A new generation of bakers is taking bread in a healthier—and more inventive—direction.
It wasn’t so long ago that bread was non grata in the nutrition world, with portobello mushrooms replacing burger buns and carbs resolutely left off clean-eating regimens. But now the much-maligned loaf is getting a rethink, at the hands of several health-conscious bakers.
Melissa Sharp founded Modern Baker after experiencing the beneficial effects of a healthier diet when she was being treated for cancer in 2010. “It wasn’t long before I realised that, after adopting a healthy lifestyle, there seemed to be loads of other things that came with it,” says Sharp. “I felt much better, I had long nails, I was told how good my skin looked. And even though I was obviously very ill inside, I did feel healthy and well.”
This spurred the launch of Modern Baker in 2014, with a mission to take a healthier approach to “the biggest food group of all,” says Sharp. Sharp started the company with her partner Leo Campbell, whose background in advertising informed Modern Baker’s sleek brand identity. A Modern Baker café in Oxford, England, also opened in 2014, and a wider product launch followed in 2017; Modern Baker is stocked at Selfridges and Planet Organic in the United Kingdom. Modern Baker specializes in what Sharp calls “slow carb baking,” which results in bread with a lower glycaemic (GI) index. The brand’s sourdough loaves and baguettes are made from flour, water, and salt that’s fermented for 48 hours, making the bread, Sharp says, more digestible and less likely to trigger food intolerances.
Slow carb baking, she explains, “means a much lower GI level, and fewer sugar spikes. It’s much better for your digestive system. And the only way you [make bread like] that in any decent way is do it how it was done for thousands of years before industrialization came along… it’s natural fermentation.” Campbell adds that the fermentation process also increases the bioavailability of nutrients in the bread.
Alongside bread, the brand makes healthier cakes and pastries, which substitute refined sugars for coconut sugar, honey, dates, and maple syrup. Think spelt croissants, whose fiber and protein content are said to aid digestion, and courgette and pecan loaf cake, whose fiber content counteracts blood sugar surges. For those who wish to recreate the products at home, a recipe book, Super Loaves & Simple Treats, was published by Avery in the United States in March 2018.
But in addition to Modern Baker’s tempting product line, its founders are passionate about widening accessibility to their healthier carbs. They have won close to three-quarters of a million pounds ($1 million) in funding awards from the British government’s Innovate UK agency to research the health benefits of Modern Baker’s bread. To do this, the company is undertaking R&D collaborations with Newcastle University’s cell and molecular biosciences department in the UK and Campden BRI, a leading British food and drink research technology organisation.
The research, says Campbell, is “all about understanding the science, making our bread healthier, and making it scalable, so that it’s available to a wider audience.” Salt and fiber levels are being investigated, and the bread’s mother culture has been DNA sequenced to pinpoint its composition. “We’ve got a project running about how we can make bread healthier by freezing it,” adds Campbell. Indeed, Campbell and Sharp describe their company as a life sciences business as much as a baking brand, with the research arm dubbed the “zyme lab.”
The company is also exploring the possibility of opening a second café and a bread-making school in central London. “To be able to teach nutrition to young people, widely, is something that is very dear to our hearts,” says Campbell. “And we would want that to tie in with specific public health outcomes—we’d be achieving public health goals through that education. We’re not talking about sourdough classes for middle class people. We’re talking about proper education to change the public health agenda.” Campbell believes that gut health will soon be “the new frontier for preventative medicine.” “What we’ve produced can be used as part of a preventative diet, preventing you from succumbing to chronic illness,” he says.
Various other bakers are taking an equally experimental approach to this diet staple.
Among them is Andina Panaderia, a Peruvian bakery that’s set to open on London’s Westbourne Grove in May 2018. Helmed by head baker Ana Velasquez, the bakery will specialize in what it calls “slow ferment baking with traditional sweet and savory pastries.” Andina Panaderia is from the same restaurant group that runs the buzzy Ceviche in London’s Soho and its healthful offerings will include sweet potato pancakes, and sourdough bread made using sweet potato and plantain. The bakery draws on Peruvian baking techniques, which it says represent “a fusion of Andean and colonial cooking.”
The trend isn’t limited to London. Vogue reports that Zoe Kanan, the head baker at Studio and at Simon & The Whale at New York’s Freehand Hotel, is crafting German and Russian-inspired black bread flavored with aromatic raki anise, and croissants made from sourdough.
Other bakers are working the supposed benefits of charcoal into bread and pastries. At London bakery Coco di Mama, an vegan croissant with activated charcoal recently popped up on the menu. The croissant is made without butter, instead containing sunflower margarine, soy, barley flower, activated charcoal, sugar, and lemon. The charcoal, the bakery claims, helps to detoxify any poisons in the body by neutralizing excess stomach acids,” and says that it “can even reduce bloating.”
While those health benefits could turn out to be overstated—Consumer Reports writes that activated charcoal may only have a “limited” detoxifying effect even when administered as an antidote for drug overdoses, and may potentially upset the stomach when eaten with food—it’s clear that, for wellness-focused consumers, there’s an appetite for getting baked goods back on the menu. Call it having your cake and eating it.