When it’s time to make a sandwich or toast, Americans have never had so many choices. Supermarket shelves are packed with tasty breads of seemingly endless variation. At least it seems this way in comparison to my childhood—I (Nicole, aka June #1) don’t remember sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and poppy seeds making an appearance in our daily bread, let alone healthful offerings like double-fiber and heart-healthy.
Even if you love artisan breads, if you’ve got a family to make sandwiches for, you’ve probably brought one of these interesting breads home from the supermarket. And as you enjoyed your tasty Honey, Oat & Flax toast, you may have been puzzled at the long ingredient declaration on the label. If bread is essentially just flour, yeast, salt and water, what’s this other stuff doing in there? So consider this a primer for decoding the bread label. My intention here is not to judge whether or not these ingredients are good or not, or healthful or not. But since they often have unfriendly names—long chemical names a ten-year old would stumble over—I can at least offer some insight as to why they are used from a bakery perspective.
Let’s start with a big category, the emulsifiers, which covers at least three major ingredients: Mono & Di-glycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL), and Diacetyl Esters of Tartaric Acid (DATEM). Usually when we think of emulsifiers, we think of emulsions, like mayonnaise, where the egg yolk acts as an emulsifier, keeping the oil and water in mayonnaise suspended. Emulsifiers have the ability to help keep foams, batters, and doughs uniform and strong, preventing the collapse of air bubbles. As you’ll see, their role in breads is more specific.
Mono & Di-glycerides interact with starch molecules. This is important because staling in baked goods is largely due to what is called retrogradation of the starch molecules, or in layman’s terms, the firming of the starch over time. Mono & di-glycerides complex with the starch, postponing the staling process. Because of this, they are considered softeners.
SSL and DATEM interact with the protein complex in doughs, and as such they are considered dough strengtheners. Let’s say you’ve made a whole wheat bread dough, and you want to add more bran, nuts, and raisins to it. SSL or DATEM would prevent the collapse of this dense dough, bolstering the protein network to ensure good oven-spring and a resilient crumb. You may not need this help at home, but remember that the automated systems in large-scale bakeries are more stressful—fully risen doughs are conveyed along belts between the proof-box and oven, and the vibration and movement could cause collapse.
Ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C, is a popular dough conditioner added to provide good volume and fine grain, but because it tightens dough, bakers are limited as to how much can be added. Consequently, Azodicarbonamide (ADA) comes into play. It achieves similar results without making the dough seem dry or bucky. In fact, ADA slightly relaxes dough—a bonus in large bakeries where doughs are divided under pressure, which damages the essential protein (gluten) network in the dough that’s so essential to the finished bread’s character.
Calcium propionate is by far the most common preservative used in breads. It’s a calcium salt that breaks down into propionic acid, which inhibits the growth of molds and microorganisms. You may think of bread as being dry and stable, but it actually possesses a high moisture content that makes it an attractive substrate for colonization. Other forms of propionic acid used are Cultured wheat starch and Cultured whey.
Two other minor ingredients worth mentioning are Ammonium sulfate and Monocalcium phosphate. Ammonium sulfate is added to make the yeast happy. As a yeast food, it provides a necessary source of nitrogen. Monocalcium phosphate (or sometimes calcium carbonate) is a calcium salt added to compensate for the low calcium ions of soft water. Very hard water and very soft water are considered problematic—soft water yields soft, sticky doughs while very hard water makes doughs so tight that fermentation (rising) can take longer.
You may not find all these ingredients on the back of your bread label. You may also notice that more and more baking companies are offering options for consumers that do want a simpler label. I hesitate to use the word natural, because the FDA does not have a definition for that term, but nevertheless, ‘all-natural’ has been one of the most popular descriptives added to labels in the past five years.
Keep in mind that some of these ingredients serve the essential function of bringing affordable, nutritious bread to most of the nation’s families—and giving them a few days to enjoy it before it stales or becomes moldy. Artisan bread may be simple, tasty, and local, but it is not a practical choice for most Americans. We no longer shop every day as a culture, and the bread we buy has adapted to our changing shopping and eating preferences. If not wasting food is more sustainable, then perhaps some additives make sense.
This primer is meant to be a starting place for readers to draw their own conclusions, and simplify some of the terms that muddle our labels. My personal view is that simpler is better. Not because I fear these ingredients ( I eat so much fresh, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and grains that I can afford to keep toast and pasta in my life), but because fewer emulsifiers and preservatives means fewer ingredients to compete with the wonderful flavor and aroma of fresh bread. And that’s what I want—soft, great tasting wheat bread for my peanut butter sandwich. How important is bread in your daily life?
By the way, Big Horn Valley is Nicole’s favorite sandwich bread, mass-produced, yes, but with a very clean, simple ingredient statement.
Next week, TwoJunes share our saga of homemade dog food…our Stella, 14 and still bouncy, is living proof that dogs benefit from healthy home-cooking just as much as anybody else.
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.