With ingredients consisting of nothing but flour, water and salt, sourdough bread may seem like one of life’s simplest and most unambiguous pleasures. But it is now coming under scrutiny as part of a government review over long-running claims that a ‘sourfaux’ scandal is undermining traditional authentic bread.
The Real Bread Campaign, a project run by Sustain, the non-profit alliance for better food and farming, says supermarket chains and industrial bakeries are misleading customers, selling breads labeled as “made with sourdough” for as little as £1.20.
Factory-made breads can contain up to 15 ingredients, including palm oil and commercial yeast.
Real Bread campaign coordinator Chris Young said new bread labeling rules needed to be imposed on supermarkets and major bread companies to protect traditional, small-scale bakeries. Activists complained of a “sourfaux each for himself”.
He said: ‘We think a lot of people are being misled when buying their bread. Making sourdough is a slower process. We would like the definition to be “bread made without additives and using a living sourdough culture”.
The government has formed a bread and flour technical task force to review the regulations, and the Real Bread campaign has submitted a series of proposals for a radical overhaul of bread labelling.
Ministers confirmed that the task force was reviewing the use of the word sourdough – “to assess whether providing a definition of sourdough would benefit consumers”.
They are also urged to crack down on supermarkets’ use of the term “freshly baked”. Supermarket bakeries have been accused of being “bread tanning parlors” in which pre-baked and sometimes frozen bread is ironed through an oven shortly before sale.
The UK bread market is worth around £4 billion a year and in recent years the number of independent bakeries has increased. Traditional bakeries still represent only 5% of the bread market in value; large-scale bakeries account for about 75% and in-store bakeries 20%.
Instead of commercial yeast, sourdough bread is made with natural yeast in a fermented mixture of flour and water called the “starter.” It takes much longer to ferment and rise than bread with added yeast. Research has shown that sourdough bread is a much richer source of minerals, including magnesium, iron, and zinc.
While a genuine sourdough loaf from a traditional bakery usually costs at least £3.50, supermarkets offer loaves labeled “sourdough” at around a third of that price. Small bakeries say they are undermined by what they consider to be not really sourdough.
Charlotte Nemeth, 24, co-owner with her husband, Dan, 40, of award-winning Seasons Bakery, which operates in a former village school in Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales, said: ‘We want to encourage people to buy sourdough because it’s healthier for them, but they ask about the price and why they can buy it for less than £2 in the supermarket. We need a legal definition that says sourdough bread is just flour, water, and salt.
Dan Nemeth added that their bakery produces about 10,000 sourdough loaves a week, supplying local food distributors, a restaurant and two stores. The loaves sell for £3.85 each.
He said a traditionally baked bread and a factory-made bread were two “totally separate products”, adding: “It can be a cheaper option if you have a product with additives, preservatives and yeast, but it is not true leaven.”
Supermarket shoppers can pick up Sainsbury’s 800g white country loaf ‘with sourdough’ for just £1.30. The bread contains only 3.5% sourdough, as well as rapeseed oil, palm oil, soy flour and a flour treatment agent. An 800g Tesco white bread ‘with sourdough’ costs £1.20 and contains emulsifiers and added yeast.
Campaigners do not believe the term sourdough should be allowed on such products. They support the sale of genuine sourdough breads in supermarkets, but say the products must be properly labelled. A survey by the consumer watchdog Which? in 2018 found that only four out of 19 supermarket sourdough breads tested could be considered authentic. The UK bakery industry came up with a code of practice in 2019 for the labeling of sourdough bread and rolls. He said where “space and skills were lacking” there were a growing number of ingredients that could simplify the process. The proposals were dismissed by the Real Bread Campaign as a “cheater’s charter”.
The Real Bread campaign submission to the government task force says, “When it comes to sourdough, leaving it to the ‘market’ to self-regulate clearly doesn’t work.”
The campaign proposes a new legal definition of bread, a legal definition of sourdough, a requirement to display ingredients for all baked goods, and legal definitions of “fresh”, “freshly baked” and “store baked”.
It says supermarkets and large retailers market freshly baked or in-store baked goods that may have been made, pre-cooked and frozen off-site. The campaign says complaints about the bread’s marketing descriptions to the Advertising Standards Authority and trading standards officials have been dismissed on the grounds that, without legal definitions, they are unable to judge whether the terms are being used in a way misleading. He says the government’s response to date to his proposals suggests he would prefer to see self-regulation and that there is a ‘reluctance to take the necessary action on this issue’.
The government has promised to launch a consultation on potential amendments to the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 over the summer. A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Food information is strictly regulated in the UK and must not mislead consumers. This includes claims such as “fresh” and “store cooked”.
“There are ongoing discussions about the use of ‘sourdough’ – and while regulation is an option, we encourage further work on the draft industry code of practice which could help achieve better understanding.”
Retailers say they comply with all regulations when it comes to selling and marketing sourdough bread. Sainsbury’s said worried customers buying baked goods in bulk should ask a member of staff for ingredient information or check online.