Tivoli Road Bakery
A loaf from Tivoli Road Bakery. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Nola James

Every day, Australians devour the equivalent of 32 million slices of bread. That may sound like a lot but it is much less than 20 years ago, when 80 per cent of us ate bread every day, according to the most recent National Nutrition Survey. Today, only about 65 per cent of us eat bread daily, the survey shows.

This drop is partially fuelled by the gluten-free diet trend and the increased popularity of meals based around other types of carbohydrates such as rice and pasta.

Tivoli Road Bakery.
Bread is about flour, salt, water and timing, Michael James says. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

For decades, Australians have been fed a fear campaign around gluten and carbohydrates that has affected bread consumption, says the managing director of the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, Georgie Aley.

However, bread remains the most popular staple in the Australian diet, she says.

Interestingly, while the current national health fad is driving people to be more interested in wholegrain bread, we eat more white bread than any other type.

The humble white loaf has always been our favourite bread, and it remains so, Aley says.

A snapshot of the situation at the supermarket shelves shows that the biggest-selling bread at Woolworth's is Homebrand, at the bargain-basement price of $1, split fairly evenly between white and wholemeal.

The bread we eat today is a long way from the first attempts of our ancient ancestors, believed to have been about 30,000 years ago.

Modern commercial bread - wondrously white and injected with iron and wrapped in gaudy plastic - is the byproduct of 1960s industrialisation that produced snow-white flour with an incredibly long shelf life.

Unfortunately this highly refined flour is also lower in essential nutrients. But being such a big part of the Australian diet, commercial breads are sometimes fortified with extras such as omega-3, antioxidants, fibre and iron.

Not all the additives in commercial bread can be put down to marketing guff; under federal government regulations, iodine, folate and thiamin must be added to all bread sold through Australian supermarkets, excepting organic loaves.

''If we all had the perfect diet, we wouldn't need to fortify our bread,'' says Michelle Broom, accredited practising dietitian and nutrition program manager of the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council. ''Mandatory bread additives are a public health issue. Bread is a good vehicle for these essential vitamins.''

The council suggests those without sensitivity or allergy to gluten should eat grains three to four times a day, which may also include cereals, rice and pasta.

A variety of wholegrains is best, Broom says, and moderation is a key factor.

''You can still have white bread as part of a healthy, balanced diet.'' That's good news for lovers of fairy bread and fish-finger sandwiches.

The artisan alternative

For baker Michael James, who spent 2½ years at Sydney's Bourke Street Bakery before moving to Tivoli Road Bakery in Melbourne, bread is flour, salt, water and timing.

''It's about going back to the old days, before all the vitamins and preservatives were put into bread to make it last longer.''

Bread as a whole doesn't deserve its bad reputation, says James, who believes that the consumption of processed white bread over many generations may have contributed to the anti-gluten, anti-bread trend.

''Our bodies are just not used to all the chemicals. It's just not natural … it's like an athlete on steroids,'' he says.

Most breads are the product of fermentation, which is the harnessing of everyday bacteria found in the air. Fermentation is the key element in sourdough, a process that is estimated to have originated about 1400BC.

Sourdough starter involves combining flour and water then ''feeding'' the mixture (a living entity known as ''the mother'') over time to create wild yeasts that, when incorporated with more flour and water, act as a rising agent and create sourdough's signature sour tang.

Some starters are hundreds of years old. A loaf of sourdough from Tivoli Road Bakery uses a starter that is five years old, contains only unbleached, organic, stoneground flour and takes almost a whole day to make - longer if the weather conditions aren't right.

The bakery also makes a gluten-free loaf at weekends, but you won't find any additives - just a blend of GF flours such as flaxseed and psyllium.

While baking at home is a game of timing and technique, it is something anyone can learn to do, according to Sydney-based Bourke Street Bakery's Paul Allam, who co-authored the highly successful cookbook Bourke Street Bakery: The Ultimate Baking Companion.

Allam, who tested the recipes for the cookbook at home to replicate the working conditions of an everyday baker, says it's not fancy equipment that makes the loaf, but attention to detail and quality ingredients.

''Sourdough is only made from three ingredients, so you should get the best of those three ingredients that you can find … supermarket flour just doesn't have the necessary protein content or the flavour profile,'' he says.

He advises following recipe measurements exactly and getting to know the quirks of your oven, but above all he recommends giving it a go. ''You can definitely make a great loaf of bread at home.''

For those of us who prefer to hit the shops, Gill Stannard, a Sydney-based naturopath, advocates a self-devised ''squish test'' when buying bread. ''Bread is something you should have to chew. If you put a loaf of bread in the bottom of your shopping trolley and it gets squished, don't buy it,'' she says.

Stannard also advises care when seeking gluten-free alternatives, which can be as highly processed as commercial breads.

''There's a lot of confusion about the role of gluten in our diets. We know that gluten is not essential, and we know that we overconsume refined grains … but gluten-free products are not necessarily health products.''

The rule of thumb when it comes to bread? Choose quality over quantity.

''A really well-made bread that's artisan, that's chewy, that's made with stoneground flour … is one of the biggest joys in life.''