Loaf is all you need: Swetha Sivakumar on the past, and future, of bread

BySwetha Sivakumar
Dec 17, 2021 11:02 PM IST

Bread-making can be traced to at least the Neolithic era, 10,000 years ago. See how machines and manufacturing altered the recipe, and what’s set to rise next in the yeast.

Watching colourful hot-air balloons at the International Balloon Race in Indianapolis in 1921, Elmer Cline was inspired. Then vice-president at Taggart Baking Company went back to the office and finalised the iconic pattern of red, blue and yellow orbs that would feature on Wonder Bread packets for decades.

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Wonder Bread by Taggart (soon acquired by Continental Baking Company) would become the brand to beat. Its packages of white, soft, light, fluffy and thinly sliced bread flew off the shelves, feeding families with quick sandwiches, and freeing women from the laborious process of baking.

But all that “wonder” would soon fade as first, doctors and scientists, then customers, began to question the nutritional value of America’s increasingly popular, extra-soft manufactured loaves. In 2012, Hostess Brands, the parent company of Wonder Bread, declared bankruptcy. Around the world, sliced-bread manufacturers have made changes, adding whole-grain varieties to their offerings.

But white bread started out as the food of the elite. Bread-making can be traced to the Neolithic era, nearly 10,000 years ago, although some historians believe the practice of converting bubbling fermented leftover gruel into some sort of crude bread goes even further back.

By the Middle Ages (6th century CE to 15th century CE), bread had become a staple in Europe. However, only the rich could afford to grind the flour more finely and sift out the germ and the bran, while the poor continued to eat whole-grain loaves.

Fast-forward to the late 1800s. With the invention of steel roller mills that could automatically grind and sift flour, white flour became more affordable. By the 1920s, Otto Frederick Rohwedder had invented his bread-slicing machine, and packaged white bread began to be widely available in the US.

This kind of fluffy, pre-cut loaf, each slice less than half an inch thick, was impossible to replicate consistently at home. When it first became available in supermarkets, it caused such delight that anything that extreme joy came to be described as “the best thing since sliced bread”.

Within a decade, though, scientists were linking the mass consumption of white-flour breads, devoid of nutrition, with a rising incidence of pellagra and other conditions linked with nutrient deficiencies. Manufacturers decided to tackle this problem by enriching the white flour with added nutrients such as niacin, thiamine and riboflavin.

It doesn’t take much to make bread; just flour, water, yeast and salt. But it does take time. The yeast, which leavens and adds poofiness to bread, needs two to eight hours to ferment the sugars in the dough and convert them into the carbon dioxide and other byproducts that flavour the dough and help it develop a good structure. The slower the ferment, the more complex the flavour and the better the structure. But factory-made breads prefer not to spend that kind of time on each loaf, so their dough is optimised to rise in the shortest time possible (and have the longest possible shelf-life).

Food scientists have developed a technique called the no-time dough method that can produce bread from start to finish in under four hours. To compensate for the drop in fermentation time, they increase the proportion of yeast, vigorously mix the dough to introduce bubbles, and add dough conditioners and oxidisers like amylase (1100) and ascorbic acid (300).

In order to make the bread last longer, preservatives such as calcium propionate (282) are added to inhibit the growth of mold. Finally, to keep the bread soft in the weeks it might take before it is consumed, emulsifiers such as DATEM (472e) and sodium stearoyl lactylate (E481i) are added to the dough. The emulsifiers reduce the rate of starch retrogradation, without which the bread goes stale quicker.

There is no denying the usefulness of factory-made sliced bread. The low cost and convenience make bulk-feeding easy across demographics, in homes, school kitchens and hostels, at picnics and in the army. But the race to lower prices (and increase shelf life) cannot continue without taking a toll on the public’s health. Refined grains alone can raise the risk of abdominal fat, obesity and lifestyle-related health conditions.

The resurgence of artisanal bread-making, growing concern over labels and the growing market for whole-grain loaves all point to a future of more nutritious bread, this time for those who can afford it.

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