Some thoughts on the Chorleywood bread process

22.08, Monday 23 Nov 2020

A few months back, I learned about the Chorleywood bread process, invented 1961. 98% of shop-bought bread in the UK is now made this way (caveat: source is from 2009). It uses additives to bake quicker.

Before, if you’d said to me something like “they’re putting stuff in the food that’s making everyone gluten intolerant” I think I would have filed that as a food conspiracy theory. Now? I think I’d lean in that direction.

Here’s what I read.

Some would say that 1961 was a bad year for bread. It was the year that Chorleywood Bread Process came into being. Developed by the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association in Chorleywood, the process revolutionised the baking industry. This high-speed mechanical mixing process allowed the fermentation time to be drastically reduced, and meant that the lower-protein British wheats could be used in place of the more expensive North American imports. Various chemical improvers and antifungal agents are necessary ingredients, as are certain hydrogenated or fractionated hard fats. This is high-output, low-labour production, designed to maximise efficiency and profit at the expense of the consumer.

Mass-produced bread is almost undoubtedly worse for you. Apart from the dubious additives and fats it contains, the short fermentation makes the wheat harder to digest. Indeed, some believe the Chorleywood processing method is to blame for a sharp increase in gluten intolerance and allergy. It is also probable that the prolific crossbreeding and modification of modern-day wheat, to produce strong, tougher, harder-to-digest gluten, has contributed to wheat intolerance.

Somewhere in the region of 98 per cent of bread in this country [the UK] is mass-produced, and most of it comes from around a dozen huge plant bakeries.

Incidentally, Stevens’ Bread is a great recipe book. Good British recipes, restaurant standard, well laid out, straightforward. Love it. Stevens clearly has a bee in his bonnet re handmade vs industrial bread, and that’s exactly who I would want to be writing such a book.

Reading more: here’s a neutral view; here’s a sceptical view.

And to summarise what I learnt about Chorleywood:

  • the amount of yeast of the bread is doubled which drives fermentation faster
  • fermentation alone (the yeast breaking down the flour) is traditionally an overnight process; with Chorleywood the entire loaf takes only 3.5 hours
  • “improvers” are used – chemicals that break down the flour, and other chemicals that provide structure to the crumb (there isn’t enough time for the structuring gluten to develop otherwise)
  • the “improvers” are no longer shown on labels. In the 1990s, the old chemicals were replaced with enzymes (which pre-digest the flour, etc). But enzymes aren’t an ingredient, they’re part of the industrial process, and so they don’t need to be listed.

I’ve no idea whether it matters that the yeast isn’t given much time to ferment the flour. Is it possible that there is a different, harder-to-digest kind of gluten that is formed when the additives drive the process so much faster? Are there implications of having extra yeast hanging around? Does all of this have a long-term negative effect on human health?

Especially because 1961 is relatively recent. I was born in 78; it would have take a while for Chorleywood to ramp up. So my generation - plus a little older - is really the first generation to have grown up eating bread like this. Is that why so many people now get bloated from wheat and ill from gluten… or is it merely that we’re more aware of the effects now?

Honestly, I have zero idea whether any of this truly matters.

It makes my systems-thinking spidey-sense tingle though.

So I bake my own bread now and I’m cautious about what I buy.

Nat Torkington shared a paper with me after we chatted about this. Effect of breadmaking process on in vitro gut microbiota parameters in irritable bowel syndrome: In conclusion, breads fermented by the traditional long fermentation and sourdough are less likely to lead to IBS [Irritable Bowel Syndrome] symptoms compared to bread made using the Chorleywood Breadmaking Process.

So… So.

I didn’t know about Chorleywood before, but now I do. And although I’m not convinced that industrial bread is bad for me, I am open to the idea enough, and the consequences are bad enough, that I have changed my diet.

The wider implication, for me, is this:

If bread, then what else?

Back to bread.

Last week, I tried adding diastatic malt powder to my sourdough. I mainly use recipes from the excellent Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard and he recommends adding a spoon of (handmade) powdered barley malt at the start.

I didn’t make the malt myself. I bought it.

It turns out that adding malt is like a cheat code for baking bread.

My loaf proved a little faster, the crumb was more open, and the loaf had a lovely chew. All good. My starter has been sluggish in the cold weather, and this malt has been the antidote. Excellent.

It turns out that malt works in a pretty interesting way.

Malt contains amylase, which is an enzyme. I remember it from biology at school – if you hold a piece of bread in your mouth, it begins to taste sweet, and the amylase in your saliva is the reason why.

Amylase cuts up non-sweet starches into simple, sweet sugars which are more easily digested by the yeasts.

Point, the first. I find it wonderful and amazing that a traditional baking ingredient turns out to be biochemically active and there’s a metabolic reason why it’s there. I wonder when amylase was discovered and this connection made.

Point, the second. Amylase is one of the enzymes in the Chorleywood bread process.

So am I now on the path to industrial bread?

How do I draw the line?

And at what point should I stop?

This, it occurs to me, is the whole question of technology in a nutshell. Or in a banneton, as the case may be.

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