W holemeal bread took a spanking in The Sunday Times recently for having nearly double the level of sugar it did 30 years ago. Shock! Naughty plant bakers are contributing to the obesity epidemic by loading our bread with cheap sugar to make it more palatable and to compensate for salt reductions, it reported. Horror!

What it failed to state - and this rather undermined its point - is that sugar is not commonly added to bread in the UK. A glaring error, you might think, and one deserving of the paper in turn being put over our collective knee for a slap.

Comparing data from McCance and Widdowson’s (M&W) The Composition of Foods 1978, with a loaf plucked from the shelf - in this case, Hovis, which includes a small amount of brown sugar - the report said that sugar content in wholemeal bread had gone up from 2.1g per 100g in 1978 to 3.7g per 100g in a Hovis wholemeal loaf today. It also cited Sainsbury’s own-label bread, which has 3.5g sugar on the nutrition label.

The problem is that the Sainsbury’s loaf, like most other loaves, contains no added sugar. As Joe Street, MD of Fine Lady Bakeries, which doesn’t add sugar to its Tesco own-label bread, nimbly states: "The article looked at one thing [that sugar is added to bread], took it in isolation, and assumed it’s everywhere, which is a load of nonsense." The starting point for explaining why sugar content appears to have risen should be asking why, if one loaf has added sugar and the other doesn’t, do the two loaves have similar sugar contents on the nutrition label?

Firstly, let’s break down the typical 3.5g sugar content in a 100g of wholemeal bread. Flour contains around 2% of naturally occurring sugars. As a rule of thumb, taking a third off that figure would give an approximate level of the sugars in bread - somewhere between 1.3-1.5%. Sugars will always be higher in wholemeal than in white bread, because sugar levels are higher at the junction between the bran and the endosperm.

fermentation process

Then there’s the fermentation process where the amylase enzyme breaks down starch, a product of which is another sugar - maltose. The fermentation process will actually increase the sugar levels, taking us up to between 2%-2.5%. So much of the sugar content is naturally occurring from the flour and fermentation. Another source of sugars is malt, which is added to dough to help speed the fermentation and to develop a good crust colour in a short time, a soft crust and a moist crumb texture.

So what makes up the remainder? The increased use of enzymes potentially producing more maltose in modern no-time dough-making may provide a clue, says cereal scientist Stan Cauvain of bakery consultant Baketran. "I wonder - and I can only say at this stage that it is a wonder - if as a result of using much higher levels of enzymes than we did 30 years ago we’re actually generating more maltose. That is perhaps why levels appear to be much higher." Indeed, he estimates that alpha amylase enzyme activity has increased tenfold since 1978.

Improvements in the way nutritional data is measured may also account for the disparity between sugar levels in 1978 and now. Historically, sugar nutrition content used to be calculated and now it is more scientifically analysed - and more accurate. A suspicion arises from M&W’s figures for bananas, which show that the amount of sugar in a banana rose from 16g to nearly 21g between 1978 and 2002.

"Are you telling me that people are breeding bananas to make them more sweet? That’s banana talk!" says Professor Jeya Henry of Oxford Brookes University. "The whole tone of the [Sunday Times] article demonises sugar, in a way that is unfortunate. There is a problem of analytical exactitude in comparing data from 20-odd years ago. There have been huge advances in methodology."

The M&W data for wholemeal in 2002 actually shows 2.8g/100g sugar - way short of the typical 3.5g found in loaves today. There has been no revolution in the plant baking process over the past five years to account for the dispa-rity, says Graham March, MD of Roberts Bakery. "There’s absolutely no reason why [sugar levels] should have changed over time. No recipe change would have created that much difference."

Low levels in bread

The gripe of food campaigners is that more sugar in processed foods is detrimental to people’s health. But even if sugar content in bread had actually doubled, would they be right to point the finger at bread? Federation of Bakers director Gordon Polson points out that sugar levels in bread remain very low. "It has not been an issue that has been raised as one of concern," he says.

Foods that have 10g/100g or more of sugar are considered to be high in sugar, so the current sugar levels in wholemeal are "not a concern", concurs Lisa Miles, nutrition scientist at The British Nutrition Foundation. "There’s no widespread recommendation to restrict the sugars found naturally in foods, because these foods tend to also provide vitamins, minerals and fibre," she adds.

Sometimes a small amount of sugar is added to wholemeal bread because wholemeal grains are bitter and unpalatable to consumers on their own, British Bakeries says in a statement: "Hovis Wholemeal does contain a small amount of brown sugar, added as much for the flavour generated in baking as for the effect on bitterness. The quantities of sugar added are very small and do not affect the nutritional benefits of the bread." Meanwhile, bakery writer Dan Lepard says the issue has been overblown: "I wouldn’t have thought that the inclusion of a small amount of brown sugar in Hovis’ loaf was such a scandalous thing, especially when most of it will disappear during the fermentation process, simply leaving the molasses to give a rich warm colour to the crumb and dough."

One thing that can be confidently dispelled is that sugar is being added to wholemeal bread for nefarious reasons. "Nobody is concealing the addition of sugar to bread. It could be a combination of circumstances that gives us higher levels than we saw 30 years ago," says cereal scientist Cauvain. n