The bread we eat
While the paysans boulangers have been baking nutritious bread from old varieties of wheat in France (see here), a company in the north of England has been producing bread using recipes gathered from various parts of Europe. The Village Bakery was founded in 1976 by Andrew Whitley. Here he traces the history and diagnoses the ills of the industrialised bread produced in the United Kingdom.
"What an odd way" said the visitor, "to get your daily bread. First of all, you pay a miller to strip most of the good bits from wheat to make fine white flour. The bran and the wheat germ, you tell me, are full of vitamins and minerals, so the miller sells them to feed animals, because farmers know exactly what they should give their stock to keep them healthy. Your very white bread doesn’t have many of these good things in it any more, so you buy them back as pills in a little bottle from a ‘health food’ shop at many times their original cost.
"There are some people who don’t have much money and they eat a lot of this white bread, so your government tells the miller to put back some of the good bits, just to be on the safe side. He does this, not by using the original grain but by adding some chalk, some iron and two ‘synthetic’ vitamins. This doesn’t replace everything the animals have been given, but, as you say, it’s better than nothing.
"The miller sells his flour to the factory baker who adds some other things – flour treatment agents, emulsifiers, oxidants, preservatives and enzymes – not because they are good to eat, but to make his job easier, or to make the loaves bigger, whiter and lighter, or to make them stay soft after they’ve been baked. How odd to put things in your daily food which aren’t meant to nourish you!
"Your bakers certainly make bread fast. You said that, in the old days, it might take the best part of a day from start to finish. But now bread can go from raw flour to baked loaf in 90 minutes. The bakers put in loads more yeast to get it to rise quickly, because in your culture ‘time is money’. In the TV adverts bread always seems to make people healthy and happy, but lots of people now seem to be ‘intolerant’ to yeast and some can’t eat this bread at all because it gives them indigestion.
"So you give the best part of the flour to animals, you put all sorts of things in the bread not to nourish but to deceive, and you make it so fast that lots of people feel unwell when they eat it. And yet you call this ‘the staff of life’."
It would be easy to dismiss this view of modern mass-produced bread as an oversimplification. Most people in the industrialised world are happy with the bread they buy, aren’t they? Well, not exactly.
Whenever anyone questions the nutritional or other qualities of standard (white sliced) bread, the industrial millers and bakers respond with well-practised affront. White bread is what people want, they recite, it’s cheap, all bread is good for you and, anyway, we make "healthy eating" breads, too. Bread consumption has been falling heavily in Europe and North America. Long before fads like the Atkins diet (which severely limits the intake of carbohydrates), people were abandoning bread, and not only because they were better off and could afford other things. "Cotton wool" bread may have started as the butt of foodie ridicule but the joke turned sour for those who fell prey to bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, wheat and yeast intolerance, candida infections and a whole host of previously unheard-of conditions whose only remedy was to stop eating ordinary bread. Bakers responded not with self-criticism but with civil war. Small bakers were driven out or swallowed up by large chains, and the newly powerful supermarkets accelerated the downward pressure on prices and quality.
Despite product innovation, some of which has attempted to address health issues, modern bread still commands little respect. The ingredients – most of them – are listed on the packaging by law in some countries. But in the case of some of these substances, who knows what they are or what they do? To whom, for instance, do the words "mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids" say anything meaningful about food? Using such terms (compliant with current UK legislation though they may be) is rather like chanting the Latin mass: it communicates little beyond some generalised portentousness while keeping all the key information in the hands of the priesthood.
Static sales and murky marketing are one thing; but the bread industry’s malaise is systemic. Through a combination of greed, ignorance, misplaced technological zeal, manipulation and inverted snobbery, modern bread is no longer fit to feed us. How come?
• intensive breeding of wheat to produce higher yields with heavy applications of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides has made our bread less nutritious
• plant breeders select wheat varieties to produce, among other things, lighter loaves, but nutritional quality isn’t on their agenda; older wheat varieties contain significantly higher amounts of key micro-nutrients
• modern milling removes many important nutrients from white flour, of which only four are replaced – in synthetic form; even "wholemeal" flour from modern roller mills is robbed of its vital vitamin E
• modern bread is made ultra-fast, with several times as much yeast as in earlier times
• additives and processing aids are widely used to make loaves bigger and stay softer for longer. Some of these chemicals are not declared on the label and some may be derived from animal parts. New research suggests that one such undeclared additive can actually generate the protein that triggers coeliac disease in susceptible people
• making bread very fast prevents the development in the dough of certain naturally occurring bacteria that help to make nutrients more available and the bread more digestible.
Each one of these changes may seem insignificant, especially for people who have a varied diet. But they add up to a major deterioration in the quality of bread. Ironically, just as technology finds ever more ingenious ways to adulterate our bread, so science is revealing the havoc this may be causing to public health.