People are taking a real interest in the quality and origins of their food. But when they look into bread, what do they find?" asked Andrew Whitley. "The awkward truth may be that despite all the efficiency gains and technological advances of the past few decades, the nation’s bread has actually changed for the worse."

Often, bakers fail to state honestly what goes into their products, he claimed, resulting in customers not having all the information they need when choosing their daily bread. "And if, inexplicably perhaps, that bread seems to make them unwell, they often abandon it altogether. The industry responds with marketing, embracing the health agenda if it can add some value, but it is reluctant to examine itself from the ground up."

The author of the controversial book Bread Matters, made it clear that his views are not intended to express blame, but to encourage improvement in the industry. He quoted figures from the US Department of Agriculture, which indicate a decline of up to 50% in the vitamin and mineral content of a wide range of food crops since the Second World War and bread wheat is no exception. "This reduction in mineral content has come about because the so-called ’green revolution’ in plant breeding concentrated on increasing yields through intensive agriculture, involving artificial fertilisers, irrigation and chemical fungicides and insecticides. To this day, the selection criteria for bread wheats are yield, straw length, pest resistance and milling quality, including how white the resulting flour may be. Nutritional quality is of interest to wheat breeders only where stock feed varieties are concerned. If nutrition is not among the selection criteria, it isn’t surprising that modern bread wheats lack certain micro-nutrients."

However, certain nutrients are on the increase. "No problem with a bit more protein in wheat, you might think," he said. "But it seems that selecting for bread-making quality has inadvertently accentuated the levels of certain gliadin fractions within the wheat protein; and, as luck would have it, these gliadins seem to be the very things which trigger coeliac and other sensitivities to gluten."

The move from traditional stone-milling and sieving has also taken its toll on the nutritional content of flour, said Whitley, claiming that roller-milling white flour leaves it with fewer important nutrients, including calcium, iron and B vitamins. Also, the removal of vitamin E, located in the wheatgerm, was a benefit to the millers in greatly extending the shelf-life of white flour. "Not for the last time, nutritional integrity was trumped by commercial expediency," said Whitley.

Another huge change that Whitley observed in baking methods was the replacement of fermentation time with high-speed mixing and chemical additives, which has removed the lactic acid bacteria (LAB) that take hours to develop and perform vital functions in bread dough. He quoted studies showing that fermenting dough for six hours, as opposed to 30 minutes, removes about 80% of the potential carcinogen acrylamide.

"But perhaps the most significant recent discovery about lactic acid bacteria is that they can, in a long-fermented dough, completely neutralise the gliadin fraction that is responsible for triggering the coeliac response," he said.

"One of the biggest changes in bread in recent years has been the replacement of chemical impro-vers, such as potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide with enzymes. This is not the place to ask how additives, that were previously passed as safe, turned out to be carcinogens. But there is little evidence of a precautionary approach being adopted when it comes to using enzymes in bread."

Whitley said the industry is failing to be honest about how bread is made. "To describe a product as ’clean label’, when all that means is that the substances used are classified by law as ’processing aids’, which do not have to be declared, is morally equivalent to lying. To promote ’clean label’ improvers and their like specifically to and for consumers, who are concerned to eat more healthily, is cynical and unworthy. If the enzymes these improvers contain are so safe, why not declare them on the label?"

Once upon a time, "fresh" used to mean "recently baked", he continued: "In a world of permanent ’freshness’, the real pleasure of freshly baked bread is lost - stolen, one might say, by an unholy alliance of misplaced technology, marketing spin and stock-loss pressure from supermarket buyers. "The same ethical fog surrounds the bake-off sector, where the slogan ’freshly baked’ could be replaced by the more truthful ’newly reheated’."

Whitley wants bakers to "dispose of that old excuse for inaction - competitive pressure". "Competition on price is always a race to the bottom. The rapid growth in organic, Fairtrade, local sourcing and so on suggests that the smart way to compete is to get ethical.

"It seems hardly sustainable to develop ’healthy eating’ ranges by adding a few popular nutrients - calcium, Omega 3 - if your basic wheat flour is progressively losing nutrients because of careless plant breeding and over-aggressive milling, or if your no-time breadmaking method prevents those nutrients from becoming bio-available. But if the nutrients added are as important as the marketing spin now suggests, the obvious question arises: are not the basic, unfortified breads rather less than healthy?"

Whitley summed up by saying: "Finally, I invite all millers, bakers and others who see their daily work as having something to do with nourishing healthy people to come together in a campaign for ’real’ (or perhaps ’living’) bread.

"Agreed the details will be a challenge. But, if we can, we will have a platform on which to rebuild public trust in bread and ensure that, to all of our fellow citizens, we can honestly say that bread matters." n