Sourdough – what’s in a name?

Once upon a time I’d never even heard of sourdough. In fact, I was middle-aged by the time I did, and I only heard of it because I started making my own bread. Funny thing is, that for most of man’s civilised existence on the planet, that’s what bread generally was. Or if it was bread and wasn’t sourdough, it was by definition a flatbread!

Explained at its simplest level, sourdough is bread that is naturally leavened. No baker’s yeast, just a form of wild yeast. If you’re a bread baker, you start off with either an original culture of your own, or you are given some by a friend and you then nurture it. Basically, it’s a pet, but one of the few you can eat without people getting upset.

The day-to-day loaf most home bakers create uses baker’s yeast; either dried or fresh, if you can get it. Go into many supermarkets and ask if they have any fresh yeast and they’ll say no. That’s because the ‘fresh’ loaves they make at the back of the store are brought in and, for want of a better description, heated up before being sold. Some of the bigger ones sell it, and some of them – a small percentage – even use it.

Few of the loaves in the bread aisle are sourdough. In fact, most supermarket bread is ‘factory bread’. And for years I was quite happy to eat it. And, like any convert, there’s a tinge of the fanatic about the switch to ‘proper’ bread.

So perhaps I should explain myself. When I talk about ‘factory bread’ and ‘proper bread’ I’m not making a purely subjective comparison. There are quite a few differences between the two, and at the risk of stealing someone else’s favourite reason for making the distinction, I’m going to say the key difference is not an ingredient.

It’s time.

That’s not to say that actual ingredients – or, as I shall also argue, the lack of them – aren’t important. But in order to understand what we eat and call bread it’s important to grasp that making a loaf has undergone a revolution over the past 100 years or so. What was once the staple of the working man and his family through the ages has altered so much that I suspect given a highly-marketed big brand loaf most of our forebears would chuck it back at us and ask what the heck we were thinking.

The Industrial Revolution and subsequent developments in production have had a profound effect on every aspect of our lives. The lot of working people has changed, massively, since the mid-18th century and continues apace to this day. Mostly, it’s for the better. We live in better housing, are better educated, and enjoy lifestyles our ancestors (and let’s be honest, most of the non-industrialised world’s population) would envy.

But when it comes to bread, what most of the population eats and calls bread, is awful.

When our ancestors made bread, they used local flour, and it took a couple of days, start to finish, to make it. They’d feed their starter (that’s their pet!) one day and about a day later bake their loaf.

That loaf on your supermarket shelf takes 3 hours and 30 minutes start to finish.

Modern food processing is what gets it there. Flour is milled at high speed. As a result factory bakers are able to use flour that was unuseable in days of yore. They add this and that, which makes the flour fluffy and soft. They add a bit more which makes it last. It’s a system that produces a loaf without all that tiresome (and expensive) hanging about. Britain’s possibly most influential influence on world cuisine is The Chorleywood System. The Good Lord help us all.

The result is a loaf that you shouldn’t feed to ducks because it makes them ill and can kill them. It’s not very good for us, either, and is I suspect the singular principal cause of that favourite modern malady, gluten-intolerance, is down to factory bread. It’s not accident that most people with gluten intolerance are self-diagnosed, which means maybe they are, and maybe they are not.  And what they are intolerant to may be gluten, but it could be that they don’t get on with modern strains of wheat. Let’s be honest, what’s in a modern loaf can cause ‘gluten intolerance’ through anything from ingredients to process.

Before you accuse me of intolerance myself, I have no problem with the unfortunate people who have been diagnosed as coeliac. I’ve known one or two and it’s a blight that was only diagnosed after some serious suffering.

Nor is it to say that self-diagnosed gluten intolerance isn’t real. Something’s causing people to feel ill, or bloated. My problem is that generally it’s not been the subject of tests and it could be anything besides gluten. Modern food is highly processed and Half of all the food bought… in the UK is… made in a factory with industrial ingredients and additives invented by food technologists bearing little resemblance to fruit, vegetables, meat or fish used [in] a fresh meal (Quote from article). Industrial food production is the main driver of change in our eating habits and, critically, the processes and ingredients involved track the development of many causes of ill-health in society over the past few decades. We are what we eat…

This is a somewhat rambling precursor to my main point, but it sets the scene. I am talking about sourdough, and I’ve defined what sourdough is and had a swing at modern food. That’s because sourdough has started appearing in various supermarkets, and it’s a problem.

It’s a problem because it isn’t really sourdough. Generally, it’s a loaf like all the others in your supermarket that you can buy for less than £1, but costing £3 more.

Let me explain. The word sourdough is just that – a word. And you and I may have a shared view of what it means. But what a word actually means, in law, is way different. And at the moment, in the UK, if you say a loaf of bread is sourdough there is nothing to stop them putting some sourdough flavour in an ordinary mass-produced loaf and calling it sourdough.  Doesn’t hold true in France, for example, where you can’t do that. But in the UK you can. And they do.

I think that if you go and buy a sourdough loaf, it should be one that’s produced using natural yeast (and no other kind. At all). It should be made using that important ingredient, time.

The Real Bread Campaign (of which I’m a supporter) has called for an ‘Honest Crust Act that addresses the ingredients issue, process and labelling of such loaves. You can find it here. They also call for words like ‘artisan’ to have a legal definition too. At the moment it’s a marketing term with no real meaning in this context whatsoever except the vital one that it makes you think you’re getting something that wasn’t produced an a massive industrial scale in a factory. Which it almost certainly was.

In my opinion a label on a supermarket loaf called artisan sourdough, unless expressly labelled truthfully, should be treated as a misleading description. Maybe not in law, but it certainly won’t be what I’d like to see called ‘artisan’ or ‘sourdough’. Sourdough loaves can be bought in supermarkets – for example Richard Bertinet has a range in Waitrose – but I’ve seen loaves in Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer called sourdough and they aren’t ‘proper’ sourdough.

So, meantime if I buy a sourdough loaf it’s made by someone with their hands (that’s what I mean by artisan) using natural yeast, flour, salt and water. And if I don’t buy one I make it.

It doesn’t make me better than anyone else but the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) and DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) don’t care enough about this issue to do anything about it. They’ve been asked and said no, repeatedly. They say people know the difference. The technical term for that is ‘Bollocks’. I guess it tells me who’s side they are on. The people who are making £3 extra profit on a mass-produced fake loaf. The more recent French study looking at the harm ‘ultra-processed’ food appears to appears to do, and the fact that one of the foods they identify is ‘factory bread’ should (but probably won’t) prompt them to re-assess their rather complacent attitude.

You shouldn’t have to put the word ‘proper’ in front of the word ‘sourdough’. It should actually mean something. Until ASA and DEFRA do the right thing, treat the word ‘sourdough’ with massive distrust, especially if you’re in a supermarket.


Author: Andy Stansfield

British, male, married, family, marketer.

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