Bread

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 25 brands of bread. 

We also look at the Real Bread Campaign, packaging, shine a light on the ethics of Biona and our recommended best buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying bread:

  • Is it organic? Bread contains ingredients that are often grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides. Look for organic to avoid the environmental damage these cause.

  • Is it local? Support local bread makers and help put money back in the local economy. 

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying bread:

  • Does it contain too much salt? Check to see if it contains less than 0.9g per 100g, Public Health England's target

  • Does it contain palm oil? At its most unsustainable, palm oil is linked to massive deforestation and serious violations of human rights. Ice cream often contains palm oil, so look for brands that commit to sourcing palm oil sustainably or state that they're palm oil free.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

A loaf of bread only needs to contain four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. Yet the majority of UK households (97%) purchase ‘wrapped and sliced’ bread that has been produced using the Chorleywood Process (CHP) and contains additional ingredients such as hard fats, extra yeast, ‘processing aids’, E numbers and a number of other chemicals.

Recently the ingredients added to bread have been making headlines. An investigation by the Real Bread Campaign in April 2018 found wholemeal loaves to contain up to 26 ingredients and additives, including refined flour. The regulations state that the name ‘wholemeal’ can only be used on bread if all the flour used as an ingredient in preparation is wholemeal.

The campaign group has also been challenging bread and sandwich chains’ claims that the bread that they use is “natural”. In April 2018, the Advertising Standards Agency agreed with the Real Bread Campaign that the coffee chain Pret a Manger’s use of the term “natural” when describing its sandwiches was misleading.

‘Wrapped and sliced'

The ‘wrapped and sliced’ bread market is highly concentrated with three main manufacturers – Allied Bakeries, Hovis and Warburtons – accounting for nearly three-quarters of sales in the UK.

However, according to The Grocer, many brands in this market are experiencing declining sales. Trends such as low-carb diets, concerns about gluten and an increase in alternatives to the lunchtime sarnie – from protein pots and salad bowls to sushi and macaroni cheese – have all put pressure on bread brands to revise their offerings to include seeded and low-gluten varieties.

This guide just focuses on the largest brands producing wrapped sliced bread, plus widely available gluten-free bread brands. All nine supermarkets are also included as they sell own-branded sliced and wrapped bread.

The only supermarket to produce an organic version is Sainsbury’s. However organic loaves were available at some of the supermarkets including Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.

Some of the supermarkets also sell their own range of gluten free breads including Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

In-store bakeries

According to the Federation of Bakers there are three principle sectors in the baking sector in the UK:

  • Large plant bakeries
  • In-store bakeries
  • Craft bakers

In-store bakeries (ISBs) within supermarkets produce about 12% of baked goods, while larger (plant) baking companies make up the majority – 85% – of the bread produced. The remainder is made up of high-street retail (craft) bakers.

All the supermarkets in this guide offer freshly baked bread from their in-store bakeries. However, these bakeries have attracted criticisms over the years for being merely ‘tanning salons’ where loaves made and part-cooked elsewhere are simply browned.

The Real Bread Campaign found that ‘freshly baked’ bread from supermarkets can be laden with artificial ingredients because loopholes in labelling rules mean they need not list all additives and processing aids.

In 2014, Defra updated its Food Information Regulations. However, it failed to tighten definitions which allow frozen in-store ‘bakery’ bread to be marketed with the claims that it is ‘fresh’ or ‘freshly baked’.

Image: bread

Real Bread Campaign

The Real Bread Campaign is part of the UK charity ‘Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming’ and fights for better bread in Britain. A basic definition of Real Bread is that it is made without the use of any artificial additives or processing aids.

Part of its work includes supporting small, local and independent Real Bread bakers around the UK. These brands are not included in this report because there are over 900 listed on the Real Bread Finder. To avoid unnecessary additives in your bread, find your nearest baker.

The Honest Crust Act

Following a successful ruling in France, where bread marketed or sold as traditional French bread must be made without artificial additives and from a mixture of only wheat bread flour, drinkable water, cooking salt and bakers’ yeast, the Real Bread Campaign is calling on the UK government to pass the ‘Honest Crust Act’, which would require:

  • All bakers and retailers to provide a full list of ingredients and declare all additives in flour.
  • Legally define the terms ‘fresh’, ‘freshly baked’, ‘sourdough’, ‘artisan’, ‘wholegrain’ and ‘craft’.
  • Tightening of the Bread and Flour Regulations (1998) to ensure dried gluten and soya flour do not make their way into loaves sold as wholemeal.
  • A ban on below-cost selling of loaves by multiple retailers, a practice Real Bread believe leads to an artificial misperception of the baseline price.

