Supermarket and bakery bread review

Modern bread processing methods have completely changed the way our daily loaf is made.
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01 .What's in your bread?


Bread is still a diet staple for most Australians, but these days it contains a lot more ingredients than it used to.

We take a look at:
* How your bread is made
* Is your bread really baked fresh?
* Preservatives in bread
* Labelling and health concerns
* Choosing the right bread
* Who owns your bakery products?
* The shelf life of bread

Modern breadmaking methods

Once upon a time, bread was made with flour, water, salt and yeast and took between eight and 20 hours to produce. In the early 20th century, bakers experimented with various mechanised techniques to speed up breadmaking, but in 1961 the Chorleywood bread process changed everything.

Invented by UK scientists, the Chorleywood method allows a loaf to go from flour to sliced and packaged in about 3.5 hours using high-speed mixers and the addition of extra yeast and dough-improving chemicals. This method has changed little in the years since, because it produces cheaper loaves of a consistent size that are soft, springy and don’t go stale as quickly.

Bread ingredients

Look at the ingredients on a bread label and alongside the more recognisable substances, you’ll often see a list of mysterious numbers. Some of these additives are what are known as bread and dough “improvers” or “conditioners”. They often have more than one function, but generally they’re designed to dramatically increase the rate at which the dough rises (help breadmakers increase production speeds and lower costs), improve bread texture and taste, and extend shelf life.

Processing ingredients you'll commonly see are mineral salt 170 (calcium carbonate) and ascorbic acid (food acid 300 or treatment agent 300), otherwise known as vitamin C. Emulsifiers (427e, 481, 471), vegetable gums (412, 461) and amino acid 920 speed up dough handling, help sliced bread retain its shape and extend shelf life by reducing the crystallisation of starch that makes the bread go hard. (If you put bread in the fridge, the cold temperature increases the rate of crystallisation and the bread goes hard faster.)

Only small amounts of these additives are required – usually up to three per cent of the bread – and bakers often buy them in a ready-made premix, to which they add water and yeast. Most breads, whether from a factory or a small baker, are made from similar premixes – differences generally stem from baking techniques.

Since 2009, it’s been mandatory for breads (except organic ones) to add iodine using iodised salt (for thyroid health), as well as folic acid, a form of the B vitamin folate that helps reduce the rate of neural tube defects in infants.


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In 2012, a ruckus erupted when it was revealed that Coles “freshly baked in-store” bread was actually par-baked bread made in Ireland.

Par-baking is when bread is baked to around 80-90% completion, snap frozen and transported to the store, where it is baked for the final 10%. Often there is no difference in ingredients, but par-baked bread’s freshness starts to decline after about six hours.

Larger supermarkets with in-store bakeries make most simple products like bread rolls and loaves from scratch on-site daily - and these often have labels showing the date and time baked - while trickier specialty breads tend to be made off-site and par-baked.

ACCC weighs in on “fresh-baked” claims

In June 2013, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against Coles, accusing the supermarket of misleading consumers about its par-baked products. 

“We believe consumers are likely to have been misled by Coles that the entire baking process, including preparation, occurred in-store, when in fact the bakery products were prepared and partially baked off-site, frozen, transported and then ‘finished’ in store,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said. “Indeed, the Cuisine Royale products were partially baked overseas.”

The ACCC believes this “lack of distinction in its promotional representations between bread products that are freshly prepared from scratch and par-baked products is misleading to consumers and places competing bakeries that do freshly bake from scratch at a competitive disadvantage.”

Proceedings are due to start in August this year. Watch this space.

While emulsifiers and other “improvers” are widely accepted as safe, preservatives are more controversial. Introduced in the 1990s as a mould retardant, calcium propionate, or 282, is the best-known preservative of public concern.

Although approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) for use at specified levels, a furore erupted when a study by Sue Dengate of 27 children published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health in 2002 showed 282 to be associated with irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance.

