Behind the label: Hovis Wholemeal Bread

| 1st May 2007
Mix flour, water and yeast and you’ve got a tasty loaf of bread. But make your bread the industrial way and you’ll end up eating more than you bargained for.

INGREDIENTS: Wholemeal flour,yeast, vegetable oil, salt, wheat protein, soya flour, E481, E472e

It’s the ultimate fast food, convenient and healthy and with genuine traditional appeal. Bread is one of the great staple foods and, made properly from good-quality ingredients, it contains numerous vital nutrients – fibre, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and essential fats – that our bodies need to stay healthy.

In the UK we spend £1.2 billion on pre-sliced, pre-packaged bread each year and 75 per cent of these purchases are made in supermarkets. Hovis is our favourite brand and rakes in 23 per cent of the UK bread market. With nearly 100 per cent of UK households buying bread, it would seem that the bakery business is the one to be in, but market trends show that sales of traditional loaves are sagging as more and more of us experiment with novelty breads such as naan and Mediterranean flat breads.

The reason, say some observers, is that the traditional loaf just isn’t what it used to be. And the reason for this is that affluent countries such as Britain and the US have let bread standards slide badly, abandoning the age-old craft method of bread making in favour of speedy industrial solutions that produce soft, uniform, tasteless loaves suitable only as a vehicle for carrying sandwich fillings.

Wholemeal bread is flour, water and yeast. But look at the ingredients for industrial bread and you will find extra ingredients that hold the bread together, stop it going mouldy, and enable it to hold more water. Indeed water is a major ingredient of most supermarket breads. One investigation of factory bread in 1978 found the water content had risen from 36 to 40 per cent. A subsequent investigation in 1986 found it had risen again to 45 per cent.

The other problem is the way bread is made. Traditional bakers kneaded the dough and then leave it to prove (rise) before baking. In contrast, most industrial bread is made using a modern commercial process known as the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP). This is a high speed, corner-cutting method that employs a vast amount of yeast to raise the dough quickly, puffs up with lots of water and air, plus hard fat to hold it up, and includes extra salt to compensate for the lack of flavour.

The Chorleywood method is fast, cheap and, since it gives much higher yields of bread from each sack of flour, profitable. It produces a loaf with a long shelf life but without any of the traditional texture, taste or quality of carefully made bread.

Conventional loaves also have other problems. According to research published in July 2005 by the UK’s Pesticides Residues Committee (PRC), wholemeal bread contains more pesticide residues than any other type. The report revealed that residues of chlormequat (a plant growth regulator used on various crops, including cereals), glyphosate (used as a desiccant on cereal crops), malathion (an insecticide) and pirimiphos-methyl (an insecticide used to control pests of stored grain), were detected in 53 of the 72 ‘ordinary breads’ tested. According to the PRC, none of the residues detected exceeded the maximum residue level (MRL), the legal limit of residue permitted. But surely, and especially with such a staple food, we have a right to expect no contamination at all.



Wholemeal Flour: Base Ingredient. Made from the whole wheatgrain, wholemeal flour retains many important nutrients. But, because of the way wheat is grown and stored, non-organic flours can contain harmful pesticide residues. The latest UK research found chlormequat, glyphosate, pirimiphos-methyl and malathion (a potentialcarcinogen and endocrine disrupter) were highest in samples of wholemeal bread.

Yeast: Raising agent, flavouring agent. Industrial processing uses two or three times the usual amount of yeast compared to craft bread. This large increase in the amount of yeast we consume in our bread is one possible reason for the growth of yeast intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and thrush (candidiasis/Candida albicans) disorders over the past few decades. Symptoms of yeast intolerance include itching, rash and other allergy-like problems.

Vegetable oil: Fats act as binders and improve the ‘mouth feel’ of foods. The description is too vague to be helpful. Most vegetable oils in processed foods are based on corn or sunflower oil high in omega 6 fatty acids. Over-consumption of omega 6 is linked to cancer, immune system damage, hormone imbalance, heart disease and stroke.

Salt: Flavour enhancer. Industrially produced bread is a high salt food. To give you an idea of quantities, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), 0.5g sodium (1.25 g salt)/100g is a lot of salt and 0.1g sodium (0.25g salt)/100g is a little. High intake of salt can cause high blood pressure – a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.

Wheat protein: Conditioner. Wheat protein (gluten) is added to bread dough to obtain a better rise/strength/chewiness. Intolerance to gluten is increasingly common. Baking does not appear to destroy the allergenic potential of wheat proteins. More worryingly, animal studies indicate that wheat proteins also appear to increase the risk of diabetes.

Soya flour: Increases protein content. The manufacturers of Hovis say there are no GM ingredients in their products. Nevertheless soya is a cheap and overused form of protein in modern baked goods. It is also an estrogen mimic that can disrupt hormone levels in men and women. Excess consumption of soya isoflavones (plant estrogen) is also implicated in thyroid and immune system suppression, increased risk of estrogen dependent cancers, infertility and growth problems. It can interfere with absorption of important nutrients.

E481: Emulsifier, stabiliser. Also known as Sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate. Vegetarians beware – can be of animal origin. Also functions as a plasticiser, surfactant and is just as likely to be found in face cream and body lotions as in bread and other bakery products.

E472e: Emulsifier. Also known as Mono- and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids. Fatty acid esters are commonly used in junk foods to keep them from getting stale. Often derived from GM soya bean oil.


Artisan and craft bakers are making a comeback as people long for bread that has flavour, texture and a high satisfaction quota. Research suggests that there are about 3,000 individual craft bakers still in the UK. Support them by buying online, by mail order or looking for them at farmers markets – and give yourself a treat in the process.

Artisan Bread;
The Authentic Bread Company;
The Village Bakery Melmerby;
Flour Power City Bakery;
Hobbs House Bakery;

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007

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