It’s slang for money and appears in sayings from “use your loaf” to “the best thing since sliced bread” So what lies ahead for the humble loaf and the baking industry at large?

In the UK, we eat the equivalent of more than nine million loaves of bread a day, making the bread industry the second largest in the food sector with sales of £3.4bn a year. But the baking industry isn’t without its challenges. Manufacturers and retail outlets now have to offer a wide variety of products, from crumpets and cakes to pitta and pies, not to mention the growing popularity of ethnic breads and pastries.

“There has been an increase in the range of bread offered in terms of variety of bread and size of loaf,” says Gordon Polson, the Director of the Federation of Bakers. “Bread bakers are widening their range of baked goods, often in response to the health agenda of consumers.”

Providing a range of complex carbohydrates, calcium, iron, B vitamins and protein, bread is the major source of fibre in our diet and is very low in fat and sugar. However, the message doesn’t always reach the consumer. It’s the responsibility of the industry to remind consumers of the benefits of eating a healthy, balanced diet, of which one third should be foods such as bread, says Gordon Polson. At the same time, we need to offer consumers the range and quality of products they require.

There is another pressing issue following this year’s wet summer. The immediate challenge is the UK harvest and the impact of rising wheat prices across the world. If bakers’ costs increase, then that increase will have to be recovered.

Two of the major changes to the industry came when commercial bread slicers were introduced at large bakers in the 1930s; then in the 1960s, the Chorleywood Bread Process reduced the fermentation period and thus the time needed to produce a loaf of bread.

Around 80% of bread sold in the UK is produced by the plant baking companies. The largest by market share is Warburtons, followed by Allied Bakeries (Kingsmill) and Premier Foods (Hovis). Meanwhile, supermarket in-store bakery sales currently account for 17% of the market. Morrisons revamped its in-store bakeries in May of this year and Asda’s Project Phoenix, which creates local bakeries in-store with three trained bakers on site, helped the company win the In-Store Bakery Retailer of the Year at the 2012 Baking Industry Awards.

In March 2010, Sainsbury’s opened a dedicated Bakery College in Northamptonshire; so far around 800 staff have taken baking courses or bakery management courses there. “The Sainsbury’s Bakery College in Wellingborough opened in 2010 to improve the quality of our bakeries in-store while providing our colleagues with the skills they need to carve out a long and rewarding career in retail,” a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said. All of the bread baked in-store is produced from scratch, using 100% British flour from Sainsbury’s farming co-operative in East Anglia.

Last but not least are the craft bakeries seen on our high streets, which continue to serve their niche market. As Gordon Poulson says, “There will always be a role for craft bakers if they evolve and respond to consumers’ changing needs, as all bakers must.”

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