In response to consumer concern, most breadmakers removed 282 from many of their products. Bakers Delight advises it does not use any artificial preservatives, while Brumby’s claims not to use 282 or 223 and to minimise preservatives where it can. Other bread manufacturers, such as Baker’s Life (Aldi), Goodman Fielder and George Weston, advertise on some packaging that they are free of 282, preservatives or artificial preservatives.

However, these companies still use 282 in other products such as crumpets, muffins, Turkish bread and pizza bases. It’s also widely found in wraps. We found 282 in Buttercup Country Split Wholemeal bread, Goodman Fielder’s Helga’s Schinkenbrot loaf and Sandwich Thins, and Country Life Gluten Free Breads.

With 282 a dirty word for some consumers, some breadmakers get around the problem by using its close relative propionic acid (280) instead.

282: Evidence of harm?

The internet is awash with warnings of the dangers of 282 and other food additives, pointing to a cumulative cocktail in the body which can lead to a host of symptoms from migraine and tiredness to rashes, gastro-intestinal upsets and depression.

Propionates (280-283) are on the list of food additives that can be associated with food intolerance in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Elimination Diet. On her Food Intolerance Network website, Dengate argues that children’s behaviour and learning is more affected than authorities will admit, citing stories from parents who noticed a behavioural improvement when 282 was removed from their child’s diet.

But Dr Rob Loblay, director of the allergy unit at Sydney’s RPA Hospital, argues that about five per cent of the general population is sensitive to one or more food additives, whether artificial or natural, and considers the push to ban additives “overblown”.

“The issue is very complicated,” says Vijay Jayasena, professor of food science and technology at Western Australia’s Curtin University. “The first thing people should know is that not all preservatives are artificial or may cause harm, and many are useful for food safety.”

Jayasena says most people won’t be affected by 282, while for others it’s about dosage. “It’s hard to say at what level 282 may cause a reaction in each individual, because people can have reactions to so many things and at different levels. However, if you’re worried about them you should avoid them.”

Anti-additive campaigners argue that until additives are proved safe, FSANZ should use the precautionary principle where suspect additives are substituted with others that don’t raise health concerns.

If you're worried about preservatives, Jayasena says breads baked daily in-store generally have few, if any, preservatives because any bread not sold is usually thrown out at the end of the day. Check the ingredient labels, or ask the baker what preservatives they use.

Questions have been raised about a loophole in labelling laws that allows manufacturers to avoid listing unpopular ingredients such as 282 or 223. In the Food Standards Code, food processing aids don’t have to be listed as ingredients. According to FSANZ, it’s very unusual for there to be anything other than minimal residues of these processing aids in foods.

As a sulphite, 223 is not permitted for use as a preservative in bread. It is, however, permitted for use as a processing agent – and so it can be used and not listed.

If 282 is used as a preservative, it must be listed, but if the manufacturer deems it a processing aid, it does not. So it’s essentially up to manufacturers to “apply good manufacturing practice”.

Enzymes such as alpha-amylase are also classed as processing aids and so don’t have to be listed. Used in most breads in a dried, powdered form, they artificially help speed up the fermenting process that would normally occur when traditional dough is left to rise.

Concerns have been raised that enzymes are still allergenic, even after baking. Studies have found workers exposed to airborne particles of alpha-amylase can become susceptible to “baker’s asthma”. But FSANZ argues most of the allergenic effect of alpha-amylase is destroyed during cooking, pointing to a World Health Organization/UN Food and Agriculture Organization expert committee which found no adverse effect from seven grams of the enzyme per kilogram of body weight per day.

Tummy troubles

Some people believe that modern processing methods, in particular the reduced fermentation time of the dough which gives the yeast less time to break down, could be contributing to digestive problems such as bloating.

Jonathan Brostoff, professor of allergies at King’s College London, says in a UK newspaper that the enzymes and additives make proteins harder to break down, describing modern bread as "engineered to be at its most indigestible."

Others suggest that gluten is a large molecule that’s poorly digested by the gut and that as serving sizes increase, people are simply eating too much bread. This can result in digestive discomfort, especially when combined with eating on the go or hunched over a desk.

Supermarket shelves are bulging with different brands, but most are owned by two companies.

