We Bought This Bread in April. It Still Looks Fine

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Culinary engineering has transformed this staple of the American diet, landing it in the middle of a debate over ultra-processed food.

By Jesse Newman -WSJ

The loaves that line America’s grocery-store bread aisles are marvels of modern culinary engineering: uniform and built to last, with a shelf life that typically runs at least two weeks from the day they emerge from the oven.

Sliced, bagged, and sealed with mechanically placed clips, the Wonder and Pepperidge Farm loaves in one supermarket match those sold in another hundreds of miles away. That’s the point. Their low cost and reliable quality is the result of decades of refinement—of industrial baking processes and ingredients like monoglycerides and datem,(see below) added to strengthen the dough and stave off staleness.

Those same ingredients are among the ones that have landed packaged bread in the middle of a fraught debate over “ultra-processed foods.” The term has no universally agreed-upon definition but is applied to many potato chips, cookies and frozen pizzas, and lots of seemingly more virtuous foods, like soups, cereals, and packaged breads.

Ultra-processed generally refers to mass-produced foods made with ingredients you wouldn’t find in a typical home kitchen. Most are made with whole foods that have been broken down and chemically modified, and they often include ingredients designed to boost a food’s color, flavor, or texture.

Diets high in ultra-processed foods have been linked to health problems including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, depression, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Ultra-processed foods are now under review ahead of the next set of U.S. dietary guidelines. And American shoppers are growing more aware of food processing, posing a dilemma with high stakes for the food industry, since less-processed foods tend to be more expensive and quicker to spoil.

The companies that make the spongy, unblemished loaves on our supermarket shelves are starting to change with the times—albeit slowly. Some bread makers are switching to natural mold inhibitors, using new modeling tools to predict how long their products can stay fresh. Others are increasingly swapping enzymes into their recipes in place of chemical additives, a change that could sidestep parts of the debate over ultra-processed foods.

$7 a loaf, or $1.97?

For bakers like Jim Betts, owner of Bluegrass Baking Company in Lexington, Ky., most packaged bread is a far cry from the food that has been sustaining humanity for at least 10,000 years.

Bluegrass’s artisan loaves start from four basic ingredients—flour, water, salt, and a 100-year-old sourdough starter passed down by Betts’s mother. Bluegrass employees begin mixing these ingredients before the rest of the city wakes, working them into heavy blobs of dough that rise for up to 24 hours before being hand-shaped, scored, and fed into an oven.

Each flour-sprinkled loaf differs slightly from the next. Each one costs $7 and can stay on the shelf for just two days.

After that, they start to harden and are donated to local farmers who add them to feed for chickens, pigs, and horses.

That approach doesn’t cut it for the masses, say people in the food industry, adding that the ingredients used in industrial baking help manufacturers keep bread tasty, affordable, convenient, and consistent for consumers. Americans recently paid an average of $1.97 for a 1-pound loaf of white bread and $2.75 for whole wheat, according to the Labor Department.

Packaged bread is a staple food around which consumers can build affordable, healthy diets, said Anna Rosales, senior director of government affairs and nutrition at the Institute of Food Technologists. She said definitions of ultra-processed food are overly broad and risk steering consumers away from products like whole-grain, fiber-enriched bread that may be more nutritious than a white-flour artisan loaf.

The greatest thing

In 1890, some 90% of U.S. bread was made in homes and just 10% in small urban bakeries, said Aaron Strain, a politics professor at Whitman College and author of a book about white bread.

By 1930, the situation had reversed. The bread slicer had just been invented and taken the nation by storm, so much so that myriad human achievements since then have been compared to it: “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Industrially produced loaves became central to the American diet, making up around 30% of people’s daily calories by that year, Strain said, more than any other food.

Vast economic and social change drove people from farms to cities and women out of the home and into the workforce. Food became entwined with convenience: Families shopped for groceries less frequently and at centralized supermarkets instead of neighborhood butchers and bakeries.

Bread production consolidated too, with bigger, better-equipped factories exploiting economies of scale to produce bread more cheaply and efficiently. Modern bread giants like Bimbo Bakeries and Flowers Foods have scooped up national brands and family-owned bakeries—each now sells a variety of bread from value-oriented white breads like Wonder to pricier, multigrain loaves such as Dave’s Killer Bread.

With fewer bakeries serving larger geographic areas, bread had to be delivered across longer distances, adding time, and the archenemy of freshness. Grocers also began requiring bakers to collect old bread, making extended shelf life key to reducing the frequency of return trips and trucking fleets.

