Recently I have been reading a sobering book by Joanna Blythman called Swallow This. In it, she writes about how food is processed, and it makes for sobering reading.
I set up Virtuous Bread to change the world by helping people make, buy, and learn about good bread and, over the past six years, I have shared the satisfaction of watching the sales of the industrial loaf begin to fall. That is well and good but the book has reminded me that it is not enough. There are still too many industrial loaves sold. There are growing numbers of so called artisan loaves sold that are simply industrial loaves masquerading as something they are not. The industrial baking process is far from ideal. The vast majority of flour sold both on an industrial and a retail level has been adulterated and chemically altered. Finally, the average person is still woefully ignorant of what is in their food and what is used to process their food.
One of the big messages in the book is that there is a difference between an additive and a food processing aid. Additives are ingredients and must be put on the label of every packaged good. Food processing aids are not. The industrial processors argue two things successfully:
1. Food processing aids are not present in the final product in amounts that warrant their inclusion on the label. And so they are not included. Most enzymes, for example, do not appear and they can be made of animal products (including pork) so watch out vegetarians, vegans, Jews and Muslims. Your industrial loaf may well have been baked with help from enzymes derived from pigs, for example. Religious and life style food exclusion is the least of it. We do not know what the enzymes, and the combinations of enzymes that are increasingly used, are doing to us.
2. That packaging laws need to apply to everyone. What this means is that the industrially produced, frozen, and “baked off” products in supermarket and petrol station wicker baskets need not be labeled because they are not in bags because hand made bread sold in farmers’ markets need not be labelled. Allergens, yes. Ingredients, no. Reluctantly I do see their point: fair is fair. It would cost (both in time and money) a fortune for the average, honest, artisan baker to label every loaf and so we are rather glad we do not have to do it. What we have to accept, in exchange, is that supermarkets, high street bakery chains, and petrol stations do not have to do it either.
What I will never understand is why flour millers do not have to label accurately in the UK. What is in your bag of flour? From December 2015 all millers, large and small, must print the legally required flour additives, as well as the type of grain on the label. This makes it look like all bags of flour – those processed industrially and those milled non industrially – contain the same ingredients. However, this is simply not the case. The case is that industrially milled flour has all sorts of other ingredients it from preservatives to enzymes and you simply do not know about it because there is no legal requirement for these ingredients to be listed on the bag. This is extremely frustrating because it makes cooking and eating without consuming chemical additives that much harder.
We must be able to get the information about what we are consuming and sadly it is not enough to read the labels of packaged goods to determine whether you want to consume what is in them. Now we have to read the labels of ingredients. You think your milk only has milk? Check again. You think you butter only has butter? Check again. How is your white sugar refined? What’s in your salt? It’s tragic. It’s frustating. It’s endless. It seems impossible. It makes you want to reach for a ready prepared chicken kiev with a side of booze and fags and a bowl full of angel delight for good measure. The inexorable march of industrial food processing means it is increasingly difficult to get information and here at the global headquarters of Virtuous Bread we are hardly experts (read: not at all).
However, one thing we do know about is bread. And another thing we know about is the basic ingredients for bread. We have said it before and we will say it again:
1. Buy bread from the baker. If the person from whom you are buying bread does not know exactly what went into the bread – not only ingredients but where they are sourced and what is in the ingredients – don’t buy it.
2. Buy flour from the miller directly. Ask what is in the flour – every last tiny ingredient. If the miller cannot or will not answer you, don’t buy the flour.
3. Buy sea salt.
4. if you are worried about your water supply, buy your water too – but from a supplier of whom you can ask questions.
5. Use fresh or dry active yeast. Instant yeast is 93% yeast and 7% chemical additives. Or bake with sourdough.
In the world of bread, those five things are are all you can do, but they are a lot and if you do them you will be consuming a healthier, tastier products that is positively good for you.