Redefining Bread

The past few years of upheaval in how people grow, cook, think about, and eat food has left no corner of the supermarket untouched. Even bread, that most ancient, simple, beloved staple of diets around the world, has been the subject of both crisis and passionate revitalization. But behind every machine-sliced sandwich bread or carefully crafted artisan loaf is a simple question of language.

Whole-wheat naturally leavened bread by Jonathan Bethony in The Bread Lab

What do we actually mean when we say “bread”? The FDA has established a set of regulations, designed to protect consumers, that regulate how foods are labeled and identified. In many cases these rules are frightening reads as they clearly placate the food industry. At their best, these regulations restrict the labeling of so-called imitation foods, preventing producers from fooling consumers into buying and consuming products under false pretenses.

For example, according to the FDA, juice becomes a “drink,” “beverage,” or “cocktail” once it has been diluted to less than 100-percent juice derived from fruit or vegetables–great news for juice and the people who drink it. Juice with added ingredientsmust be labeled as “x-percent juice with added sweetener” or “x-percent juice with added preservatives.” This allows consumers to differentiate real juice from the sugary drinks marketed as the same thing and select it as the healthier option. The same goes for cheese. Fake cheeses, made by melting and mixing already made cheeses and forcing their homogenization with emulsifying agents to form a “plastic mass,” are identified properly as “process” cheese.

Bread, however, is at the mercy of more complex rules. FDA regulations state that for bread to be labeled as “bread,” it must be made of flour, yeast, and a moistening ingredient, usually water. When bleached flour is used, chemicals like acetone peroxide, chlorine, and benzoyl peroxide (yes, the one used to treat acne) can be included in the recipe and are masked under the term “bleached.” Optional ingredients are also permissible in products called bread: shortening, sweeteners, ground dehulled soybeans, coloring, potassium bromate, the now infamous azodicarbonamide (publically denounced because of its use in both yoga mats and sandwich breads), and other dough strengtheners (such as bleaching agents and vital gluten). All of these unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients are allowed in a recipe for a food product that can still be labeled as “bread.” An additional condition allows the use of other optional ingredients not specifically identified, as long as they do not “change the basic identity or adversely affect the physical and nutritional characteristics.”

What then are the “basic identity” and “nutritional characteristics” of bread? Without a clear definition, just about any additive–questionable or not–can be used as an ingredient.

Bread in its simplest form can be made with ground grain and water. Leavened bread requires a rising agent, originally provided by naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. A small amount of salt enhances flavor and contributes to the functionality of the dough. Variations on these basic formulas–such as pita, challah, bagels, roti, and naan–differ by culture and geography. In the U.S., leavened breads are the most popular type, with the basic formulation of flour, water, leavening, and salt. As has been the case for millennia, these four ingredients alone are all that are needed to transform flour into an edible, appealing, and accessible food.

But ingredients, whether included or excluded from a recipe, are not the only defining characteristic of a food. The methods and techniques used to transform raw materials into a finished product are also essential to any food’s identity. The first cold pressing for extra virgin olive oil is one example; aging cheeses like the famed Parmigiano-Reggiano, is another.

The process of long fermentations that include both yeast and bacteria activate raw dough into one that is alive with enzymatic activity. The basic identity of leavened bread depends upon these enzymes for its performance as a risen loaf, as well as its flavor, texture, and importantly, for its nutritive characteristics. Yet these types of long yeast and bacterial fermentations are mainly a thing of the past. Industrialization and fast-paced baking have all but eliminated the process of full fermentation in order to decrease the time and space necessary for the production of today’s bread. Instead, dough now undergoes only partial fermentation through the use of a truncated, yeast-only process fueled by added sweeteners and commercial yeast. This dough is then whipped up into a conglomerate, baked, packaged, and labeled as bread.

To re-define bread using the most simple and traditional formulation–the product of the bacterial and yeast fermentation of flour, water, and salt–would render virtually all of what qualifies as bread on supermarket shelves today as something else entirely, according to our own FDA requirements. Pre-sliced sandwich bread, including “healthy” and whole-grain versions, are obvious deviations from this basic formula, but they are not alone. Even bread produced in artisan bakeries and the in-store bakeries that are ubiquitous in high-end supermarkets (which more often than not are merely finished off par-baked products produced elsewhere) rarely fit the simple definition of bread above.