Today, grocers expect bread to last a minimum of 14 days from the day it is baked until the “best by” date printed on bags or bread clips. Some, like Wonder, can last for a month.

800 buns a minute

Bakery behemoths that make up the $14 billion bread industry operate at a pace and scale that would have been inconceivable a century ago, with large, high-speed factories capable of churning out at least 150 loaves or 800 hamburger or hot-dog buns a minute. Ingredients like flour and oil are piped from silos into giant jacuzzi-sized mixers, where thousands of pounds of dough can be mixed before being divided, shaped, and ferried along snaking conveyor belts into ovens, cooling towers, and bagging machines.

It’s a rough, high-speed journey with bumps that can tear apart a dough’s protein matrix, the weblike structure that traps air bubbles and enables the dough to rise. Let dough collapse as bread pans bounce on their race toward ovens, or sit idle for long periods, and the result is a dense, flat loaf.

To prevent this, many industrial bread makers add emulsifiers, dough conditioners, and other ingredients that help dough withstand the modern manufacturing process. An emulsifier called datem, made of tartaric acid and other chemicals, strengthens a dough’s protein network. Mono- and diglycerides, made from soybean and other oils, offer softness and volume. Preservatives like calcium propionate extend bread’s shelf life by preventing the growth of mold.

“The consumer would be very unhappy if they went in for their favorite brand and one day it’s flat,” said Rasma Zvaners, vice president of government relations at the American Bakers Association, a Washington-based trade association that represents major bread manufacturers.

Reconstituted ‘whole grain’

Federal regulators have tasked an advisory committee with reviewing evidence surrounding ultra-processed foods in the run-up to the nation’s next dietary guidelines, the every-five-year advice from the government on what Americans should eat. Ultra-processed foods have been the subject of recent Senate hearings. In a survey conducted in March by market research firm Mintel, 20% of U.S. adults said a healthy diet couldn’t include any processed foods, such as chips or soft drinks.

When it comes to bread, nutrition researchers say the industry needs to both eliminate harmful additives and figure out how to use more intact whole grains. White breads use refined grains, which are stripped of the helpful bran and the germ, leaving just the starchy endosperm. But even whole-grain loaves often use grains that have been split apart and reconstituted, reducing their health benefits.

Cleaning up labels

Ricardo Rodriquez, a marketing manager for bakery, snacks, and confection at ingredient company Ingredion, said the bread industry has historically been slow to change, in large part because it’s a low-margin business.

Some bread companies have worked in the past decade to remove chemical additives from their formulations as consumers demanded cleaner labels and simpler ingredients. In 2014, Flowers said it had scrapped azodicarbonamide from its Nature’s Own baked goods the year prior. The additive, which helps bread rise consistently, drew a backlash from some consumers after they discovered it was also used in yoga mats.

Bread brands Arnold, Brownberry, and Oroweat, owned by Bimbo Bakeries, said in 2019 that they had simplified their recipes, removing all artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors from their whole-grain bread lines as part of an effort dubbed “no added nonsense.” The brands also nixed monoglycerides, datem, and high-fructose corn syrup from their formulations.

Other brands dropped ingredients like datem, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and calcium propionate after Amazon’s Whole Foods and other retailers added them to lists of banned ingredients.

But bread manufacturers say not everything can be ditched, particularly in specialty products such as gluten-free bread.

Udi’s, a gluten-free bread brand owned by food giant Conagra, uses ingredients such as modified cellulose and locust bean gum to make its bread fluffy and chewy and to keep it from molding and “staling”—drying out, said Casey Young, director of research and development at Conagra.

Udi’s bread lasts for about two to three weeks after baking because it is sold in the freezer aisle. Young said Conagra strives to keep its recipes as simple as possible and is always learning more about its ingredients.

A baker’s little secret

Enzymes, dubbed “a baker’s little secret” by a recent issue of Baking & Snack Magazine, are proteins found in nature and produced in factories using fermentation.

Marketed under brand names like Gluzyme, Goldcrest, Relax-A-Do, and Stay Soft, enzymes can improve flour quality, strengthen dough, and keep bread fresh and appealing-looking for longer, manufacturers say.

Here’s the secret: Because most are denatured by high temperatures during baking, enzymes like xylanases and asparaginases aren’t required to appear on ingredient lists, though some manufacturers voluntarily label them. They aren’t considered markers of ultra-processed foods, according to a widely used classification system.

Using enzymes, industrial-scale bakers could keep making loaves that last for weeks, without an alphabet soup’s-worth of chemical names on their labels.

