Jane Ram on the new breadlines drawn in the flour.
The past five years have seen the rise and rise of low carb diets. Initially dismissed as yet one more fad, the low-carb diet continues to win new adherents, who are currently reckoned to be one in 10 of the population in the UK and North America. As part of this trend, bread has been widely demonized. Sales of pre-sliced white bread dropped by 12% in the UK over the five years to 2017, according to retail analysts, Mintel. Canny mass-market bakers have been forced to re-think their products and marketing strategy or risk being run out of business.
One approach is to replace flour with vegetables: cauliflower is the all-star favourite vegetable for all things healthy these days to the point where it almost eclipses zucchini, carrots and beets. This makes for interesting packaging and it can justify a sizeable hike in price, although it must be admitted that it rarely produces a satisfactory bread. The same must be said of other experiments with wheat-free flour including coconut, durian and almond.
Improvisation is a way of life for Patricia Yeo, Corporate Chef for Shinta Mani Hotels. She says she cannot make a loaf of gluten free/keto friendly bread as ingredients like psyllium husk are hard to find in Cambodia. ”Our solution is to make an Indian- style naan bread with chia & flax seed and coconut oil which we serve with a spiced butter(flavored with ginger, cardamom & garlic). It is one of the only gluten free breads I actually like.”
The other approach with more appeal is the widespread revival of traditional baking practices dating back into antiquity. “A new generation of bakers is taking bread in a healthier—and more inventive—direction,” says Nana Jones of JWT’s Intelligence Newsletter. “It wasn’t so long ago that bread was non grata in the nutrition world, with portobello mushrooms replacing burger buns and carbs resolutely left off clean-eating regimens. But now the much-maligned loaf is getting a rethink, at the hands of several health-conscious bakers.”
Melissa Sharp was inspired to found Modern Baker after experiencing the beneficial effects of a healthier diet when she was being treated for cancer. In 2014 she launched her first bakery, specializing in what she calls “slow carb baking”, which results in bread with a lower glycaemic (GI)index.
The timing was right for the British market and a wider product launch followed in 2017; her bread is now sold at Selfridges and Planet Organic and she has plans for a baking school. Her mission remains to take a healthier approach to “the biggest food group of all.” She uses the age-old ingredients – flour, water and salt – fermented for 48 hours.
Modern Baker was awarded almost US$1 million by the British government’s Innovate UK agency to research the health benefits of Modern Baker’s bread. To do this, the company is undertaking R&D collaborations with Newcastle University’s cell and molecular biosciences department in the UK and Campden BRI, a leading British food and drink research technology organisation. The research, says Sharp’s partner, Leo Campbell, is “all about understanding the science, making our bread healthier, and making it scalable, so that it’s available to a wider audience.” Salt and fiber levels are being investigated, and the bread’s mother culture has been DNA sequenced to pinpoint its composition. “We’ve got a project running about how we can make bread healthier by freezing it,” adds Campbell. Indeed, Campbell and Sharp describe their company as a life sciences business as much as a baking brand, with the research arm dubbed the “zyme lab.”
Although Asia generally is devoted to pre-sliced factory-made white bread, there are some notable artisan bakers in different parts of the region. Hong Kong-based Swiss master-baker, Gregoire Michaud is passionate about slow-rise sourdough bread. After decades as baker/patisseur at Hong kong’s Four Seasons Hotel, he formed his own company, Bread Elements, which produces customized artisanal bread for clients ranging from five-star hotels to upmarket restaurants. He recently fulfilled a long-time ambition when he opened his own bread and pastry retail shop.
“When I read low-carb and bread in the same sentence, I regard this as an oxymoron,” he says. “We try to offer a range of different bread with, for example, brioche which would be high in carbohydrates due to the usage of a finer milled flour, eggs and sugar. And at the other end of the spectrum we have a whole grain bread fermented on sourdough with just water and salt added. Specifically on that whole grain bread, we try to use as much whole grain as possible to keep the original germ, oils and bran without the bread turning into a dense and inedible brick. This is our craft and our art. We concentrate our efforts on making it delicious, healthy and easily digestible.
“In the end, our breads will “only” be lower in carb rather than carb free, and I believe that trying to create a “carb-free bread” would indeed really be an oxymoron. A few scientific studies suggest that the long fermentation process in the sourdough affects the glycaemic index of the bread and that it lowers the speed at which the sugar goes into the blood. But even with this extensive research, sourdough bread still has some elusive scientific aspects that no research has been able to fathom so far, such as the relationship between the creation of different flavors and some of the nutritional aspects.
“I understand the search for low-carb bread by health-conscious people, and everyone else. And from an artisan baker’s point of view, my goal is not specifically to produce a bread with a low-carb label, because it is a naturally embedded feature of the bread we bake every day.”