Jonathan Bethony scoring a naturally leavened loaf

But in the long run this would be a step in the right direction. Consider the nutritional losses that come from deviating from this basic bread recipe. Ingredients like dough conditioners, strengtheners, bleaching agents, fats, extra salt, and sweeteners only serve the modern industrial need for speed and automation. The change in the process itself also compromises nutritional content. Stunted, yeast-only fermentation produces bread with a higher glycemic index, increased loads of undigested gluten, and lower bioavailability of micronutrients compared to a loaf that has been long fermented with the action of acidifying and proteolytic bacteria. Whole-grain breads in particular need these fermentations to make their health-promoting, nutritious components available to the human digestive system. Giving up this full fermentation in turn requires sweeteners, fats, and additives to match performance and create flavor.

Given this state of affairs, aren’t we in fact “adversely affecting the nutritional characteristics” of bread, as well as changing its “basic identity”? No wonder so many people now consider a food that has always been a staple, relied upon by countless people for daily nourishment, as unhealthy.

It’s time we seriously reconsider bread and what we allow to be called by that name. By categorizing all bread under one name we are potentially demonizing what in its basic form can be a delicious, inexpensive, and nutritious source of whole grains. Why not follow the FDA’s cheese model that describes the orange “process cheese” slices that get thrown on millions of hamburgers every year as “American cheese”? Let’s call “bread” that deviates from the basic identity of bread and its nutritional characteristics “American bread,” or more technically “process bread,” “bread with added preservatives and sweeteners,” or even “diluted bread.” Like juice, consumers can then distinguish between bread and its inferior derivatives.

There will always be debate about whether high- or low-carbohydrate diets, diets high in animal protein or plant-based, or those high in whole grains or “grain-free” are best for optimal health. The food industry in particular depends on these debates to develop and sell new products. But we can generate critical mass around what we all know isn’t good for us: “breads” loaded with added sweeteners, fats, too much salt, and unnecessary additives, especially those made with highly refined white flour. Whole-grain breads do not need extra gluten, salt, fats, sweeteners, or unfamiliar, unpronounceable ingredients to taste good: they need unrefined flour, true fermentation, and skilled bakers. Their health benefits depend upon it. In the interest of nutrition, health, and taste, the time is right to clean up bread.

Bethany Econopouly is a PhD student with Dr. Stephen Jones at The Bread Lab, Washington State University–Mount Vernon. She studies wheat breeding, nutrition, and food culture to bring together the challenges faced by farmers, food producers, and consumers. Prior to The Bread Lab she worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where she became interested in the complexities of adoption and the interdependencies between agricultural systems and society. Her funding comes from Clif Bar Family Foundation and the David Rockefeller Fund.

The Bread Lab

The Bread Lab is an integral part of the WSU Mount Vernon plant breeding program, which studies the diversity of locally grown grains to determine those most suitable for craft baking, malting, brewing and pasta-making. Professional bakers and chefs will analyze and test their whole grain products under the technical guidance of bread lab resident baker Jonathan Bethony and center director/wheat breeder Steve Jones.

The 500-square-foot lab houses steam-injected ovens and commercial-quality equipment to test such dough qualities as rise, strength, mixing tolerance and protein content. Bethony will assist the visiting bakers and chefs in finding the optimal hydration, temperature and times that bring out the desired characters of their featured grains, such as wheat, rye or barley.

Mission: The Bread Lab is a think tank and testing and demonstration laboratory for craft baking, malting, brewing and distilling. Bakers can use the laboratory to test flours and techniques using local, regional, and nationally available commercial and experimental flours and wheats and other grains. The goal is to combine science, art, curiosity, and innovation to explore ways of using local and unique grains in order to move grain crafts forward.

Advisory Panel

Director: Stephen Jones, Wheat breeder. Dr. Jones has been laboratory testing for end-use quality of wheat since 1985 and developed the most widely grown club wheat in the U.S.

Jeffrey Hamelman, Certified Master Baker and bakery director for King Arthur Flour in Vermont. He is the author of Bread: A Bakers Book of Techniques and Recipes, which is used as a definitive resource by professional and serious home bakers.

