Special Report Supermarkets: Bread

Supermarket in-store bakeries are nothing but bogus ‘retail theatre’

Who has not heard the story that supermarkets deliberately pump fresh baking smells into their stores to seduce the shopper’s senses? Whether the story is apocryphal or otherwise (no one has ever pinned this one down, by the way), it is true that all the larger supermarkets these days have prominently sited in-store bakeries that look and smell like proper bakeries, and turn out wave after wave of breads, rolls and assorted cookies and cakes. Supermarkets like them because they inject some ‘retail theatre’ into stores.

Consumers are understandably seduced by the volatile compounds that make up these baking smells. Our senses are not finely enough tuned to tell us whether what is being baked is any good or not. Bad bread smells as appealing as good bread. We think that supermarket in-store bread smells lovely, and assume it must be good.

In the sterile, odour-free supermarket environment, it creates a warm, comforting effect, and supports the illusion that there are skilled, master bakers making a fresh product on the spot. The in-store bakery seems to encapsulate all the virtues of a traditional high-street craft baker. Its odoriferous homespun ‘halo’ shines a light that makes everything else in the store appear more winsome. The higher cost of in-store bakery bread creates an impression of genuine difference from the standard wrapped products. It is only when it has cooled down and you can really taste it that the reality becomes apparent.

In-store bakeries first started appearing in supermarkets in the 1970s. They were devised to help supermarkets compete head-on with high-street bakers, and to give the impression that the supermarkets were selling craft bread, as opposed to bought-in, ready-wrapped, industrial bread made to the 1960s ‘Chorleywood’ or ‘no-time’ bread-making process, which is notorious for its pappy, crustless results. So what is actually being baked in supermarkets up and down the land? The most labour-intensive bread you can expect to find is push-button ‘scratch’ bread. As its name implies, scratch bread is in theory made from scratch, from raw materials. Some chains still adhere to a loose definition of scratch baking. They have perfected a highly mechanised operation that can be carried out by relatively unskilled or rapidly trained staff. You mix a sachet of bread improvers with a fixed amount of pre-weighed flour. You press a button on a water meter and mix to create a ‘no-time’ dough. You scale the mixture into pre-set weights. You put the dough through a moulder to shape it. Then you bake it. This method is formula baking, a scaled-down version of the Chorleywood process. It is as skilled as in-store baking gets.

The rest of the in-store offering is ‘bake-off’: frozen-dough products that are factory-prepared and finished off in the store. In supermarket terms, bake-off is a wonderfully successful, money-spinning innovation. That it produces a supply of what one bread authority described as ‘the same Europap from Dover to Dalmatia’ is beside the point. It guarantees waves of identikit products: baguettes, paninis, pastries and buns, all with wonderfully evocative names. American-style cookies can be supplied as dough or shaped, frozen and ready to bake. US-style muffins and bagels, Danish-style pastries, French-style croissants and artisan-sounding French and Italian breads can all be bought in ready to bake, too. Bake-off bread comes in different forms at various stages of the baking process. Chains can buy in frozen and unproved, frozen and proved, or frozen and part-baked. In its most speeded-up form, bake-off bread might need only a few minutes in the oven to give it a crust and some colour. One supermarket baker explained to me that the only tricky thing about the process was remembering to take the part-bakes out of the freezer for defrosting. If certain lines – such as scones – weren’t thoroughly defrosted before baking, the end result would be soggy.

Take a look at the label on your supermarket in-store bakery bread and you will see that the ‘use-by’ date is usually the day of or day after purchase. As you may have noticed, the bread dries out and stales very quickly. The irony of bake-off bread is that because of all the interventions designed to prolong its unbaked life, it does not last long after it has been baked. In contrast to products from the in-store bakery, the wrapped breads on supermarket shelves cost less and seem to last for ever – or at least long enough to conform to the supermarket diktat that shopping should be a one-stop weekly event. Left to its own devices, bread stales as the starch in it hardens. But supermarkets have found that even though bread that keeps for a week can never be truly fresh, it can be made to seem fresh by ensuring it remains soft. Industrial bakers provide the supermarkets with bread that stays squidgy because it has been made with crumb-softening enzymes. The Federation of Bakers explains: ‘Advances in enzyme technology allow bread to stay fresher for longer... In the UK this has resulted in the shelf life of sliced and wrapped bread, which normally stays fresh for only two to three days, doubling to one week.’ Because these enzymes are classed as processing aids, and not ingredients, they don’t need to be declared on the label. So, the consumer is none the wiser. That’s how supermarkets supply ‘fresh’ bread that lasts a week. In supermarket terms freshness means bread that stays miraculously soft and apparently fresh until it suddenly goes green: a timely reminder that it is time for yet another weekly supermarket shop.

