Why is bread Britain's most wasted food?

Crusty white bread Would you throw away bread like this?

British households throw away 4.4m tonnes of edible food a year, estimates suggest - and bread is the most wasted provision of all. But why?

It's a staple part of many diets - forming the basis of breakfast as toast, popping up as a main lunch ingredient, and then appearing at dinner or supper as an accompaniment to soup or stew.

But despite its ease and enduring appeal, 32% of bread purchased by UK households is dumped when it could be eaten, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) figures show.

Use your loaf

Treacle tart

According to research by anti-food waste organisation Wrap, 680,000 tonnes of "avoidable" bakery waste is disposed of each year at a cost of £1.1bn, about 80% of it from packs that have been opened but not finished.

"Freegan" Mark Boyle sees plenty of bread in rubbish bins when looking for free food, and thinks people have lost touch with the bread-making process.

"If you make something yourself, you've spent half an hour kneading the bread and then baking it, you don't waste that bread because you know how much energy you've put into it," he says.

"But if you can pick up a loaf of bread for about 20p at the end of a day from a supermarket... then you don't have the same respect for what you're consuming."

So-called "rag-pickers" in Paris in the 1880s never wasted any bread scraps - they ate any clean bread they were given or sold it on to tradespeople, and used dirty bread to feed animals or as breadcrumbs that were sold back to restaurants.

But these days people do not go to such lengths to use up every crumb. Chris Young from the Real Bread Campaign believes the price of white sandwich loaf, known as Chorleywood bread, (which accounts for 80% of the UK's bread) is what has eroded respect for bread.

Household purchased food waste:

Bread

32%

Vegetables

24%

Potatoes

24%

Fruit

20%

Cereal products

17%

Desserts

14%

Meat and fish

13%

Dairy and eggs

8.5%

Soft drinks

7.1%

Alcoholic drinks

6.3%

Source: Defra

"People just don't value factory loaf, they just don't care about it anymore.

"None of the bread that is thrown away is "real" bread, homemade or artisan bread.

"If bread has better flavours and costs more, it is less likely to be thrown away."

But Mark Newman, an artisan baker who runs Mark's Bread in south Bristol, says people "are often restricted by what they have in their pockets".

He adds: "In this country, the craft bakery has died away with the growth of machine methods and the Chorleywood method.

"Since the '60s, people have become used to buying supermarket bread with additives, but I think people are becoming more aware of buying bread made in an artisan way without additives."

His loaves take up to 18 hours from start to finish, but he says it is this time and care that give them stronger textures and flavours.

20th Century history of bread

Bread making competition 1965
  • 1928: First bread slicing machine, invented by Otto Rohwedder, exhibited in US
  • 1930: Large UK bakeries take commercial slicers and sliced bread first appears in shops
  • 1933: About 80% of US bread is pre-sliced and wrapped, and the phrase "the best thing since sliced bread" is coined
  • 1941: Calcium added to UK flour to prevent rickets
  • 1942: The national loaf - much like today's brown loaf - introduced to combat shortage of white flour
  • 1954: Conditions in bakeries regulated by the Night Baking Act
  • 1956: National loaf abolished
  • 1961: The Chorleywood Bread Process introduced

Source: The Federation of Bakers

"I can't compete with the cheapest white-sliced loaf, but in terms of nutrition and eating satisfaction, a handmade loaf of real bread and mass-produced bread are completely different products."

Wrap says the majority of bakery products (more than 80%) are thrown away because they have not been used in time; either before going past their best-before date or being judged as having "gone off".

It found most consumers believed that bread only lasted three to four days, yet in trials people could not tell the difference between two- and six-day-old bread.

Hovis bread carried out a project in 2008 in conjunction with Wrap to see why people wasted pre-packed bread and bakery goods.

Ian Bowles, group head of Sustainability at Premier Foods, which owns Hovis, says the figures suggest people buy more than they need.

"It's a reasonably low-priced commodity and rather than run out, they prefer to have too much than too little.

"It's like milk on a morning, you don't really want to run out of milk and so you always make sure you've got plenty in. It's just the staples that people don't want to run out of."

It is not just households that can't get through their bread, says Mark Boyle.

What is in a slice of bread?

sliced bread
White Brown Whole-meal

Energy

87.6kcal

82.8kcal

86.8kcal

Protein

3.2g

3.2g

3.8g

Carbohydrate

18.4g

16.8g

16.8g

Sugars

1.4g

1.4g

1.1g

Fat

0.6g

0.8g

1.0g

Saturated fat

0.1g

0.2g

0.2g

Figures for 40g slice

Source: The Federation of Bakers

"Every time you go [through rubbish] there's different things in the bin, but bread definitely is the number one," he says.

"You could probably feed a huge amount of people from one bin at a supermarket for an evening or two evenings if the bread kept."

As well as buying too much, Wrap says keeping bread in the fridge is one of the reasons so much is thrown away.

Mark Newman says: "The worst thing you can do is put it in the fridge - at 5C it goes stale very quickly. But you can refresh bread by splashing it with a bit of cold water and reheating it, it will bring the crust back to life."

He recommends trying sourdough, which keeps for up to a week, or using a bread bin or cloth bag to keep bread.

Another way to reduce wastage is to freeze bread - so why are people not doing that?

Ian Bowles says: "People do have this perception that when you freeze bread you're not going to get the same quality of freshness.

"If you've got a lot of bread left over, then you can just freeze it."

Additional reporting by Matt Bardo and Michelle Warwicker

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