Industry Bread Code for ‘Sourdough’ has become a bit of a Bun-Fight

Sourdough bread has become a major food trend over recent years, but what constitutes sourdough is now subject to dispute between industry factions.
This underlines the difficulty that comes with seeking to define what has, to date, been a customary term, in order to protect standards.

Sourdough as a type of bread is not a legally defined term and therefore has no specific definition outside of what the reasonable consumer who is reasonably well informed may understand from that term.

The making of voluntary unregulated terms, for example 'sourdough' bread, will have an accompanying raised expectation of standards and some positive substantiation will be required of underlying policies if these are challenged by trading standards or the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).  However, there are, as yet, no regulations or codes of practice that govern the nature, production and labelling of sourdough products in the UK market.  This is therefore currently governed by the general consumer understanding of what constitutes sourdough bread namely that the product has a more sour taste and better inherent keeping qualities.   This is because it is made by the fermentation of dough using live fermented cultures which act as a natural leavening agent, but how widely that is understood by consumers is under debate.

In the proposed industry code for the definition of Sourdough, the industry coalition, which includes the Federation of Bakers and the Association of Bakery Ingredient Manufacturers, points to a recent revival in the market for sourdough bakery products with new product developments using sourdough technology and ingredients also on the increase.  It adds that “it is not at all certain that the majority of the UK bread-buying public are aware of what sourdough is, how it is produced, or what its typical characteristics should be”.

The group of five industry bodies that has drawn up this new code of practice aims to clarify the term sourdough and prevent misinformation when it is applied to products in the UK bakery market.  The document states that any product calling itself "sourdough bread" should contain live/active cultures "as the principal leavening agent".

Three definitions have been suggested for labelling and marketing purposes:

  • Sourdough (product name): a product in which live/active sourdough is used as the principle leavening agent; which may be made with the addition of a maximum of 0.2% compressed bakers’ yeast, or the equivalent level of cream or dried yeast, as calculated on the total flour weight of the final dough. Additives or flavourings in the final dough must not be used, with the exception of the mandatory flour additives required by , and/or the flour treatment agents permitted by, the UK Bread and Flour Regulations 1998. Marketing terms may describe both the process and the typical sensory characteristics achieved, such as crumb structure and flavour.
  • (Product name) with Sourdough: a product made with live/active sourdough, and/or inactive/deactivated/devitalised sourdough, where commercial bakers’ yeast has been used as the principal leavening agent in the final dough and which may also contain permitted additives. The product may NOT contain additives which are added specifically to impart a sourdough type acidity, flavour or aroma to the finished product (eg acids or their salts.) Marketing terms may only describe the flavour characteristics imparted by the sourdough and should not imply that the product has been made using a traditional sourdough process.
  • Sourdough flavoured (product name): a product made with live and/or inactive sourdough , in which additives or flavourings that impart sourdough-type acidity, flavour or aroma to the finished product have also been used (eg acids or their salts); and which contains baker’s yeast and other permitted additives. Marketing terms should not imply that the bread characteristics have been achieved without the use of additives.

However, The Real Bread Campaign, has criticised the document, that was sent to Defra earlier this year, as "sour-faux" for permitting the use of up to 0.2% of bakers' yeast and certain "flour treatment agents" per loaf.  The guidelines also state: "Where space and skills are lacking, bakers have recourse to an increasing number of ingredients and raw materials that help to simplify the process."

The Real Bread Campaign is calling for a change to legislation that would include a clear, legal definition of sourdough bread as made without any additives and leavened only by a live sourdough starter culture.

The options moving forward for the definition and labelling of sourdough may be as follows:

  1. Status quo – the different sorts of sourdough bread co-exist outside of a set regulatory framework and the consumer’s understanding of sourdough remains a customary one of a slightly differing taste with a lack of consistency within makes;
  2. Industry Standard – although this is not legislation, it provides best practice and guidance so that it is clear that bread falling outside of this standard should not be called sourdough; but what standard should be applied? a more broad based approach or the traditional approach?
  3. Traditional Speciality Guaranteed – this would be to have the recipe for sourdough traditionally used to be protected under a TSG or Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. Whilst this will protect its’ status and processes there will need to be some auditing in order to administer it. It may also require the addition of ‘traditional’ to the sourdough name.
  4. Amend legislation to ensure Sourdough is a defined name under the Bread & Flour Regulations – this would then have a legally binding standard attached to the name.
    However, if legislation were to be amended the question will again be asked; to what standard should sourdough be made to?

As with any food, feelings will run high between the purists/traditionalists and those wishing to pursue a more large-scale commercial endeavour.

In the meantime the exact definition for sourdough will remain uncertain and reliant on broad consumer expectation and perception. Claims and implied claims for 'traditional', 'rustic', 'homemade', 'natural', 'artisan' can increase the expectation of a more traditional approach to the characteristics of the food.

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