After more than a decade of forcing down fibre for the good of our health, sales of wholemeal are declining fast. To add indigestion to injury, white may have been all right all along.
"Our research suggests that among men and children there is strong preference for white bread," says Andrew Brown, marketing manager of British Bakeries, which makes Hovis, Mother's Pride and Nimble. "Wholemeal bread was being force-fed to them in the Eighties in the belief that it was the only bread which was good for you. Now there's an understanding that all bread is healthy, and men and children have rebelled. They've gone back to what they like."
What they like is the bland taste of white. Bread is known in the trade as a "carrier", a useful wrap-around for something more delicious. By the time it's smothered with butter and jam, cheese or chips, the argument goes, it doesn't really matter what the bread tastes like.
"When you ask people what they want in terms of the taste of white bread, they answer in terms of texture," says Susie Lonie, white-bread marketing manager for Britain's biggest bakers, Allied Bakeries. "They want it to be fresh, soft and light. The crust is about the only area of the loaf where they talk about flavour."
In 1978, sales of wholemeal bread accounted for less than 1 per cent of the overall market. Typically, a wholemeal loaf was squat, dense and heavy as a brick. That changed, and by 1985 wholemeal had grabbed 17.5 per cent of the market.
But white bread has been the preferred choice in Britain for more than 100 years. In the early Nineties, when the major bakeries introduced so- called "soft grain" white bread, such as Mighty White and Hovis Champion, which had a third more fibre than standard white but the same bland taste, consumers gratefully switched back. By last year wholemeal had slumped to 12.4 per cent of the market.
White, however, doesn't have to mean bland. Andrew Whitley, managing director of the Village Bakery in Melmerby, near Penrith, makes handmade bread in wood-fired ovens for Waitrose and Sainsbury's. "Industrial-made white bread is utterly tasteless with an awful texture because they can't afford the long fermentation process that gives bread its flavour," he says.
Whitley's bread ferments for up to 24 hours, whereas a mass-produced rival would get about one hour. "Industrial processes are all geared to throughput. Technologically, it's remarkable but it does nothing for flavour."