Goodman Fielder products:

Country Life, Flinders Bread, Freya's Continental Style Bread, Helga’s, La Famiglia, Lawson’s,
Leaning Tower (pizza products), MacKenzie High Country Bread, Mighty Soft, Molenberg,
Nature’s Fresh, Quality Bakers, Vogel's, Wonder White.

George Weston Foods products:

Tip Top, Abbott’s Village Bakery, Burgen, Golden, Bagel House, Bazaar, Top Taste Cakes,
Speedibake, AGB (Australian Garlic Breads).

Wholemeal and wholegrain flour retains more nutritional value than “wheat flour” (white flour) because white flour loses protein, vitamins and minerals when the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving only the endosperm. Still nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says that as Australian wheat is high in nutrients, white flour still retains significant quantities of nutrients and just under half the fibre of wholemeal.

The words wholemeal and wholegrain are often used interchangeably and while wholemeal is often perceived as a healthier choice, when very finely ground it can give bread a high glycaemic index (GI).

Pre 2005, wholegrain food was defined by FSANZ as “unmilled products of a single cereal or mixture of cereals”. However, as a result of petitioning from the cereal processing industry, the definition was changed to a food that uses every part of the grain. This means grains can be processed and separated into three constituent parts (bran, germ and endosperm) but a food can still be classified as wholegrain as long as the three parts are added back into the food in the same proportions as the original unmilled grain.

Multigrain breads usually have white flour with added whole grains, which slow digestion and lower the GI, resulting in a lower GI than for wholemeal loaves.

High-fibre bread has three grams of fibre per serve, or five grams per 100g. White bread labelled “high fibre” often contains Hi-maize, a corn-based, resistant starch that passes undigested into the small intestine, where it can encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Sourdough is traditionally made using a “starter”, where wheat and water ferment to create a culture that gives the sour taste. This requires specific temperatures to survive so commercial bakeries often replace it with dried powdered yeast, which adds colour and smell as well as the sour taste but is not considered authentic by connoisseurs. There is no regulation defining sourdough, so the only way to know if it is authentic is to ask the baker.

What about salt?

High sodium levels may help extend shelf life, but they also concern health authorities. In 2010, large commercial breadmakers agreed to a target of 400mg of sodium per 100g by the end of 2013. Many sliced packaged breads we saw have already achieved that target, although Bakers Delight white breads still have 501mg per 100g and Brumby's white loaf has 477mg. Be aware that four slices of bread at 400mg a pop adds up to 1600mg of sodium - that’s more than 70% of the daily upper level of intake recommended by the National Health and Research Council.

Choice verdict

Look for bread where wholemeal flour is the chief ingredient but there is also a high percentage of whole or kibbled grains and visible seeds. Also, it should have less than 400mg of sodium per 100g of bread. 

How long should bread last?

Packaged sliced bread can be 24 hours old by the time it arrives at the shops because it’s baked the day before and then transported. Consumers will have no idea how old the bread is, because the best-before tag indicates when it should be eaten by rather than when it was baked. Bakers we spoke to agree the lifespan of a fresh loaf should be about two or three days. But we found packaged breads last much longer than fresh-baked breads.

So how do packaged bread companies make their bread last mould-free so long without artificial preservatives? Manufacturers claim advances in processing methods help, as does packaging that limits the flow of moisture, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Artificial preservatives may also be replaced with natural ones. As an example, mould can be kept at bay by citric acid (330), lactic acid (270) and fumaric acid (297). Other preservatives are vegetable gums, vinegar (acetic acid 260) and sodium.

Shelf life experiment

We stored 10 slices of white bread that didn’t contain artificial preservatives in airtight containers to see how long they took to go mouldy. The slices from the independent baker and Bakers Delight went mouldy first, on day four, followed on day five by the in-store bread from Coles, Woolies and the artisan. Wonder White and Aldi’s Country Bakery lasted until day eight and Tip Top finally gave up the ghost on day 10.

Watch our slideshow to see how the independent baker's bread fared.

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