Dan Barber, Founder and executive chef of the Blue Hill restaurants in New York State. A James Beard Award Outstanding Chef, he also writes about food and agriculture policy and features the principles of good farming at the table.

Leslie Mackie, founder, owner and chef, Macrina Bakery and Café, Seattle, Washington. Leslie has appeared with Julia Child on “Baking with Julia”, is a James Beard Pastry Chef Award nominee and a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier.

Scott Mangold, founder, owner and head baker of The Bread Farm, a small craft bakery in Edison, Washington. Scott is a leader in movements to bring local grains into our baking systems.

George de Pasquale, founder, owner and head baker of The Essential Baking Company, a major organic craft bakery in Seattle, Washington. George has been baking commercially for 35 years and is a leading force in the sustainability of baking, from field to table.

Tom Hunton, farmer and founder of Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon. Tom is a leader in a drive to return grains to the Southern Willamette Valley.  His mill brings local commercial milling back to a region that has been without milling since the 1920s.

Thom Leonard, co-founder of WheatFields Bakery in Lawrence, Kansas and author of The Bread Book. Published in 1990 it captures the current movement that connects field to table as if it were written yesterday.

The Bread Lab is housed at Washington State University, Mount Vernon in a recently renovated $8M lab wing. An hour north of Seattle, it is the first public laboratory designed solely for the testing and development of products and techniques for the craft baker.

Bakers and chefs come to the lab to interact with scientists and to make contact with farmers, millers, maltsters and brewers.  The environment allows participants to learn, teach, and experiment in a functioning kitchen lab without having to shut down their own lines. The facility is equipped with a state of the art WP Kemper SP spiral mixer and Matador four-deck oven as well as a stone mill, a Country Living mill and Quadrumat experimental roller flour mill. The lab also houses sophisticated rheological testing equipment such as a Farinograph, Alveograph, Consistograph, falling number machine and micro-sedimentation.

Workshops, from one-day events to weeklong workshops, are scheduled each year. The Bread Lab also is a centerpiece for the annual Grain Gathering, which brings together 250 professional and serious home bakers, chefs, food lovers, brewers, farmers, millers, distillers and entrepeneurs each summer.

Our Sponsors

The Grain Gathering is proudly supported by King Arthur Flour, Port of Skagit  and the generosity of many individuals, businesses, and organizations.  Our goal is to partner with others in reviving the pleasures and benefits of freshly milled  grains grown sustainably, as nearby as possible.

We love our sponsors!  For information about becoming a sponsor, check here.

Presenting Sponsors
King Arthur Flour:, America’s oldest flour company, seeking to build communities worldwide through the creative joy of baking.

Port of Skagit:
Working hard to build and maintain a strong economy.


Skagit County:

W.P Kemper Bakery Systems:
A leader in the baking industry providing high quality, custom, and specialized Artisan machines and bakery consulting, layout, and design.


Thor Oechsner, Oechsner Farms, Farmer Ground Flour, Wide Awake Bakery

New Seasons Market:

Camas Country Mill,

John Boos,

GloryBee Foods,

Lesaffre North America:

Theo Chocolate:

Scholarship Sponsors & Recipients
Scholarship recipients are selected for the quality, integrity, and dedication they bring to everything they do.  These are inspired people supported by inspiring and generous individuals.  Congratulations to all!

Grand Central Baking staff, Piper Davis, Grand Central Baking Company

Tabor Bread baker, sponsored by Camas Country Mill

Artisan Baking Resources, Inc.:

Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill:

Bread Bakers Guild of America:


Grand Central Bakery:

Skagit Valley Food Co-op,

Meadows Mills, Inc.:

Macrina Bakery,

The Essential Baking Company,

Glenn Roberts, Anson Mills,

Country Living Grain Mills:


Corto Olive Oil,

Twin Brook Creamery,

Friends: All other donations and in-kind donations
Gothberg Farms Cheese,

Martin Philip,

Patrick Hayes, Barley Project, Oregon State University

Dr. Lee Glass

Jeffrey Hamelman,

Golden Glen Creamery,

Finnriver Farm & Cidery,

Organic Valley,

Hedlin Family Farm,

Nash Organic Produce,

George De Pasquale,

Tom Hunton,

Sonoko Sakai,

Piper Davis,

Sheila Klein