The low-carb diet craze was bad news for bakers. The attack on salt twisted the knife a little further. Yet Kate Barker reports on an upbeat industry determined to keep consumers eating their daily bread.

Like elsewhere in the world, the UK’s bakery industry is on a mission to boost sales, having struggled through hard times amid the low-carb diet phenomenon. And so it was that a small number of food journalists were invited by the UK Flour Advisory Bureau to “discover the skill of the flour miller” with a visit to a family run mill in rural Northampton.

Perhaps it was the phrase “family run” or the word “rural” that conjured up images of a quaint mill beside a river where Mr and Mrs Miller were baking fresh bread using the flour their waterwheel-powered mill had ground from wheat their children had harvested from the surrounding fields. But Heygate & Sons is Britain’s biggest independent flour miller; the pinkish-grey towers of its Bugbrooke mill can be seen for miles around.

The business has been passed down through the generations and is now under the management of Paul and Bob Heygate, who are striving to keep the family tradition alive while also maintaining the business’s success in a difficult market.

Bugbrooke mill is a great example of how flour-milling technology has progressed over the last few decades. The main mill was completed in the late 1990s, but an older mill, built in the 1940s, is still in working order. Over 200,000 tons of wheat is milled annually at Bugbrooke, resulting in 150,000 tons of flour that is used mainly for bread production.

The tour took in the newest mill first, a complex network of pipes, crushing and grinding machines and sieves. From the flour whooshing through overhead pipes, to the industrial sieves (huge metal boxes that appear almost to float a foot or so off the floor and thud round in an intimidating robotic manner), this was an example of the progress of technology – there was hardly a human being in sight.

The old mill is still in use – its old grinding and sieving machines powered by a series of belts and pulleys – but its days are numbered. It is currently used to produce gently milled flours, such as those used to make Italian breads, but the other mills can be slowed down to produce those types of flours.

DNA tests for wheat

Down in the packaging warehouse, industrial-sized bags of Tesco French bread flour were being filled and sealed by a state-of-the-art packaging machine, while outside, trucks of wheat arrived to be weighed; samples were taken and tested in a sophisticated research laboratory. The wheat is tested for moisture, protein and gluten content, and the type of wheat is identified using a DNA-like test. The same laboratory also tests flour from the mill for similar properties, which affect the type of bread the flour is used to make, and the speed and ease with which the bread can be made. The gluten is particularly important – it is this elastic-like substance that causes dough to rise as it ferments.

By law, white and brown flours are fortified with calcium, iron, thiamin and niacin. Wholemeal flour does not need to be fortified; because it is made with the whole wheat grain, these vitamins and minerals are already present (although white and brown flour actually contain more calcium because of the fortification process).

Action on salt

So far, so healthy. But what about salt? The UK’s Food Standards Agency has been trying to reduce people’s salt intake, partly by pressuring manufacturers to cut the amount of salt contained in processed foods. The majority of flour is used to make bread, and bread was one of several types of food criticised by the FSA for containing too much salt when it began its campaign. However, the flour and bread industries argue that in bread making, salt is more than just a taste enhancer. The presence of salt helps to control the rate of dough fermentation, meaning that bakers can manage the bread-making process more effectively; whether in a small artisan bakery or a large plant bakery, the addition of salt is crucial, according to the Flour Advisory Bureau.

Nevertheless, in 2001 manufacturers reduced the amount of salt in bread by 13%, with a further 5% reduction made in 2004. The FSA wants further cuts, but this is still under discussion. Like manufacturers of other processed foods, bakery firms may argue that further cuts will affect the taste of the product too much, with the result that consumers simply stop buying it.

In their bid to promote a healthy image in the wake of the Atkins “crisis” and amid continuing interest in glycaemic index (GI) diets, the flour and bakery industries cannot afford for bread to have a salty reputation. According to the Bread Myths and Facts leaflet produced by the Flour Advisory Bureau and the Federation of Bakers, bread consumption represents around 14% of our average intake of salt, compared to 15-30% for salt added during cooking or at the table.

The FSA has just kicked off the second round of its salt campaign (following on from the successful Sid the Slug campaign last year). While the previous campaign raised awareness of the health effects of eating too much salt, this phase focuses on the FSA’s 6g per day recommended daily limit for salt intake. “Salt – eat no more than 6g a day,” the huge billboards proclaim. The campaign, which includes advertisements on television and in women’s weekly magazines, also encourages people to check salt levels on food labels. If the second phase is as successful as the first, which received widespread media coverage, then hiding salt content as sodium on nutrition labels will no longer be an option.

The flour and bakery industries will have to find a way either to reduce the amount of salt in bread even further without destroying the taste, or convince consumers to use up part of their salt allowance on bread – perhaps by promoting other healthy attributes, such as fibre, iron and calcium. Whatever happens, the bread industry is clearly not facing as bleak a future as might have been suggested 18 months ago, when the low-carb diet craze was in full swing, and flour makers must be breathing a sigh of relief that bread is once again back on the menu.