In a scenario akin to a dinghy playing chicken with a juggernaut, organic baker Andrew Whitley has published a passionate and controversial book, Bread Matters, slating plant-baking methods and the mass-produced loaf.
Armed with a slingshot of publicity and a few carefully-chosen missiles - so far, a Radio 4 debate and articles in the nationals entitled 'The poisonous truth about our daily bread' and 'The shocking truth about bread' - the effect has been a potentially damaging broadside to the plant-baking industry's boughs. At least as far as public perceptions are concerned.
At the heart of Whitley's claims is the impact on the nutritional qualities of the humble loaf following the introduction of the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), which did away with long fermentation times in the 1960s through high-speed mixing. He also criticises enzymes and other ingredients outside the trinity of flour, water and salt - yeast excepted.
He alleges that plant-produced breads could be behind a whole host of nasty afflictions, from irritable bowel syndrome, candidiasis, Crohn's disease and constipation to wheat allergies. This forceful polemic raises a prickly question: with no-time dough processes accounting for most of the bread we eat, does the baking industry have a case to answer?
"The baking industry must respond to the growing body of research that is charting the profound unhealthiness of making bread quickly," says Whitley.
Although the 'big three' bakeries - Warburtons, British Bakeries and Allied Bakeries - declined to comment, David Roberts, chairman of plant producer Roberts Bakeries, who went head-to-head with Whitley in a recent radio debate, insists the ingredient-approval process is rigorous enough to pick up any potential health risks. "All foodstuffs, and bread is no exception, are subject to a regime of such analytical intensity that no element of the ingredients, from wheat and flour to enzyme preparation, is without both its safety and processing need being scrutinised and subject to a stringent approval process," he says.
The CBP produces a wholesome, nutritious bread that offers convenience and availability, he adds. Would all consumers want the product that craft bakers offer? Would they be happy to shop daily for bread? Where would we find the skilled bakers to meet this shift? And would the consumer pay the price?
Meanwhile, those bastions of traditional bread - France and Germany - are seeing numbers of craft bakeries decline as shopping and eating habits favour plant-baked products.
"The irony is that plant-baking is based on an understanding of the underlying principles of breadmaking, while craft bread production is based on myth, magic and word of mouth," says Stan Cauvain of bakery consultants BakeTran, formerly of Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association.
"Does Whitley's belief of the unacceptable nature of rapid production times in breadmaking apply to the manufacture of traditional flat breads in the Middle East and elsewhere, where the transition of flour to bread may take less than half the time of that for UK plant bread?
"Surely, the message we as a baking industry - and this includes Andrew - should be sending out is that bread, in its many forms, is good for consumers and let consumers decide for themselves what bread they prefer to eat and where they purchase it from."
"Judgments about ingredients should take into account the whole food; an enzyme may be harmless in itself but may be used to make an undesirable product," says Andrew Whitley.
Because enzymes are not declared on the ingredients label, this leaves the industry open to "emotional attack", says Cauvain. "Maybe it does need to change the way it deals with enzymes, not least because a long list of permitted enzymes gives the false impression that they are used in all bread - which is definitely not the case."
The approval process for enzyme use takes into account the end product, he claims. But could there be unintended consequences for our health? There is "a whole lot of debate about what actually is an allergy - it's a term that's floated around a lot," says Federation of Bakers director Gordon Polson. "But there's no evidence to suggest that the plant-baking process is contributing to allergies."
In fact, he claims the enzyme transglutaminase - said by Whitley to be used to make dough stretchier in croissants and some breads, and may turn part of the wheat protein toxic to people with a severe gluten intolerance - is not in bread at all. "And as far as I understand, it's not in any bread in Europe," he adds.
WIDE OF THE MARK
So are Whitley's comments off the mark?
"I think they are unfortunate because a lot of them are wrong," says Polson. "Chlorine is not in bread and the EU has recognised that enzymes do not require to be labelled." On this front, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is currently consulting on European Commission proposals on enzyme use (the closing date is 27 November 2006).
There is no evidence to suggest that enzymes used in modern baking have contributed to a rise in food allergies, says an FSA spokesperson. "Under existing European legislation, enzymes that are used in the food-making process, but inactive in the final product, do not currently have to be listed on a label. However, under recent proposals from the European Commission, enzymes that provide a technological function in food may have to be labelled in future."
Meanwhile, there is a large discrepancy between the public perception of food allergy and intolerance, and the incidence of diagnosed food allergy that is reported in the scientific literature, says Dr Joanne Lunn, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "Some sources have suggested that as many as 20 to 30% of adults in the UK believe they have a food allergy or intolerance, however, when the same people have been tested, the reality is quite different - official figures fall between 1 and 2%," she says.
"Similarly, I have not come across any evidence that suggests that modern manufacturing processes have any effect on the nutritional quality of the loaf."
But Andrew Whitley says: "Modern varieties of wheat have 30 to 50% fewer minerals than traditional ones. Fast-roller milling separates grain into its constituent parts so effectively that white flour has up to 88% less of a range of minerals and vitamins than whole wheat."
So have modern milling methods contributed to a less nutritious loaf? The essential elements of the flour-milling process have remained unchanged since roller mills were introduced in the late 1800s, insists Alex Waugh, director general of NABIM. "Bread and flour play a hugely important part in the UK food supply and culture, and are an essential part of a healthy diet. They do not pose a health risk."
There is no evidence that the variety of wheat used makes any difference to the nutritional value of bread, he says, including organic wheat. "The nutrients wheat contains will depend upon the soils and climatic conditions in which it has been grown. We are not aware of any thorough comparative studies on the nutrient differences between organic and conventionally grown wheat.
"If cereal yields had not risen there would be insufficient food for the global population. Returning to low production levels would be a recipe for global starvation."
So what do we conclude from the industry's responses? Andrew Whitley has compiled a long list of research to illustrate his claims, and though he admits he's no scientist, he invites the industry to run the rule over his evidence.
Jeya Henry, professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University, says since most of the bread consumed in this country is industrially processed, more hard evidence is needed to settle the debate.
"It's important for us to try to elucidate these huge public health issues, but to single out bread may be a little bit unfair," he says. "The catch-22 is that people don't want to spend a lot of money on food and by definition, are killing off artisan bread-makers."
He urges the plant-baking industry to look at the issues raised systematically to ensure the consumer doesn't end up demonising bread - and recommends a declaration of anything used in the process to stave off shoppers' suspicions. "The amount of enzymes used are quite small, but a small quantity doesn't mean it couldn't have an effect. We aren't bad people, let's come clean and be honest.
So would the plant-baking industry benefit from research defending its processes? "The big companies are continually developing, they would not make an inferior product, and I don't think we're at a stage where there are any requirements for special research," says the FoB's Gordon Polson.
But Professor Henry thinks otherwise. "The climate is changing. The time has come where the industry has to put its hand in its pocket and say 'We are going to take the lead because, for our long-term survival and consumer goodwill, it will pay off a million times.'"n
=== Whitley's claims ===
Heart of the matter: Lack of nutritional qualities
Plant-produced: Behind a number of afflictions
Enzymes: May be harmless, could be undesirable
Fast-roll mills: Lose minerals and vitamins
Evidence: Welcomes the industry to evaluate