Bread has had a rough time over the last few years. However, it has shrugged off the effects of the fashion for low-carbohydrate diets and bakers have gone for quality. Smaller households, the drive for convenience and an improving health image have helped. Chris Lyddon reports.

“All the trends are good for bread production,” MLC marketing director Richard Lowe told a recent conference. “If anything, bread could actually benefit from the reduction in household size.”

“There is a long term decline in household bread consumption,” he said. More meals were being eaten out, more sandwiches eaten on the move. “Bread is well placed,” he added.

The supermarkets were keen to drive bread upmarket. “There is no inflation in commodity food items. There’s deflation,” Lowe said, pointing out that the 30 core items in Tesco’s Value range fell in price between 1993 when the range was launched and its tenth anniversary. But supermarket staff wages and other costs were going up.

The answer was to move to premium lines. “Consumers will pay more for quality and they will pay more for convenience,” he said. The bakery category among retailers was growing in value. “Indulgence and quality food is really driving supermarket sales in general,” he said.

British consumers had not been put off bread by diet fashions. “We cannot detect any discernible sales effect from the summer of 2003 when Atkins hit the British press in a big way,” he said. “Consumers are a lot cleverer than any of us, including the government, ever believe.”

The UK bread sector’s fight back against low-carbohydrate diets had been led by the Flour Advisory Bureau, an industry body which provides information on flour and bread.

Industry fight back against low-carb

The arrival of the Atkins diet in the UK in the summer of 2003 led to a rash of anti-bread stories, Dr Tamara De Grassi of the Flour Advisory Bureau told just-food. “It became fashionable for women to eliminate bread,” she said. “If you opened a tabloid newspaper in the last two years you read how bread was bad for you.” But the claims were being made by people who wanted to sell low-carbohydrate products. She complained that some general (medical) practitioners were used to promote low-carbohydrate diets. “If a GP is telling you something is good and healthy, you’re going to believe them,” she said

Perhaps you shouldn’t. Lowe produced research figures which showed that when three groups, GPs, dieticians and lay consumers, were asked to rate how healthy foods were, the consumer group consistently got closer to the ratings given by trained dieticians than did the GPs. “Consumers have a better idea about how to choose healthy food than their doctors,” he said.

The Flour Advisory Bureau’s response to Atkins had been to develop a “Grain Information Service”. “When low-carb hit the shelves two years ago we contacted the HGCA, the manufacturers and the Federation of Bakers,” said De Grassi. There hadn’t been a lot of money available. “We all have very small budgets,” she said. “We are a trade association.”

She condemned “sloppy journalism”. “People kept reading that bread is bad for you,” she said. “It doesn’t take long before consumers think something must be wrong.”

They’d been able to fight back. “We’ve been working very hard,” she said. The group had put journalists in touch with experts. “We worked very closely with journalists,” she said. “They are a bit more savvy now. There’s been a lot more editorial about weight loss.”

“We knew we had the science on our side,” she said. “Bread is low fat carbohydrate. The group had developed the Vitality Eating System based around a balance of foods. “It is a one stop shop to weight loss,” she added. “High carb, low fat with exercise will deliver sustained weight loss.”

Lack of hard numbers

Although there are people in the industry who will tell you that bread is recovering, the published figures show a continued steady decline. But the figures only show sliced and wrapped bread, Tamara De Grassi points out. “It was falling anyway because of things like supermarkets with in store bakeries and artisan loaves,” she said. “People are being a bit more fussy.” There are no roundabout ways to the numbers. “Flour production doesn’t tell you much,” she said.

Even so, the impact of Atkins on the UK diet could be roughly quantified, she said. “When Atkins came out there may have been around a 0.5% effect. If we hadn’t done anything, yes there would have been an effect.”

Much worse in the US

Bread sales in the United States have been much worse hit by the low-carb fashion. “In the States it was a different story,” she said. “They didn’t see it coming and they didn’t roll out the crisis management.”

One problem for the industry had been the lack of national media. In Britain one story in a mass market tabloid can affect a wide range of public opinion. “In America they have regional media, not national media,” she said. “They left it too late and they didn’t do enough.” Even so, the low-carb fashion was fading in the US. “Their figures show that Atkins has peaked,” she said. “We prevented something from becoming a lot worse. America left it too late and suffered a lot more.” In Britain low-carb had had its day. “The story now is GI,” she added.

Attitude to bread changes

Consumers’ whole attitude to bread was changing. “Bread is not a staple now,” she said. “You’ve got so many other things. People want more interesting breads.”

One person charged with promoting bread and other cereal-based foods to the UK consumer is Rebecca Geraghty, manager of British Cereal Products, the promotion arm of the Home Grown Cereals Authority. “It’s just one part of a healthy balanced diet,” she said. “You should eat everything in moderation.”

The bread makers had responded to consumers’ demands for more overtly “healthy” food, she said. “Bread manufacturers and processors are coming to us and saying they want to make bread with better health credentials.”

And the demand for better taste and more variety meant more new products coming on stream. “We’re seeing quite a lot of innovation in the bread sector as processors have tried to move away from bread as a loss leader,” she said. “We’ve seen that really speed up.” Ethnic and speciality breads have become more common. The HGCA gave an award of £24,000 (US$46,250) to miller Rank Hovis to develop its Elephant Atta chapatti flour earlier this year, while other makers are promoting things like ciabatta, or bagels.

It adds up to a vast difference between the values of the own-label wrapped sliced bread often used as a loss leader and premium bread. At the time of writing an 80-gramme sliced white loaf can be had for 19 pence from supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. A “Taste the difference” Ciabatta loaf weighing 270 grammes costs £1.29, or the equivalent of 38.4 pence for 80 grammes.

HGCA nutritionist Therese Coleman quoted a report by the British Nutrition Foundation, published earlier this year. “The public should not be encouraged to cut out whole food groups unnecessarily,” it said. “As cereals and cereal products provide a whole range of macro-and micronutrients and fibre, eliminating these foods without appropriate support and advice from a registered dietician or other health professional could lead to problems in the long term.”

The UK government’s recommendation is that the proportion of total energy in the diet that comes from carbohydrates should be increased to 50%. “Quite a high amount of our calorie intake should come from carbohydrates,” Coleman said. Men on average get 47.78% of their energy from carbohydrates, women 48.5%. But that doesn’t just mean brown bread. “White bread is good as well,” she said. “There is a need for people to increase their fibre intake.”