Enzymes have long been used in baking and to make other goods like cheese, yogurt, and beer. They have grown more effective and can now solve a wide variety of problems, said Jesse Stinson, director of technology at Corbion, a Netherlands-based ingredient company.

“We’re getting much more sophisticated with what we can do,” said Frederik Mejlby, a vice president at Denmark-based Novonesis, which produces enzymes for the U.S. baking industry.

Mejlby said the use of Novonesis’ enzymes by the baking industry has doubled over the past 20 years. BestBite, an amylase the company launched last year, is Novonesis’ biggest baking innovation in a decade, and one it says helps make bread soft, moist, and resilient, reducing the need for emulsifiers like datem and sodium stearoyl lactylate. Novonesis says consumer panels that have tasted bread made with BestBite can’t distinguish between freshly baked and two-week-old bread.

Some bread makers are working to switch to natural mold inhibitors. Corbion recently launched a predictive modeling tool for mold, designed to help manufacturers replace chemicals like calcium propionate with natural ingredients like cultured sugar. The tool—based on testing with nearly a dozen mold strains—predicts how long a loaf of bread made with a natural inhibitor can last on shelves before mold begins to grow.

‘You have to pay’

Government regulations or demand from consumers or retailers will be needed to prompt further change because the alternatives to traditional additives are often more expensive, complex or less effective, people in the baking industry said.

Many bread factories today struggle to attract and keep skilled workers, which can lead manufacturers to stick with easier-to-use recipes. Some formulations including enzymes can be particularly tricky, requiring manufacturers to more closely monitor factors like time and temperature.

Calcium propionate, a powder, is cheaper and simpler to handle and store than natural mold inhibitors like raisin juice—a thick, sticky liquid that can gum up the works of a bakery. Cultured wheat, another alternative, can be several times the cost.

Theresa Cogswell, a four-decade veteran of major bread and ingredient companies, including Corbion and the former owner of Wonder, said she spent years testing natural mold inhibitors.

“It’s just like a new drug,” Cogswell said. “You have to pay for the R&D.”

Monoglycerides

Monoglycerides, also known as monoacylglycerols, are glycerol molecules bonded to a single fatty acid. They are commonly used as emulsifiers in the food industry, including in the production of bread and other baked goods. Here’s an overview of the science, research, benefits, and potential issues associated with monoglycerides when added to foods:

The Science Behind Monoglycerides

  1. Chemical Structure:
    • Monoglycerides are formed by the esterification of glycerol with one fatty acid.
    • They can be derived from both natural sources (like plant oils) and synthetic processes.
  2. Function as Emulsifiers:
    • Emulsifiers are substances that help blend ingredients that typically do not mix well, such as oil and water.
    • Monoglycerides stabilize emulsions by reducing the surface tension between the different phases, ensuring a uniform texture and consistency in food products.

Benefits of Monoglycerides in Bread and Other Foods

  1. Improved Texture and Volume:
    • Monoglycerides help improve the texture of bread by making the dough more elastic and less sticky.
    • They contribute to better gas retention during the baking process, resulting in increased loaf volume and a softer crumb.
  2. Extended Shelf Life:
    • By stabilizing the fat and moisture content in baked goods, monoglycerides help delay staling.
    • This extends the shelf life of products by maintaining freshness for a longer period.
  3. Enhanced Mixing and Processing:
    • Monoglycerides facilitate the mixing of ingredients, leading to a more homogeneous dough.
    • This can improve the efficiency of the baking process and the quality of the final product.
  4. Consistency and Quality:
    • Monoglycerides ensure consistent quality in large-scale food production by maintaining uniform texture and appearance.
    • They help prevent the separation of ingredients in emulsified products like margarine, ice cream, and mayonnaise.

Research on Monoglycerides

  1. Safety and Regulatory Status:
    • Monoglycerides are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
    • Studies have shown that monoglycerides are broken down into glycerol and fatty acids in the digestive system, which are naturally occurring substances in the body.
  2. Nutritional Impact:
    • Research indicates that monoglycerides contribute minimal nutritional value beyond the calories provided by the fatty acids.
    • They do not significantly impact the nutritional profile of food products.