During the first stage of the campaign – which finished in April 2018 – over 1,500 people wrote to Michael Gove at Defra in support of the call. The Real Bread Campaign will be announcing the next step later in 2018.

Environmental impact of wheat

Wheat is a crop grown on two-fifths of Britain’s arable land and we produce 11-18 million tonnes per year. According to the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers (NABIM), the British milling industry is the largest single user of domestic wheat. A number of flours and breads are produced entirely from UK grown wheat.

In 2017, a study by a group of researchers at Sheffield University showed that more than half of the environmental impact of producing a loaf of bread arises directly from wheat cultivation, with the use of nitrogen fertiliser alone accounting for around 40%.

In its review of the study, the New Scientist argued that this fact meant that bread eaten in the UK is responsible for 0.5% of all the UK’s greenhouse emissions. This does not mean that bread is an especially environmentally damaging food – we do eat quite a lot of it. However, as the article says: “the finding highlights the urgent need to tackle global emissions from farming, which produces a third of all greenhouse gases”.

Yet none of the bread brands in this report mentioned or talked about the environmental impacts of wheat production in their environmental reports.

Image: wheat

Packaging

According to WRAP, the grocery sector accounts for about 70% of the packaging market which equates to around 10 million tonnes (mt) of packaging used in the UK. Therefore, it is disappointing that very few of the brands in this report mention the issue of packaging, especially in light of the recent public outcry regarding its use.

Kingsmill states that its bags are recyclable, although not all councils will accept them. They can be recycled through recycling banks.
In 2012, it was reported that the plastic bags that Warburtons used were made from recycled materials, while paper bags used were traditional biodegradable wax wraps. However more recent information or policy on the type of packaging Warburtons used could not be found.

Labour exploitation in the bakery sector

In May 2018, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) released a report which examined the vulnerabilities of migrant workers to labour exploitation across three UK labour sectors – construction, bakeries and fishing. Its interviews with workers found many of those working in these industries to be experiencing poor workers’ rights, poor pay, poor welfare provisions and a lack of oversight. They also had poor rates of union membership.

In particular, it noted that in the UK bakery sector there is a high number of temporary agency staff, which, it argues, is partly responsible for the low rates of union membership. It said: “on one of the sites it visited, agency staff working at a large bakery were unaware that a bakeries union existed, despite significant union activity at the site”.

Other issues related to having a high number of temporary workers included short-notice shift cancellations, irregular shifts, and low hours for those employed through labour providers. Agency staff in the bakeries sector were also found to be earning less than non-agency colleagues doing the same job.

There was also evidence that agency staff were bullied and harassed. Staff from three different bakery sites reported being forced to wear distinguishing clothing to separate them from full-time staff. The report said, “Some expressed concerns that these clear distinctions created animosity between the two groups, and in some cases led to bullying and harassment against agency staff.” 

One of FLEX’s key recommendations is a limit on the number of layers in labour supply chains for high-risk sectors. This would be in line with the approach adopted in Spain and Norway, where a limit on the number of layers in labour supply chains has been introduced in sectors such as construction and cleaning.

Supply chain management policies

Given the degree to which labour exploitation is found within the UK’s food processing sector, it is disappointing to see consistently poor policies from the bread companies addressing workers’ rights within supply chains.

Except supermarkets, all the companies received a worst Ethical Consumer rating for supply chain management. However, there were some differences between the largest brands’ policies, especially with regards to the use of agency workers.

Allied Bakeries explicitly acknowledges in its Modern Slavery statement that the use of temporary labour within its supply chain was a key risk area. It said, “we are working with our providers so that they understand our expectations of them in taking the required proactive steps to tackle hidden labour exploitation.”

Premier Foods (Hovis and Mother’s Pride) has policies addressing workers’ rights, the use of zero-hour contracts (although not a ban on their use) and recruiters’ compliance principles. In its Modern Slavery statement, it says that it has only recently extended its Ethical Trading policy to include all third-party providers providing staff to Premier Foods (e.g. labour agencies, logistics partners).

