In these increasingly health-conscious times, we might expect fibre-containing bakery products to do especially well. But sales data tells a rather different story.

In its June 2009 category report, Kingsmill quotes Nielsen figures that put total year-on-year value growth at 6.5% for bakery as a whole. Yet, while sliced wholemeal did little better than this category average; the everyday sliced white sub-category has notched up growth of no less than 15.2%; and premium white sliced has managed over 12%. So how can we explain away this apparent discrepancy?

Given that the Nielsen figures focus on changes over the past 12 months, tighter consumer budgets could have something to do with the slower growth rates for healthier products. But Stanley Cauvain, director of the BakeTran consultancy, believes that sales of higher-fibre breads peaked some time ago and have fallen back to their current level of around 10-12% of the market. "Sources of fibre in the diet are much more varied than simply bread," he stresses. "It’s far easier to make the link with fibre for breakfast cereals, for instance, and they have benefited more as a result."

Of course, comparisons with other types of sliced bread aside, in many food categories, growth of over 6% would be considered very ’healthy’ indeed. And Warburtons is among those brands that would claim the added-fibre market has not plateaued at all, and that consumer interest continues to grow. Customer category manager Katie Rowson says: "We recently introduced 600g Wholegrain Goodness to our range, which contains 56% wholegrain. This supersedes the benchmark of 51%."

In further support of this view, Bakels points to data from Mintel’s international database, which suggests that 42% of all wholegrain product launches in 2008 were bakery-based.

Links with seeds

Nor need fibre sit in splendid isolation. The link with seeded breads helps to create interest. As Bakemark marketing manager David Astles puts it: "Seeds add flavour and more interesting texture, quite apart from the health benefits of the variety of seeds used." Similarly, Hovis and Kingsmill variants are among those incorporating Omega 3 and calcium supplements.

Or could it be that the pure fibre-in-bread market is saturated, and that any new share growth can only come from additional benefits? Premier Foods claims that by simply stating that two slices of Hovis Best of Both contain the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk, it has increased consumer appeal "by 70%".

A £1.5m Hovis Wholemeal campaign, run in January, was based on the premise that 18% of consumers buy both white and wholemeal bread.

Meanwhile, the origins of the fibre in bread differ from one sub-category to another. Wholemeal, as its name suggests, uses the same constituents as the original wheat in the same proportions. Brown flour, now much less common, blends white flour and bran. Again, as the name suggests, Kingsmill’s 50/50 brand combines white and wholemeal flour in equal proportions. And as Cauvain at BakeTran explains, blends used in brands such as Hovis Best of Both are a composite of different grades of flour from the original wheat berry.

But whether the bread is wholemeal (or wholegrain), standard brown or the white-with-fibre style of loaf, process parameters should not really need to be changed, says Cauvain. "The big technical challenge with fibre-enriched breads is that the fibre component tends to be non-functional - and that can have a negative impact on softness and volume. One of the reasons why consumption of wholemeal bread recovered, historically, was that bakers learned to adapt their recipes, particularly optimising the improvers, to create that softness."

On the face of it, ’fibre’ sounds like a fairly straightforward health proposition, and it is one that many consumers feel they understand - certainly in the context of digestive health. This can help brands, which may decide they need do little more than flag up the amount of fibre or the proportions of the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs).

Declarations of fibre content are governed by EU legislation (see box). But beyond that, as the science of fibre deepens, it is becoming more, rather than less, difficult both to define what it is and to sum up - and substantiate - its benefits. Nicky Gillett, nutrition and health development manager at Kingsmill, says: "The ability to tell consumers why they need fibre, rather than just how much a product contains, would be a major step forward for the food industry."

Verbal juggling

Many of today’s ’claims’ are more exercises in verbal juggling than meaningful statements. Warburtons, for instance, points to the "approved wholegrain declaration" that it features on-pack: "People with a healthy heart tend to eat more wholegrain foods as part of a healthy lifestyle". This subtly suggests a causative link without actually stating one.

Any ability to go further, of course, hinges on health claims currently being evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Among the ingredients on that long list, Cargill Health & Nutrition’s Barliv barley beta-fibre demonstrates the possibilities that EFSA approval might open up. Business development manager for Europe Olivier du Châtelier says: "Our claim relates to Barliv’s cholesterol-reducing properties. But there is research to suggest that it may also have the potential for other benefits relating to blood sugar and satiety."

He adds: "It’s already a proven ingredient in the biscuit category, and has been marketed successfully to an Italian biscuit manufacturer."

Whatever claims brands will be able to make a year or two from now, the need for dietary fibre will not go away. Bakels quotes government recommendations that we should eat 18g of fibre a day, and compares this with current average consumption of 12g for women and 15g for men. Here as elsewhere, baked goods still have a leading, positive role to play.


=== Defining fibre ===

EU rules state clearly when the claims ’source of fibre’ and ’high in fibre’ (or similar) can be used. Products must contain, respectively, at least 3g of fibre or 6g of fibre per 100g, or else 1.5g or 3g per 100kcal.

Not quite so clear is the actual definition of what constitutes ’fibre’. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently proposed that it should include "all carbohydrate components in foods that are non-digestible in the human small intestine". A list followed, which included polysaccharides, oligosaccharides and resistant starch.

Stanley Cauvain, director of the BakeTran consultancy, points out that the single phrase "resistant starch" can be interpreted in up to four different ways. And 30 years ago, he adds, no one would even have considered including resistant starch in a definition of ’fibre’.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Codex Alimentarius Commission is currently considering definitions of, and ways of testing for, fibre. As Cauvain puts it: "You cannot have one without the other."