Real Bread: Chorleywood, sourdough, intolerance, flavour and health


In July 2011, a loaf of ‘factory bread’ was carried across the common of Chorleywood, a picturesque village on the outskirts of London, to the Beaumont House Care Home to be settled into retirement. The stunt was part of the annual Chorleywood Village Day, and intended to symbolise the sun setting on the additive-laden, time-and-nutrient-poor supermarket loaf, and the village reclaiming their name from its association with the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) pioneered in 1961.

This process was developed after the Second World War by the UK government alongside the baking industry. The aim was to protect our baking and wheat farming industries, and the result was the CBP: a revolutionary mechanised way of making bread that now accounts for 80% of the bread we eat. If it’s a sliced supermarket loaf, it’s almost certainly a Chorleywood loaf – even if it’s organic, or multi-seed, or ‘premium’. The benefit to UK farming was that this process can make bread with lower-protein wheat, as UK wheat tended to be (now, however, higher-protein wheats can be grown here).

Bread is made using high-speed mixing to replace the natural fermentation time. It also relies on, as the Real Bread Campaign (RBC) outlines: “a cocktail of oxidising agents, emulsifiers and other artificial additives (and, increasingly, hidden processing aids), higher levels of yeast than generally found in Real Bread making [my note: this is all killed in the cooking process], hard fats (such as palm fat, the sustainability of its origin possibly questionable), and often a lacing of preservatives to delay the growth of mould. The process also requires the input of extra energy to control the dough temperature, which has been heated by the energy intensive mixing, and to cool the loaves before wrapping.”

The dough is also shaken violently for three minutes, which helps it to rise but also needs a lot of energy. The process of making a loaf from flour to bread is reduced to about 3.5 hours, compared to up to 24 hours for sourdough.

The Chorleywood loaf is softer; quicker to make; allowed the use of low-protein British wheat; is more uniform for easy slicing, and costs less to make. What’s not to like? The list of additives and hard fats above is a start, as well as the increased energy required, but many people are concerned that the process could be behind the huge modern rise in perceived intolerance to bread.

As Elisabeth Weichselbaum’s widely quoted 2012 report repeatedly stresses, there are very few published studies to show that the Chorleywood Bread Process makes it harder for people to digest bread, or even that healthy (i.e. not coeliac) people do experience gastrointestinal distress (i.e. bloating) after eating any kind of bread, whether supermarket or artisan sourdough. Bread of any kind is an important source of nutrients and fibre, and unless an allergy or coeliac disease is professionally diagnosed by a standardised test, it should not be eliminated from a healthy diet. The current lack of evidence means science is currently unable to come down on either side of the argument, though this later 2014 study did find evidence that IBS sufferers are less likely to experience symptoms after eating long-fermented sourdough than Chorleywood bread. It’s a useful contribution to the debate, but the sample size is very small and on its own is not conclusive.

This is a surprisingly under-researched area, something the Real Bread Campaign has long been calling for action on. Weichselbaum’s report uses this lack of evidence to conclude that CBP bread is no worse than long-fermented bread, but it’s hard to see how that conclusion was reached: a lack of evidence for one side of the argument does not mean the other side is correct, it simply means there isn’t enough current knowledge to scientifically call the result. The report was completed for the British Nutrition Foundation, but it’s perhaps relevant that it was funded by the National Association of British and Irish Millers, and the Federation of Bakers. It’s a dangerous area to know so little about: people are relying on self-diagnosis and anecdotal evidence to cut a staple food from their diet, one that is generally low in fat and sugar while providing decent levels of many essential vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.

We do know that rates of wheat or gluten allergy have not risen and are not high: there is no reliable data for adults, but only 1-2% of the population have any kind of food allergy. Intolerance is more common but there are no standardised tests so figures are based on self-diagnosis, with exclusion diets being the only way to pin down what food an intolerance is linked to. It’s more common in children, but the majority grow out of the allergy by adolescence, and over-reporting is still rife: this 2015 study found that children’s allergy rates dropped from 4.8% when parent-diagnosed to 0.6% in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. All those children had been unnecessarily excluding nutritious foods like eggs, cod and bread from their diet. Numbers for coeliac disease are a bit more reliable: around 1% of adults. Being coeliac is not the same as being allergic to wheat or gluten – it is not an allergy at all, but a disease of the auto-immune system that leads to the body mistakenly assessing substances found inside gluten as a threat and attacking them. Both should always be diagnosed by a doctor, not self-diagnosed, before anything is cut out of the diet.

