Some ingredients in that shop-bought bread may make you think 'oh crumbs'

Four basics — flour, water, salt and yeast — are needed to bake bread. Why then do commercial loaves contain so many more ingredients?

16 August 2020 - 00:02 By and hilary biller
2.37bn loaves were produced in SA in the “wheat year” October 2018 - September 2019.
2.37bn loaves were produced in SA in the “wheat year” October 2018 - September 2019.
Image: Christoph Hoffman

Bread is SA's second-most important staple after maize.

Large-scale production of bread takes place in a plant or industrial bakery, in-store and in stand-alone bakeries. According to the South African Chamber of Bakers, bread is easily accessible, with availability in 97% of all food stores and cafes in the country.

Sales of brown and white bread are almost on par, with brown tipping the scales. The industry standard 700g loaf makes up almost three-quarters of the bread basket in SA.

Industrial bakers use a process of baking that was developed in the 1960s in Britain known as the Chorleywood Bread Process, named after the town in the UK where it was developed by British scientists.

Their idea was to revolutionise the industry by providing large-scale bakers with a mechanisation that could produce a loaf of bread that is soft in texture, cheap to make and long lasting.

The process involves rapid mixing machines and pressure vessels to produce a standard crumb, and provers and industrial ovens that make a loaf of bread from scratch in two hours.

Both white and brown breads are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals and other ingredients are added to make the dough easier to handle — and extend the shelf life.


Apart from the four basic ingredients — flour, water, salt and yeast — commercially made bread contains the following as listed in the ingredients on the pack, which may vary slightly from baker to baker:

Vegetable fat (palm fat): Compound fats, a mixture of oil and solid fat at a given temperature. are used to improve the gas retention (the rise) in dough, which increases the volume and softness of a loaf.

Soybean flour added to make a whiter bread crumb.


• 2.37bn loaves were produced in the “wheat year” October 2018 - September 2019.

• 49.2% or 1.167-billion loaves of white bread.

• 49.3% or 1.170-billion loaves of brown bread.

• 1.5% of loaves were other breads, including wholewheat bread.

• 76.4% produced by large bakers Albany, Blue Ribbon, Sunbake, and Sasko.

• 23.6% produced by independent and
smaller bakers.

Preservatives: Calcium propionate is an anti-mould agent and shelf extender preservative that is used in the industry and recent regulations include the use of sorbic acid (see below) as a preservative.

Emulsifiers are additives that help liquids mix and improve the quality of bread by improving volume and softness in bread. 

Flour improver is the term used to cover any ingredient added to "improve" the bread-making potential of a given flour. The functional ingredients used in improvers may include oxidising agents to improve gas retention, the rise, in the dough.

Vitamins and minerals as per fortification legislation specific vitamins like vitamin A and B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and pyridoxine , folic acid, iron and zinc are added to the flour (and bread) for added nutritional value.


Recent government regulations allow the use of sorbic acid as a preservative in bread. Geoff Penny of the South African Chamber of Baking tells us more about the preservative:

  • Sorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, is an organic compound, an antimicrobial that prevents mould in bread, and which extends the shelf life of bread from five days by an extra three to four days. Sorbus aucuparia comes from the unripe berries of the rowan tree, a member of the rose family. It was commercialised in the mid 20th century and today is widely used in preserving meat and other foodstuffs.
  • Is it safe to be used in foodstuffs? It is commonly used as a preservative globally.
  • In these Covid-19 times the new legislation comes at a good time as an extended shelf life for bread is beneficial for reducing trips to the shop, particularly those who don't have the convenience of a store close by.
  • Commercial bakers have pushed the department of health for government approval of sorbic acid as a more effective preservative than the calcium propionate presently used. SA has been slow on the uptake of sorbic acid, which has been used in many countries for close to 10 years.
  • Sorbic acid is more expensive than calcium propionate but is unlikely to change the price of retail bread. For the bakers using sorbic acid, slightly less yeast is required to make bread.