The shocking truth about bread

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

Thursday 24 August 2006 00:00 BST

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.


This is the simplest possible yeasted dough. It can be worked into all kinds of shapes or augmented with other ingredients to produce different flavours and textures.

Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves

600g stoneground strong wholemeal flour
5g sea salt
400g water
8g fresh yeast
Flour or seeds for the top

Weigh the flour and salt into a bowl. Measure the total amount of water and pour about a quarter of it into a small jug or bowl. Dissolve the yeast in this water by stirring it gently with your fingers. Pour the yeasty water into the bowl with the flour and salt and add the rest of the water. Use one hand to hold the bowl and the other to begin mixing the dough (you could use a wooden spoon but it's just another thing to wash up, and hands are more effective).

As soon as all the dry flour has become wet and the dough has begun to form, scrape it on to the worktop and begin kneading.

Do not add any flour at this stage, even if the dough seems to you to be rather wet. If it seems too dry, add some more water. As you knead, the flour will absorb the water and the gluten structure should begin to develop. Knead for 10-15 minutes. If you are using a mixer, rather less time will be needed. At the end of the mixing/kneading process, the dough should be soft, slightly silky to the touch and with a definite elasticity that was not there at the beginning.

Make sure the bowl is reasonably clean and put the dough back in it. Cover the bowl with a polythene bag that is big enough not to come into contact with the rising dough. Leave the bowl in a warm place (around 25C). After two hours, the dough should have risen appreciably. If it has grown significantly in less than two hours, you can either "knock it back" by gently folding it over on itself a couple of times and leaving it to rise again, or just progress to the next stage.

Grease one large loaf tin or two small ones with some fat or vegetable oil. Tip the dough on to the worktop again. If you plan to make two small loaves, divide the dough in half. Using the barest flick of flour to prevent the dough sticking to your hands or the worktop, roll it into a sausage about twice as long as the longest side of the tin. Flatten this sausage with your knuckles and then fold it in three. Again, knuckle the dough down until it is a flattish rectangle about two-thirds the length of your tin.

Starting at the edge furthest from you, fold it over and roll it up, trying to keep the dough under some tension but not folding it so tightly that it tears. Finish your roll with the seam underneath and then pick the whole thing up and place it in the tin.

Set your bread to prove in a warm place, covered with a stiff plastic bag or large bowl to stop it drying out too much. It is important not to let the dough touch the cover as it rises otherwise it may stick and damage the loaf structure when the cover is removed.

Preheat the oven to 230C or its hottest setting. When the dough has risen appreciably but still gives some resistance when gently pressed, put the loaf or loaves carefully into the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, turning the heat down to 200C after 10 minutes.

Turn the bread out of the tin and check that it is done. Tap the bottom of the loaf and it should sound hollow. Also, check the "shoulder" - where the side gives way to the domed top of the loaf. This is often the last area of crust to firm up. Gently push your finger into the shoulder - if it feels at all squashy, it needs a bit longer in the oven.

If the bottom seems rather pale, turn the loaf out of its tin and put it on one of the oven's wire shelves to finish baking. When it is done, cool it on a rack to stop the bottom sweating and going soggy.

Bread and cheese go together in so many ways, all of them delicious in my opinion. One of my favourites is a large, flat roll with cheese baked inside and on top. Sliced horizontally and filled with salad leaves and perhaps a thin strip of ham, this is as good a lunch as I can think of.

The flavour of cheese can easily get lost in bread dough so it is important to use something strong, such as a mature cheddar or a creamy Lancashire. The chilli and cumin in this recipe add a little something that seems to boost the cheese flavour. It is based around a basic savoury bread dough.

First make the sponge

3g fresh yeast
150g water (at 20C)
75g strong white flour or Italian Type 0 flour
75g stoneground wholemeal flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the flours and mix to a soft sponge. There is no need to mix this vigorously: gluten development by physical means is irrelevant in a dough that is allowed such a long time to ferment, because naturally occurring enzymes and acids transform it anyway.

Put the sponge in a bowl with plenty of room for expansion (up to three times its volume) and cover with a lid or plastic bag to conserve moisture. Leave it at room temperature to ferment for 16 to 48 hours. During this time, the sponge will rise up and collapse, the yeast cells will multiply and lactic and acetic acids will begin to develop.

The final dough

225g sponge (as above)
150g strong white flour
75g stoneground wholemeal flour
4g sea salt
15g olive oil
105g water
(If the sponge has been kept in a cool place, you will need to use fairly warm water to bring the final dough to a reasonable temperature of around 27C.)

Mix all the ingredients together and knead until the dough is stretchy and "silky". Cover and allow to rise for an hour or so.

Now to add the extra ingredients to flavour the cheese bread

1g chilli powder (a large pinch)
1g ground cumin (a large pinch)
120g grated cheese
570g basic savoury bread dough (see recipe left)
beaten egg, to glaze
100g grated cheese for topping

Stir the spices into the grated cheese and add this to the prepared dough. Fold the cheese through until it is fairly evenly distributed. You may need to add a little water if the dough shows signs of tightening up.