Potential Issues with Monoglycerides

  1. Source of Fatty Acids:
    • Monoglycerides can be derived from various sources, including animal fats and hydrogenated oils, which may contain trans fats.
    • Trans fats have been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, so the source and processing of monoglycerides are important considerations.
  2. Allergenicity and Sensitivities:
    • While rare, some individuals may have sensitivities or allergies to specific sources of monoglycerides, particularly if derived from soy or other common allergens.
    • Labeling regulations require the declaration of potential allergens to inform consumers.
  3. Digestive Concerns:
    • In large amounts, emulsifiers like monoglycerides can disrupt the gut microbiota and potentially lead to digestive issues such as bloating, gas, or diarrhea.
    • However, the amounts used in food products are typically low and not associated with significant adverse effects in most people.

Conclusion

Monoglycerides are widely used in the food industry for their emulsifying properties, which improve the texture, volume, and shelf life of bread and other baked goods. They are generally considered safe by regulatory authorities and are broken down into naturally occurring substances in the body. The benefits of using monoglycerides include improved product quality and consistency, as well as extended freshness.

However, potential issues include the source of the fatty acids (which may contain trans fats) and possible digestive concerns at high levels of consumption. Overall, when used in moderation and sourced appropriately, monoglycerides are beneficial additives in the food industry, enhancing the quality and longevity of various food products.

DATEM

DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono- and Diglycerides) is a food additive commonly used as an emulsifier and dough conditioner in the baking industry. Here’s an overview of the science, research, benefits, and potential issues associated with DATEM when added to bread and other foods:

The Science Behind DATEM

  1. Chemical Structure:
    • DATEM is formed by esterifying mono- and diglycerides with tartaric acid and acetic acid.
    • It is a complex emulsifier that helps stabilize mixtures of oil and water.
  2. Function as an Emulsifier:
    • DATEM works by reducing the surface tension between immiscible substances like oil and water, promoting uniform mixing and stability.
    • It is particularly effective in dough, where it interacts with gluten to strengthen the dough and improve its properties.

Benefits of DATEM in Bread and Other Foods

  1. Improved Dough Stability and Handling:
    • DATEM strengthens the gluten network in the dough, leading to improved dough stability and elasticity.
    • This makes the dough easier to handle and shape, which is particularly beneficial in industrial baking processes.
  2. Enhanced Volume and Texture:
    • The use of DATEM helps to increase the volume of bread by promoting better gas retention during fermentation and baking.
    • It results in a finer crumb structure and a softer texture in the finished product.
  3. Extended Shelf Life:
    • By improving the overall structure and moisture retention of baked goods, DATEM helps to extend shelf life.
    • It delays staling, keeping bread and other baked products fresher for longer.
  4. Consistency and Quality:
    • DATEM ensures consistency in large-scale food production, leading to uniform quality across batches.
    • It helps maintain the desired texture and appearance of baked goods, contributing to consumer satisfaction.

Research on DATEM

  1. Safety and Regulatory Status:
    • DATEM is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
    • Numerous studies have evaluated the safety of DATEM, and it has been approved for use in food products within specified limits.
  2. Nutritional Impact:
    • DATEM contributes minimal nutritional value beyond the calories provided by its constituent fatty acids.
    • It does not significantly alter the nutritional profile of the food products in which it is used.

Potential Issues with DATEM

  1. Source of Ingredients:
    • DATEM is derived from fats and oils, which can vary in their composition and source.
    • Concerns may arise if the source fats include partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats associated with cardiovascular risks. However, this is less common due to increased regulation and awareness.
  2. Digestive Concerns:
    • In some individuals, high consumption of emulsifiers like DATEM may disrupt the gut microbiota, potentially leading to digestive issues such as bloating, gas, or diarrhea.
    • The amounts used in food products are generally low and not associated with significant adverse effects in most people.
  3. Allergenicity and Sensitivities:
    • While rare, some people might have sensitivities or allergies to certain ingredients used in the production of DATEM.
    • Proper labeling is essential to inform consumers about potential allergens.
  4. Long-term Health Effects:
    • Some studies suggest that high consumption of food additives, including emulsifiers, may have long-term health implications. For example, research published in Nature indicated that certain emulsifiers could alter gut microbiota and promote inflammation.
    • However, the relevance of these findings to DATEM specifically and the typical levels of consumption in the human diet remain to be fully understood.

Conclusion

DATEM is a valuable food additive in the baking industry, providing benefits such as improved dough stability, enhanced volume and texture, extended shelf life, and consistent quality. It is generally recognized as safe by major regulatory authorities and has been extensively studied.

However, potential issues include concerns about the source of the ingredients, possible digestive discomfort at high consumption levels, and the need for clear labeling to address allergenicity and sensitivities. Overall, when used within regulatory limits, DATEM is a beneficial additive that enhances the quality and longevity of bread and other baked products.

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