When you look at the rather long list of ingredients in the back of your white bread packet, does that make you dizzy? Why are all these ingredients added? Are there alternative breads with clean ingredient similar to our roti (you know just flour, water, and salt)? Spoiler alert – yes!! (it is sourdough bread).
But before that, let us look at the properties of a store-bought white bread.
Sliced white supermarket bread is:
- Soft to touch
- Whiter than wheat
- Lasts long
If as a consumer, you want all these properties; then as a manufacturer (given the current technology), they have to add ingredients to make it possible.
Cheap bread – no time for long ferments, need dough conditioners
Isn’t bread supposed to be cheap? Not really, for most of history, you couldn’t just go out and buy bread. Women often spent hours of their life making bread for their families. The fact that we are able to get cheap bread is quite amazing and should be applauded.
But that low price and easy availability comes with a cost! Manufacturers have no time to wait around for long yeast ferments that develops gluten and other complex flavors in the dough.
Instead, dough conditioners (also called as dough enhancers, dough improvers) are added to improve the consistency and production of the dough. Common dough conditioners include:
- Ascorbic acid
- Potassium bromate
Dough conditioners are a pretty complex topic. Check out this link on dough conditioners to learn more.
Soft to touch even weeks after production – need emulsifiers
Do your kids love the soft, cottony texture of bread? You can thank emulsifiers for that. They have both water and fat loving components that keep the moisture trapped in the bread, thereby keeping it soft for a really long time. Common emulsifiers include:
- Diacetyltartaric acid esters of monoglycerides (DATEM)
- Calcium stearoyl lactylate
- Monoglycerides and Diglycerides of fatty acids
Many emulsifiers also function as a dough conditioner, so they may be listed interchangeably.
Whiter than wheat – Dough bleaching agents added
Just like white rice used to be an obsession in India, white wheat was all the rage in Western countries. Only rich people had access to it earlier, and so when milling machines were invented, everyone wanted white bread!
Wheat has a range of pigments naturally present in it that adds a slight yellow tinge to the bread. To make the bread white, bleaching agents like calcium peroxide or chlorine are added to the flour.
Last long – Mold inhibitor needed
Manufacturers bake the bread, which then gets transported to the supermarket, and it then sits in the shelf waiting for the consumer to pick it up. The customer (you) then keep the bread for a few days at home before eating it. For the bread to last sometimes as long as 2-4 weeks post production, mold inhibitors like calcium propionate are added.
If you had a local baker, you could buy freshly baked bread and use it up rather quickly, then you wouldn’t have to quite worry about preservatives.
Other ingredients (functional purposes)
There may be other functional ingredients added as well, like:
- Flavor enhancers (like sugar, corn syrup, other sweeteners)
- Nutrition boosters (added protein, added fiber etc) to make the bread appealing to certain diet-following groups
Sourdough Bread (Clean ingredient List)
Sourdough bread often need only 3 ingredients: flour (in the image above – it is enriched flour), water and salt. You can of course, add flavors like seeds, wheat germ etc. for textural contrast, but at the basic level, you need very few ingredients. Notice I did not mention yeast.
Instead of adding yeast packet to the dough, you make a starter culture with flour and water. This culture will provide a breeding ground for the lactobacilli and Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (a specific strain of yeast used in bread) from the surrounding environments. This is very similar to how Urad dal behaves when soaked and ground for idli and dosa batter. However, it differs a bit in that – you take care of this culture and use just a portion of it to make a fresh loaf of bread. And just Indians always keep a bit of curd (yogurt) to make a fresh batch of curd, bakers always keep their starter culture alive and thriving for the next batch.
The fermentation time is longer, so very often sourdough bread may be more expensive than white bread. But the combination of outstanding flavors and simple ingredients makes the bread a very tasty and nutritious alternative to a store bought white bread for those who can afford it.
I made a Youtube Video explaining the difference between the 2 breads. Do check it out and please subscribe to my Youtube Channel if you thought the video was useful.
You can buy bread with clean ingredients. To accomplish that:
- You can’t have middlemen who extend time needing more shelf life, you need to have a direct link to the baker.
2. Don’t go for cottony-fluff, white marshmallow type breads. That is not a thing that happens without help.
3. Get your kids to try sourdough bread. If they are over 5 years of age, they may surprise you with their advanced palate.
4. If you are unable to use fresh bread quickly, use the best method of preservation ever – freeze the bread!! No calcium propionate necessary. Now if you want to ask me why I asked you to freeze bread and not refrigerate it – that is a slightly long explanation for another day :).
I hope this post was useful in decoding the ingredients list in bread a little.
What is your favorite bread? Homework to all of you – examine the ingredients of the bread you have at home :). Having read this post and watched the video, you now no longer have to be afraid of bread ingredient lists. Go forth and examine them like a pro!!
Were you surprised? Post your thoughts below…
As always I appreciate your comments and thoughts below.
Read more about the history of bread from my recent column published in Hindustan Times: “Loaf is all you need: Swetha Sivakumar on the past, and future, of bread“