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A slice of white bread against a blue background, where a smiley face has been made on the slice using two blueberries and half a polo mint. Arranged around the face are orange pieces in the shape of a sun, 3 strawberry hearts and various blueberries.

Case study: What's in our bread?

Bread is an important staple food that has been part of our diet for tens of thousands of years. Across the globe, it has achieved a level of quality, affordability and convenience that makes it part of the daily diet of most modern humans. It provides energy in the form of carbohydrates and essential nutrients, dietary fibre and phytochemicals.

Given that bread is such staple, all of its ingredients have a major impact on our overall diet.

You only need four ingredients to make bread: flour, yeast, salt, and water. Artisan bakeries supply most of the bread market in Europe, especially in France, Spain, Greece and Turkey. However, in countries such as the UK and Germany, large baking companies and in-store bakeries dominate the market. In the UK just 1% is produced by artisan bakers. Industrial bread offers the convenience that last longer. However, there are many additional ingredients that you may find in commercial bread such as calcium propionate, lecithin, or L-cysteine hydrochloride [1].

Let’s explore these additional ingredients in further detail.

What’s in our bread

Fat: vegetable fat is used in small quantities to help to keep the bread soft for longer.

Flour Treatment Agents: Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is commonly added to breadmaking flour to strengthen the dough and also has a positive effect on the volume, crumb structure and bread softness. It can be added to flour by the miller or at the baking stage. It’s not permitted in wholemeal flour but is permitted in wholemeal bread. L-cysteine Hydrochloride (E920) is used by some bakers as a flour treatment agent too; it’s added to ‘weaken’ the dough structure, so it helps minimise structural damage when moulding and shape forming.

Emulsifiers: these are used to control the size of gas bubbles, enabling the dough to hold more gas and therefore grow bigger and make the crumb softer. They also reduce the rate at which the bread goes stale and help to keep the bread soft. They are based on vegetable oils; the most used are:

  • E471: mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids

  • E472e: mono- and di-acetyltartaric acid esters of mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids (DATEM)

  • E481: sodium stearoyl-2 lactylate

  • E482: calcium stearoyl-2 lactylate

  • E322: lecithin

Enzymes: these are proteins that act as natural biological catalysts. They are used in baking to help speed up and improve the chemical reaction required in the baking process. Enzymes are destroyed by heat during baking so they are officially ‘processing aids’ since they are not present in the final product. According to EU regulations, processing aids are not required to be listed on the label.

Preservatives: are often used to prolong shelf life by ensuring the freshness of the final product. The most widely used are:

  • Acetic acid (vinegar)

  • Calcium propionate

Soya Flour: this is sometimes used to assist dough oxidation – it works with the oxygen in the air to strengthen the dough and to provide support and structure to the loaf during baking.

As mentioned in the previous Step, there is a trend towards using fewer chemical additives in our food products, known as the Clean Label movement. Data from Innova Market reveals, over the past five years, the top four European markets – Germany, France, Italy and the UK – have recorded a double-digit increase in bread products launched with clean label claims [2].

For the bread production process, clean labelling usually means removing mould inhibitors such as propionates that can be replaced with vinegar; oxidants such as bromates; calcium peroxide which can be replaced with ascorbic acid; and emulsifiers such as mono- and di-glycerides which can be replaced by lecithin or enzymes [3].

Nevertheless, removing or replacing ingredients in bread can lead to textural, quality, and shelf-life changes. For instance, the removal of artificial preservatives can lead to mould growth occurring sooner if viable alternatives are not used. Baked foods are an excellent medium for the growth of mould. Bread produced without the use of any mould inhibitor will typically have a mould appear within three to five days if stored at room temperature. If the product is refrigerated or frozen, that time lengthens, however, refrigeration speeds up the rate at which starch undergoes firming. In other words, the bread goes stale quicker [2]. As well as that, from the moment the bread leaves the oven its qualities begin to change. This is the ‘staling’ process. Removing emulsifiers and enzymes can have an impact on the speed of the firming of the crumb or changes in the crust [4].

Modern consumers demand safe food with consistent quality. For baked products in particular, consumers want mould-free bread which is soft and moist. Shopping patterns have changed and daily trips to bakeries are becoming less common in some countries. We expect the bread we buy at supermarkets not to be affected by microbial spoilage for significant periods of time. We also expect the crust not to firm up too quickly and the bread not to crumble prematurely [5]. All these are reasons why bakers have been adding the other ingredients we mentioned above. While natural agents may become more readily available as research into alternatives continues, the addition of preservatives, emulsifiers and other ‘chemicals’ are the strategies used by bakers to satisfy our demands for convenience, affordability and quality.

Discussion

Did you know that bread contains all these ingredients? Which ingredient most surprised you? Please share your answers in the comments section below.

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Understanding Food Labels

EIT Food

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