Extracted from Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman published by Fourth Estate, 2004. Bread Wars Sliced bread is in the front line of the supermarkets’ war against small retailers and each other.

It is an everyday product classified as a ‘known-value item’. Supermarkets drastically cut the prices on known-value items to bring customers into their stores. At around 24 pence, a typical loaf sells for less than it costs to be manufactured. In other words, bread is a ‘loss leader’. The practice of loss leading is illegal in most European countries, but not in the UK. It distorts the market in favour of the cheapest and unhealthiest foods: most loss leaders are highly processed manufactured products full of salt, fat and sugar. Thus, the persistent selling of white bread below cost has been accompanied by a decline in the consumption of wholemeal bread. Lower-income households spend a higher proportion of their money on cheap staples such as bread and baked beans. So loss leading actually promotes a worse diet among lower-income groups.

‘No time dough’ Supermarket bread is manufactured from ‘no-time dough’ in a process that uses a combination of high-speed mixing and chemical additives to eliminate traditional fermentation. The ingredients of ‘no-time’ dough include: Flour: The vast majority of bread flour is ground under huge pressure in steel-roller mills. Up to 80 per cent of the wheat’s valuable nutrients are removed during this process. As a consequence, the government requires modern flour millers to add vitamin B1, vitamin B2, iron and calcium carbonate to refined flour – but only at a fraction of original levels. Yeast: As the fermentation period has been eliminated, excessive amounts of quick-acting yeast are used to make the bread rise. As this excess yeast may not always be fully fermented, it has been linked to an increase in allergies and yeast infections such as candidiasis. Salt: Many craft bakers do not use salt, as flavour is naturally produced during the longer fermentation time of traditional dough preparation. With its minimal fermentation time, ‘no-time dough’ needs large amounts of salt to add flavour to and help control the volume and texture of the bread. Water: Bread is sold by weight, so added water, the cheapest ingredient, is one of the best ways to improve margins.

According to the former House of Commons Foods Standards Committee, the amount of water in a typical loaf of bread had risen from 36 to 40 per cent in 1978 to 45 per cent in 1986. ‘Fractionated fat’: The structure of no-time dough is so weak that ‘fractionated’ fat has to be added to prevent the bread from collapsing. Fractionated fat replaced hydrogenated fats as the latter were found to increase the risk of heart disease. Yet, fractionated fat has been linked with heart disease, too. ‘Processing aids’: Custom-made enzymes, derived from substances including soya beans, wheat and pig pancreases, are used to promote ‘fluffy dough’, increase shelf life, enhance flavour and enable manufacturers to add more water while using relatively low-grade flour. In theory, these are destroyed by the baking process. As a result, they do not have to be listed on the label.

Emulsifiers: These are used to provide dough stability, improve crumb ‘structure’, maintain softness and slow down staling. The most commonly used are data esters: relatively novel and complex compounds made from petrochemicals. Anti-fungal agents: In order to give bread a longer shelf life, it is sprayed with either sorbate or calcium propionate. The latter has been linked to allergic reactions among bakery workers, and has been found to destroy the enzymes that enable the body to absorb the calcium in white bread. Anti-fungal agents: In order to give bread a longer shelf life, it is sprayed with either sorbate or calcium propionate. The latter has been linked to allergic reactions among bakery workers, and has been found to destroy the enzymes that enable the body to absorb the calcium in white bread.

Real Bread Traditionally, patience and care are integral to bread quality. For centuries, dough has been kneaded by hand, left to rest, kneaded again, then left to prove and ferment for about three hours or even overnight. During this process, wild yeasts in the flour begin to ferment the starches, which causes the bread to rise. Well-fermented bread has a ripe aroma and slightly tangy taste. The fermentation period is vital as it ‘pre-digests’ some of the starches in the flour, making the bread more digestible for the human gut. Craft bakers are a dying breed in the UK today. In the 1950s there were 18,000 master bakers nationwide; today there are only 3,500 left, compared to 34,000 in France. Craft bakers make up a mere 1 per cent of the UK’s bread makers.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004

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