Flour, water, yeast. For centuries we have used just three ingredients to make bread. Examine a supermarket loaf, though, and you will find some other, odd substances.
A Warburtons Farmhouse Soft White, for instance, contains: wheat flour, water, yeast – so far so good – but then... vegetable oil, salt, flavouring soya flour, preservative calcium propionate (added to inhibit mould growth), emulsifiers E471, E481, flour treatment agent, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), E920.
You may wonder what kind of a "farmhouse" produced this bread? As you may have suspected, rather than being the craft operations they evoke, Warburtons, Hovis, and Kingsmill are big corporations making tens of millions of pounds from baking strangely springy loaves with the help of enzymes, flour treatment agents, vegetable oils, preservatives and other additives.
This techno-bread is not as tasty as normal home-baked or "craft" bread. It is deceptively large, less nutritious, and loaded with high levels of salt. It is also seemingly, in the long run, putting people off bread.
In a report in February, Mintel valued the British bread market at £3.9bn, but warned daily consumption had been "steadily declining" in favour of other carbohydrates such as pasta and rice.
Listing market weaknesses, Mintel said: "The most prevalent buyer type is apathetic/habitual, ie they have low interest in the bread offer and choose the same brand every time." Bread should be one of the great, simple joys of life, so how did an industry become so unloved by the public?
The answer can be traced back to the 1960s when scientists at the British Baking Industries Research Association in Chorleywood, Hertforshire, decided to improve the basic loaf. The result? Lower-protein bread, a slew of additives and a super-fast, money-saving baking process.
According to master organic baker Andrew Whitley, around 80 per cent of bread is now produced under the "Chorleywood Bread Process (CBF)".
Hard fats are used to bulk it out and make it longer-lasting. (Palm oil causing deforestation in South-east Asia is used by Warburtons, Hovis and Kingsmill.) Flour treatment agent l-ascorbic acid (E300) helps the dough rise more, giving a false impression of value; soya flour improves the machinability of the dough. Emulsifiers even give out gas bubbles and increase volume. Calcium propionate prolongs shelf life.
Enzymes are used to make bread softer and lighter, but they do not have to be declared on the label because the industry argues they disappear from the end product.
Faced with the unwholesome industrialisation of bread, the food group Sustain has launched a Real Bread Campaign. It wants enzymes to be declared on the label and an end to the man-made additives.
Bread, it says, should be made only of flour, water, yeast, perhaps salt and, if desired, other natural ingredients such as butter, nuts or fruits. You can search for a real baker on the Real Bread Campaign's website (www.realbreadcampaign.org). A visit would be timely this week; National Craft Bakers' Week.
Or you can bake your own. Bread-machines have boomed in recent years, but they often sit unused in a cupboard. Which? gave its best buy award to Morphy Richards' 48245 Compact, which costs £44. You get four 1lb loaves from a £1, 1.5kg bag of flour. Even taking into account yeast, a small amount of sugar and salt, sunflower oil and skimmed milk, a loaf should set you back no more than 80p – cheaper than all but the direst white supermarket loaf.
Delia Smith offers a quicker loaf still. Her Complete Illustrated Cookery Course has the full details but here's the summary:
Add 75ml of warm water to two teaspoons of dried yeast in a jug and leave for 10 minutes until frothy. Tip the mixture into a bowl containing 450g wholemeal flour and two teaspoons of salt. Mix until the dough doesn't stick too much to the sides. Cover with a damp tea towel for 30 minutes so the dough rises. Slap the mixture into a greased bread tin and bake for at least 30 minutes at 200C. Cool on a wire rack.
You'll need just four ingredients: water, flour, yeast, and salt.
Heroes & Villians
Hero: The Co-operative Bank
For winning best financial company at the Which.co.uk awards.
Villain: The Food Standards Agency
Twenty-one months after announcing trials of ratings for restaurant hygiene, the FSA is still discussing how to set up a national 'scores on the doors' scheme.