Sourdough Should be Labelled Correctly in the UK

Sourdough is both a bread making process and an ingredient. It is the name given to a mixture of cereal flour and water that has been allowed to spontaneously ferment: the fermentation activity being caused by lactobacillus bacteria and yeast that are naturally present in the flour and/or culture medium and the environment. This fermentation is encouraged and sustained by regulating the fermentation conditions and making further additions of flour and water at regular intervals, so that a stabilised culture of lactobacillus is created within the fermenting dough. It is the expression of lactic and acetic acids by the fermenting culture that give the sourdough its characteristic flavour, aroma and rheological properties.

The bacteria also produce a small amount of carbon dioxide during fermentation that contributes to the leavening function in the finished product. Sourdough fermentation may also be initiated by inoculating the flour and water mixture with a starter culture. Sourdough is both a technique and a microbial system. is “a mixture of wheat and/or rye flour and water, possibly with added salt, fermented by spontaneous (from flour and environment) lactic acid bacteria and yeasts which determine its acidifying and leavening capability. These activities are obtained and optimized through consecutive refreshments (or re-buildings, replenishments, backslopping)”

Sourdough may be used as the sole leavening agent to create bread products that have distinctive characteristics, including:

  • A crust characterised in appearance by the presence of very small fermentation blisters
  • A crumb texture that is open, with irregular shaped holes and waxy appearance
  • A crumb texture that is relatively firm to the touch
  • A highly fermented aroma with distinctively acidic notes

Code of Practice Needed

According to the most recent (2014) information paper issued by FEDIMA (Federation of the European Union Manufacturers and Suppliers of Ingredients to the Bakery, Confectionery and Patisserie Industries), few European countries have existing regulations or Codes of Practice relating to the composition of sourdough ( ref: Fedima/14/060 ‘Information Paper on Sourdough in Europe). Fedima also states the position of its members regarding the use of the term ‘sourdough’ as follows:

“Fedima members agree on using the denomination “sourdough”, or the local name as set out in the annex 1, only for products to which no additional additives, e.g. acids, bases and their salts, have been added to artificially adapt the acidity. This is to properly inform customers and consumers”. FEDIMA members also agree to comply with any local regulations or Codes of Practice of the countries into which they may sell their products.

One of the clearest and most often cited Sourdough regulations is the French Décret Pain 93-1074 of 13th September 1993 in which the constituent parts of a sourdough starter are specified along with the necessary levels of acidity it must contain. Furthermore, adding bread yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is allowed when the dough reaches its last phase of kneading, to a maximum amount of 0.2% relative to the weight of flour used up to this point.

There are, as yet, no regulations or Codes of Practice in the UK that govern the nature, production and labelling of sourdough products in the UK market. A unique opportunity exists for the industry itself to agree on terms and definitions that are mutually beneficial to producers and consumers alike, thus militating against potentially misleading labelling information whilst preserving the integrity of the definition of ‘sourdough’ and ‘Sourdough bread’ and the methods by which they are produced.

To that end, this proposal suggests the following definitions and terms for labelling purposes:

  • Ingredient definitions for the purposes of labelling:

Sourdough: a mixture of water and flour milled from cereals or pseudo cereals; to which salt may or may not be added; which has been allowed to spontaneously ferment due to the metabolic activity of the naturally occurring bacteria and yeast contained within these raw materials and containing a live and active culture of those micro-organisms; or fermented by means of inoculation with a starter culture.

  • Starter culture:

A live colony of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts usually found in sourdough

  • Inactive/deactivated/devitalised sourdough:

Liquid or dry sourdough in which the micro biotic culture is no longer live or active so that it can no longer be used for leavening 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.  A product made with live/active sourdough, and/or inactive/deactivated/devitalised sourdough, where commercial bakers’ yeast has been used as the principle 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 (e.g. 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: 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 (e.g. acids or their salts); and which contains bakers’ yeast and other permitted additives.

The Association of Bakery Ingredient Manufacturers (ABIM) has given the green light to a new set of marketing terms and definitions regarding the food labelling of sourdough bread.

The ‘UK Bakery Industry Code of Practice (CoP) for the Labelling of Sourdough Bread and Rolls’, aims to unite the bakery sector with clear and concise definitions in a bid to prevent misinformation and misleading of consumers. This comes following a rise in sourdough products with claims that were found to be disingenuous. As a result, the CoP includes rules on how to differentiate between methods of production, giving recognition to the skill of a baker while using the term ‘sourdough’ as a product descriptor.

The voluntary, self-regulatory code is also supported and endorsed by industry partners including the Federation of Bakers, Craft Bakers Association, Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association, The British Sandwich and Food to Go Association, and the United Kingdom Association of Producers of Yeast.

“Our members and partners have been working hard for the last five years to unite the bakery sector behind shared terms for sourdough that allow each baker to express themselves freely whilst making it clear to consumers what‘s on offer,” ABIM president, James Slater said. “We believe that that we’re there now and that this code of practice will play an important role in helping to make better, more delicious bread for all.”

The Real Bread Campaign

Sourdough bread is being sold for twice the price of its bread counterparts, according to The Real Bread Campaign, which is urging the government to include legal definitions of common bakery marketing terms and full ingredient labelling of unwrapped loaves. Using the term ‘sourfax’, the Campaign argues that a range of bakery products are being named or marketed using the word sourdough, despite being manufactured with a “fundamentally different process” using baker’s yeast, chemical raising agents, additives or a combination of these.

“Some industrial loaf fabricators and other crafty bakers want a slice of the sourdough market but don’t want to invest the extra time, knowledge and skills necessary to create great, genuine sourdough bread,” explained Chris Young, Real Bread Campaign coordinator.

Being able to sell products marketed as sourdough means customers are charged a premium, they explained, and larger manufacturers are able to undercut small, independent local bakeries. As part of the Campaign’s Real Bread for All initiative, small, independent bakeries are being encouraged to trial affordability schemes to help bridge the gap between their increasing costs of making sourdough and the cost of living crisis.

It is also encouraging people to take what they call, Honest Crust e-action. This involves people to ask their local MPs to urge the government to include legal definitions and full ingredient labelling. They also advise people looking for sourdough bread to read the food label and look for The Sourdough Loaf Mark.

The recent revival in the market for sourdough bakery products shows little signs of abating and new product developments using sourdough technology and ingredients are also on the increase. This has given rise to the development of a wide range of raw materials and ingredients designed to help bakers of all types and sizes as they strive to meet the demands of their customers.

These circumstances have thrown up a particular challenge in the context of the labelling of such products so that the consumer is not misled by a product descriptor or ingredients declaration. Although sourdough has been a major contributor to bread quality for many centuries, 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.

In the interests of the consumer, and to protect the integrity of the term ‘Sourdough’ as a product descriptor, ABIM feels that it would be helpful to develop a Code of Practice for sourdough labelling that will clarify the term and prevent misinformation when it is applied to products in the UK bakery market.