Warburtons’ Modern Slavery Statement, on the other hand, does not mention the use of agency staff, writing that it believes “the risk of modern slavery in our operation and in our first-tier supplier base is low”. 

Roberts states that it audits its providers of temporary/agency staff and outsourced services to check for compliance with its policies and other legal requirements, including payment of the national minimum wage.

The William Jackson Food Group’s publicly available policies did not cover workers’ rights within its supply chain.

Modern Slavery statements

Whilst carrying out this research we noticed that two companies: Genius and Windmill Organics, who both have a turnover of more than £36 million and are thus required to produce a Modern Slavery Statement each year and display it on their website, and had failed to do so. Windmill Organics told Ethical Consumer “We are completely opposed to any form of slavery or exploitation and will be adding a statement to our website.”

Table: palm oil policies

Palm oil scores

Palm oil is not the most obvious ingredient to be added into bread, yet most of the brands in this report list it as an ingredient.

Warburtons received a best Ethical Consumer rating for its palm oil policy. The company stated “We only use a relatively small amount of palm oil, (around 1,200 tonnes each year) however we will continue to work with our suppliers and are on track to meet a target of 100% segregated sustainable palm oil by the end of 2020.” According to its latest RSPO ACOP 2016 the company was sourcing 78% of its palm oil through segregated sources. 

Premier Foods (Hovis, Mother’s Pride) also sourced 100% of its palm oil through RSPO mechanisms however according to its latest ACOP only around 36% of this was through segregated sources.

Allied Bakeries (owner of Allinson, Burgen, Kingsmill and Sunblest) did not appear to be sourcing all its palm oil through RSPO certification.  Its website stated “Our aim is to work with our suppliers to convert our remaining mass balanced volume to achieve 100% segregated sustainable palm by 2020.” Currently 62% of its palm was through segregated sources.

Table: salt intake in bread

Bread and Salt

Bread is one of the biggest sources of salt in diets. In early 2018, the World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) released a global study into the variation of salt levels in bread around the world. It looked at over 2,000 white, wholemeal, mixed grain and flat breads from 32 countries and regions and found shocking levels of salt present. More than a third of breads worldwide were found to have more salt than Public Health England’s target for bread (0.9 g per 100 g).  It called on governments worldwide to take urgent action and reinvigorate salt reduction programmes.

An Ethical Consumer survey found that around half of the brands in this report are failing to achieve the target set by Public Health England. These are highlighted in red in the table below.The results were based on nutritional information for wholemeal medium sliced loaves or the nearest comparison.

What is wrong with salt?

Salt puts up our blood pressure, and raised blood pressure (hypertension), is a major factor in strokes, heart failure and heart attacks – major causes of death and disability worldwide. There is also increasing evidence of a link between our current high salt intake and stomach cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, kidney stones and kidney disease.

Current UK government advice states that adults should eat no more than 6 g of salt a day (2.4 g sodium) – that’s around 1 teaspoon.

What can you do to reduce salt?

Check the labels – choose brands with 0.9 g salt or less per 100 g. All the brands in this report listed salt on their nutritional labels and most broke it down per slice.

Make your own – there are plenty of recipes for Tuscan bread – an Italian bread made without salt – available on the internet. 

Salt-free wholemeal bread recipe

Makes 1 loaf or 12 slices

Ingredients:

  •       300 g wholemeal flour
  •       150 g strong white flour
  •       1 sachet (7 g) fast action bread yeast
  •       2 tablespoons olive oil/rapeseed oil
  •       ½ pint warm water

Method

  1. Place the flours in a large bowl together with the yeast, olive oil and warm water. Mix to a dough adding a little bit more water or flour if necessary. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Leave in a warm place until it has doubled in size (about 30 minutes).
  2. Turn out the dough and knead again for a few minutes. Lightly oil a 450 g loaf tin or baking tray and shape the dough to fit the tin or make an oblong shape and place on the tray. Leave it for about 10 minutes.
  3. Heat the oven to 220°C (Gas mark 7) and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire tray.
  4. If the bread is not eaten on the same day it is a good idea to slice it when absolutely fresh and freeze it.

Recipe taken from Blood Pressure UK.
 

Company behind the brand

Biona is owned by Windmill Organics, a company that champions organic food brands. Its turnover increased from £37m in 2015 to £45m in 2016. Biona produces a range of gluten free bread as well as rye bread and can be found across the UK in wholefood shops, Ocado, Tesco and Waitrose. 

Want more information?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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