However, as Weichselbaum’s report admits and the 2014 study found, if you come at the issue from the other side there is some evidence that sourdough bread has characteristics that enable it to be more easily digested.

This seems to be the result of two processes, both of which require the long, slow fermentation necessary for making real sourdough (and which the CBP cuts out). Firstly, the lactic acid bacteria break down the gliadin and glutenin proteins in wheat flour that people with coeliac disease and gluten-intolerance are sensitive to (more references at the bottom of this page). This doesn’t mean that people with coeliac disease can or should eat sourdough, but it could increase the digestibility of bread for people with gluten intolerance.

The second benefit to the fermentation process is that the lactic acid bacteria lower the dough pH, thus neutralising (by as much as 90%) something called phytic acid. Phytic acid is an ‘antinutrient’: it impairs the absorption of other nutrients such as magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc, so getting rid of as much of it as possible is to be desired. Scientific studies here, here and here.

Crusty, fresh bread with butter is one of the great treats of a healthy diet, and no one should feel obliged to deny it to themselves without an extremely good reason. Gluten-free bread costs around £3 a loaf (correct May 2016) – you can buy an amazing, hand-crafted sourdough loaf for that, straight from the person who cherished making it. Don’t spend your money on an imitation if you don’t medically have to: relish the real thing.

Beyond Chorleywood, however, there are many other very good reasons why we should be eating decent bread.

  1. Real bread tastes better. The longer time it takes to make it develops flavour and results in a loaf worth eating for its own sake, rather than being an edible suitcase to hold bacon, lettuce and tomato.
  2. Buying your bread from a good local baker means more money stays in your local economy. This argument is true for many things we buy, and no less critical for that: bread is something most of us buy on a very regular basis, and supporting your local bakery will keep a skilled industry alive, create more jobs in your area (three times as many, calculates the RBC) and also generate more money for your local community: spend £10 in a small local business and it will generate £25 for the local economy, compared to £14 if you shop in a supermarket (New Economics Foundation study).
  3. Real bread contains, by definition, no dodgy ingredients. No forest-flattening palm oil or soya flour; no chemical fungicides to prevent mould; no undeclared processing aids; no additives.
  4. More nutrients. In the UK, refined white flour legally has to have calcium, iron and vitamins B1 and B3 added back in after the milling process, because so much of these is stripped away in the roller milling process (this doesn’t apply to wholemeal flour). This doesn’t replace other valuable nutrients though, including vitamin E, manganese, zinc, copper and selenium.
  5. Fewer pesticide residues. This last one only applies to organic loaves, but it’s worth mentioning that traces of the controversial weedkiller glyphosate was found by DEFRA in 30% of bread between 2000-2013, while over 60% showed traces of pesticides. A 2015 report by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate is a ‘probable carcinogen’, but DEFRA’s report stated that all residues were all below minimum limits and didn’t pose a risk to health. This isn’t as scary as it sounds: it’s the dose that is important, and there’s no evidence at the moment that the levels of pesticide residues in non-organic loaves will cause harm. There are lots of excellent reasons to buy organic food and this may still be one of them, but don’t freak out if you can’t find an organic loaf.

Before you think to yourself that all of this is unrealistic, consider an act passed in 1993 in France. The Décret n°93-1074 states that bread can only be marketed or sold as ‘traditional French bread’ if the ingredients are limited to wheat bread flour, drinkable water, cooking salt and yeast or leaven; if it’s made without artificial additives, and is never frozen. The benefit of such an act is to remind people that there is a difference: we’re all so used to seeing and eating supermarket bread that sometimes it’s easy to forget there is an alternative. There’s a reason the French are so proud of their national bread-making heritage: bread isn’t something you need to feel fashionable ‘clean-eating’ fear about. Old-fashioned bread is a flavoursome, nutritious, digestible food that requires skill and patience to make, and deserves to reclaim centre stage in our diet.