Divide the dough into three equal pieces and mould them up into balls.

Give them a minute or two to relax and then, with the palm of your hand, press them down so that they roughly double in diameter. Put these flat discs on a baking tray lined with baking parchment, far enough apart so that they will not touch.

With a plastic scraper or the back of a knife, mark the cheese breads with two cuts at right angles to make a cross. Simply press down on the dough, aiming to cut through almost to the tray but not quite. (If you do press too hard and the dough breaks in two (or four), do not worry: it will probably join up again during proof or baking.)

Brush the visible surface of each bread roll with a little beaten egg. Divide the remaining grated cheese and distribute it as evenly as possible across the top of each roll, but do not put it too close to the edge. The cheese will partially obscure the cuts in the roll made earlier by the scraper, but this does not matter. As the dough proves, it will spread the cheese out a bit.

Prove until nicely risen, then bake in a moderate oven (190C) for 15-20 minutes. These rolls are small and flat, so the heat will penetrate fairly quickly to the centre of the dough. Take care not to let the cheese on the top get overdone: it can go from softly melted to dried and "foxy" in just a matter of minutes.

The deep cross you pressed into the dough should be just visible after baking and the cheese rolls should break easily into four wedges, which make good soup rolls. If you plan to fill a cheese bread, it is best to keep it as one, divide it horizontally, insert the filling and then cut the whole thing into halves or quarters.

Although this recipe is for rolls, it can be applied to all kinds of breads. It uses the classic sponge-and-dough method - the way most bread was made until the second half of the last century. A very small amount of yeast is used in the sponge, which reproduces itself by feeding on the sugars available in the sponge flour, so that by the time the final dough is made there are enough active yeast cells to give a good rise to the rolls. If, after fermenting your sponge for 18 hours, you discover that you haven't time to make bread after all, don't worry. Just leave the sponge in a coolish place or the fridge for another day.

Makes a dozen rolls

First make the overnight sponge 5g fresh yeast
130g water (at 20C)
50g stoneground strong wholemeal flour
100g strong white flour

Dissolve the yeast in some of the water and add it to the flours with the rest of the water. Mix until the dough has "cleared", i.e. all the ingredients are thoroughly combined. There is no need to knead the sponge, since time will develop the gluten sufficiently. In fact, after 18 hours the gluten will be so soft that, if then kneaded hard, it would turn quite quickly into a sticky mess.

Put the sponge in a bowl large enough to allow it to expand to at least three times its original size. Cover with a lid or polythene bag and leave it at ambient temperature for 12 to 18 hours. If ambient happens to be more than 25C, find somewhere a bit cooler so that the yeast does not start fermenting too quickly.

Secondly, make the final dough

285g of the overnight sponge
350g strong white flour
100g stoneground strong wholemeal flour
5g salt
270g water
15g butter, lard or olive oil

Before you do anything else, take the lid or cover off your sponge and enjoy a first whiff of the fruity, beery, vinegary aroma. Notice how the mixture has obviously bubbled up and collapsed. The yeast is still working a bit, but it is running out of food. The gluten structure has collapsed because enzymes have softened it and it has been stretched by vigorous pressure from the fermentation gases.

Aim to make a mixture at about 27C. Mix all the ingredients together into a soft dough. Knead until it is silky and slightly stretchy. Leave to rise for an hour, during which time the yeast will begin to use the fermentable sugars in the fresh flour.

Without completely de-gassing the dough, divide it into 12 pieces, then mould each one tightly by rolling it on the work surface. As soon as each piece is moulded, dip it in flour, making sure that the whole piece is covered. Place the floured rolls about 2cm apart on a tray lined with baking parchment. Line them up so each has an equal space in which to rise. If you want to make a flatter roll, let the freshly moulded and floured dough pieces stand for about five minutes to relax the gluten and then roll them out with a rolling pin until they are about 50 per cent wider than before.

Cover the whole tray with a loose polythene bag to create a warm, moist atmosphere in which the dough can rise easily. The rolls are ready for the oven when they have risen and are just touching their neighbours. Bake in a very hot oven (230C), turning down the heat after five minutes to 210C. They may take as little as 12-15 minutes, depending on your oven. Checking is not easy if the rolls have batched together as they should.

Gently tear one away from the rest and check its top and bottom crusts. If the torn side where it was attached to its neighbour still looks a bit raw, it probably needs a minute or two more in the oven, but the rolls will firm up a little as they cool.

About the author

Andrew Whitley is a leading authority on organic baking and food issues. After studying Russian at Sussex university and in Moscow, he joined the BBC Russian Service, where he made programmes about the emerging " environmental crisis". He left London in 1976 to grow his own food on an organic smallholding in Cumbria, and went on to found The Village Bakery, which has won many awards, culminating in the Organic Trophy. Whitley has been an occasional contributor to Radio 4's The Food Programme and has written on bread and related matters for specialist journals. He is chair of the Soil Association's processing standards committee.

This piece is extracted from Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley published by Fourth Estate on 4 September, priced £20. To order a copy for £16.99, including postage and packaging, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897. Copyright ©Andrew Whitley 2006

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