Artisan washing: What is real bread?

08 June 2022, 09:36 AM
  • With a lack of legal definition, what is sold as ‘artisan bread’ has escaped regulations to ensure quality, sustainability and taste. So how can fine food retailers ensure they are selling the real deal?
Artisan washing: What is real bread?

The dictionary definition of  Artisan is  ‘something made by hand and with skill using traditional methods or a high-quality or distinctive product made in small quantities’.

But while artisan holds a place in the dictionary, it is not legally defined. This means that it can be used freely across branding without having to submit to certain regulations or legislation.

The problem of real bread
It is understandably difficult to police the use of the word artisan and, harder still, the use of allusion and image. One product guilty of being misbranded in this way is bread as there is no legal definitions as to what real bread is

It is for this reason that NGO Sustain and artisan baker Andrew Whitley started the Real Bread Campaign, which is on a mission to make bread better for us, our communities and the planet through legal definitions of what is labelled as ‘bread’. 

According to Chris Young, Real Bread Campaign co-ordinator at Sustain, “Real Bread is defined simply as made without chemical raising agents, so-called processing aids or other additives. It sounds simple – because it is – but it rules out perhaps 95% of what is marketed as ‘bread’ in the UK.”

In particular, he highlights that, “Rather than a look, taste or style, sourdough is a process. We define sourdough bread as Real Bread leavened only by a live sourdough starter culture, without the use of baker’s yeast or other raising agents.”

But the Campaign has identified dozens of what they refer to as ‘sourfaux’ – bread labelled as sourdough that contains artificial ingredients instead of a live culture. One example was a Co-op ‘White Sourdough’ listing E300, vinegar and powdered gluten in the ingredients, misleading customers into believing the product is genuine.

This is something that Bertie Matthews, managing director of Matthews Cotswold Flour, also identified when it comes to proper bread, as he told Speciality Food. “The kind of bread produced in a basic system is just flour, water, salt and maybe some introduced yeast. That’s it. 

“A highly processed supermarket loaf is about as environmentally friendly as a landfill site.  Its label declares: “Preservative (Calcium Propionate), Emulsifiers (Mono- and Di-Acetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids), Spirit Vinegar, Rapeseed Oil, Flour Treatment Agent (Ascorbic Acid). Is that bread?”

Chris would argue, no. In fact, loaves with this plethora of added ingredients open up a can of worms for both consumers and retailers alike. 

Aside from ingredients, there is a major problem with visual marketing. Peri Eagleton, co-founder of artisan Italian producer Seggiano, told Speciality Food, “According to our ethos, artisan must mean small scale, non-industrial, and minimally processed as well as being free of the chemical shortcut additives used to speed up production or lengthen shelf life. 

“Behind the images of bakers in white hats, does your biscuit, cake or pasta contain industrial emulsifiers, additives and binders?

“It is a word or concept invoked often in food marketing, both subtly and overtly. In the UK, the terms artisan and handmade are widely appropriated on food packaging and in marketing, especially in the baking industry to describe factory-produced food. We’ve all witnessed scenes of romantic country life goodness in bread advertisements, and the allusion to foods being somehow lovingly handmade for us, by someone who really cares.”

Because there is no legal definition, cases are rarely challenged, but Iceland’s clearly misleading advertisement depicting a traditional baker shaping loaves was banned in 2015 after the Real Bread Campaign petitioned the ASA, sending a warning to big brands.

How retailers can ensure they’re selling the real deal
The use of these processed ingredients in the majority of bread, including loaves labelled as ‘artisan’ or ‘sourdough’ mean that there is a significant problem for fine food retailers trying to sell genuine, sustainable and high-quality products. 

Chris explained, “While we continue to lobby the government to introduce legal definitions of marketing terms including bread, wholegrain, freshly-baked, sourdough and artisan as part of our proposed Honest Crust Act, it’s hard for retailers – or anyone else, for that matter – to know what they’re getting.

“There are many factors behind genuine sourdough and other Real Bread crafted by true artisan bakers costing what it does, not least economies of scale, time, skill and high-quality ingredients involved. Surely retailers want – and their customers deserve - to know that they’re getting what they believe they’re paying for.

“Seeking out a bakery signed up to The Real Bread Loaf Mark scheme and using The Sourdough Loaf Mark is one way while reading (or asking for) ingredients lists will clear up any doubt.”

The environmental cost
When it comes to the deception of marking campaigns misbranding bread, it is not just a problem for retailers, it brings a heavy sustainability toll that affects us all as consumers.

Our present highly industrialised food system is unsustainable. It will have trouble feeding the population in a quarter of a century, let alone supporting generations in 200 years’ time. This is because is simply not built around long-term soil health.

According to Bertie, “Politicians should be supporting more thoughtful, intelligent, localised forms of food production with grants for farming businesses to grow grain under the regenerative model.” This is where genuine artisan bread comes into play, as small-batch baking fits into this model. 

He continued, “Products should have clear informative labelling and there should be a legally recognised environmental rating system. This should be matched by education in schools with farm walks, mill tours, and baking lessons added to the curriculum.

Businesses should adopt sustainability as part of their strategy and producers should be incentivised with premiums for transitioning to a sustainable regenerative model. The price of bread is a measure of political stability - we know this, yet we also know that unless we do something, soil erosion will continue to the point where we’ll struggle to grow food. 

“More and more will be imported which, as the war in Ukraine shows, is a gamble when it comes to food security. Importing food also means higher prices and more strain on the environment elsewhere.”

As Peri concludes, “Real food costs more but delivers better nutrition and a considerably more enjoyable taste experience, whilst meeting the challenges of shelf-life stability.

“Most discerning shoppers in the UK are aware of the artisan marketing hype, and the more educated consumers become about nutrition, health and the key elements of delicious, clean food production, the more they shape the market through their buying choices.”

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