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Silvery Tweed Cereals

01289 307419

Blending, Milling, Seed Cleaning, Flaking, Coating

white sliced bread

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Is it toast? The future of the white sliced loaf

November 2015


As traditional lunchboxes become a thing of the past, what does the future hold for the humble sliced loaf?

 

The white sliced loaf has a special place in the hearts of Britons. Developed as we know it from the introduction of the Chorleywood process in the 1960s, since that time no lunchbox has been complete without two slices of the cloudy-soft stuff with something in between. But as consumer tastes change, and more kinds of bread than ever before line the supermarket shelves, has the rise of sliced white bread started to go stale? Here we take a look at the past and present of Britain’s most commercial bread, as well as weighing in on the possibilities for its future.

 

Sliced white: what’s new?

Evidence of humans eating bread products goes back to at least the Palaeolithic period, and, thirty thousand years later, bread is still a staple part of the nation’s diet. Statistics from the 2015 Family Food Survey, however, indicate that consumption of white bread has been steadily declining since the 1970s, and the 2015 Bakery Market Report states that bread consumption and volume sales in the bread and bakery market more generally are in decline.

This is not the full picture, however. Statistics from the Bakery Market Report indicate that the bread and bakery products market is seeing growth - 3.4% in 2013 and a further 2.1% in 2014 – suggesting that, while consumer habits within that market may be changing, bread products are still as popular as ever. These alterations in consumer behaviour can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably the prioritisation of health and nutrition in shoppers’ decision-making processes, and the increasing popularity of artisanal bread and more unusual ingredients.

 

The health question

White bread has increasingly come under fire for its perceived lack of nutritional benefits. That’s why the bakery industry is increasingly tapping into the ‘health-conscious bread consumer’ market, with ‘combination’ loaves such as Kingsmill 50/50, malt and wholegrain loaves, and alternative grains such as rye and spelt all proving popular alternatives to the much-maligned white sliced loaf.

Additionally, a more recent source of health concern comes from the growing demographic reporting wheat or gluten intolerance: more and more people are cutting gluten out of their diet and the gluten-free food industry is worth an estimated £175 million. While this may have contributed to reduced grain sales in some capacities, it has also diversified the bakery market – free-from and allergy-friendly ranges are becoming ever more common and contributing to the multitude of choices in the bakery aisles.

 

A quality loaf?

Another game-changer in the bakery industry over the last few years has been the increasing popularity of artisan breads and the proliferation of small independent bakeries. Consumer preferences have shifted away from the inexpensiveness and convenience of white sliced bread, leaning instead towards smaller quantities of higher-quality products. With small bakeries and movements such as the Campaign for Real Bread promoting traditional production techniques and incorporating less common grains into their loaves, artisan breads are perceived as a tastier, healthier, more ‘natural’ alternative to the white sliced loaf – albeit with a price tag to match.

 

The socioeconomic sandwich

Changes in society and the economy are also reflected in how we eat. Long working hours, increasingly lengthy commutes and breakfast ‘al desko’ are driving consumers away from the standard choices of toast or cereal towards more portable early-morning alternatives, such as breakfast biscuits. Additionally, with the reintroduction of free school meals for five-to-seven-year-olds, a 14% drop in the number of children bringing packed lunches to school has been observed – a lot of sandwiches no longer being made. The long-life nature of most commercial white loaves may also feed into this – consumers may be eating less bread, but what they buy stays fresher for longer and needs replacing less often.

 

However, the status of the white loaf as an inexpensive staple food of convenience all but guarantees it an enduring position on the nation’s table. In a period of post-recession economic austerity, bread is a household necessity for many rather than an artisanal luxury, and the very nature of white bread – low cost, versatile, filling – allows it to fill a gap which, arguably, no other food really can.

 

The future of the loaf

While the future of the sliced white loaf may not be rosy, the popularity of speciality breads and the diversification of baking ingredients is keeping the market buoyant. Key Note’s 2014 Bakery Market Report predicted growth of 10.9% in the bread and bakery sector by 2018, citing continued diversification of products as the key driver. If this is the case, it is likely that the artisanal bread market will continue to grow apace, with consumer demand contributing to greater numbers of independent bakers and sellers of luxury loaves.

Conversely, given the conflicting ethos of artisan bread producers and commercial bakeries, it is possible that we may see the latter increasingly imitating the former in order to maintain sales and meet consumer preferences. Supermarket bakery counters, for example, may work harder to give their bread baked in-store an artisanal feel, diversifying their product offerings with sourdough loaves, spelt bread or mixed grains – this may have the effect of reducing production costs, making more niche styles of bread more widely available to consumers and maintaining the buoyancy of the bread and bakery market.

Given the rich broadening of the bread market in recent years, it is perhaps no surprise that demand for sliced bread has fallen sharply. But, as we have seen, this is by no means a death knell for the bread and bakery sector – instead, it has opened a wealth of doors for the industry, inviting diversification of ingredients and innovation in recipes. There is undoubtedly still a place for the sliced white loaf in the hearts and bellies of the nation, but its gradual decline in popularity is paving the way for a richer, more individualised baking industry.

The loaf is dead. Long live the loaf.

 

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