, there has been a resurgence in quality artisan produce. Where I live in East London, there is a smattering of small bakeries with E5 Bakery and Pavillion both producing an excellent range of sourdough loaves and rye breads. But paying £4 for your daily bread is unrealistic for a lot of people. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground between unappetising mass produced pap, and artisanal small batches made in a railway arch.
I believe it must be possible to produce affordable bread on a reasonably large scale given that the main ingredients are flour and water. Maybe if billions of pounds worth of profit wasn’t the goal, good quality; good value; nutritious bread could be the norm for everyone. For now, we’ll just have to decide between which of the two extremes to go for. For me, it’s got to be the superior flavour and crunch of the local sourdough, and hang the cost.