Baguettes and other bread in France vary significantly in nutritional value and some contain high levels of salt and low levels of fibre, a study has found.
French consumer association UFC-Que Choisir compared 111 types of bread from across France, and found that its nutritional value varied significantly depending on the type of bread and place of purchase.
125g of wholegrain bread
From Lidl in Houdemont, near Nancy
23% recommended daily salt allowance
34% recommended daily fibre allowance
125g of white baguette
From Boulangerie Louise, in Pontault-Combault, near Paris
45% recommended daily salt allowance
13% recommended daily fibre allowance
The study highlighted a 2017 poll that found that 90% of consumers trust their artisan boulangerie and are not worried about the lack of nutritional information on their bread.
Yet, the report said that based on its analysis of 111 different types of bread, “this trust is sometimes far from deserved”.
‘Saltier than a bag of crisps’
The report firstly drew attention to what it called “heavy-handedness” with salt and highlighted that bread is the most significant source of salt in people’s diets in France.
The study found that the amount of salt can vary significantly between bread, and in some boulangeries.
The ‘worst-ranked’ bread, 125g of white baguette from a Boulangerie Louise in Seine-et-Marne, had 45% of the maximum salt intake recommended by the World Health Organization. “That’s far more than packets of crisps!”, said UFC-Que Choisir.
Wholegrain bread ‘a little better’
Wholegrain and ‘complet’ loaves tended to fare a little better in the study. However, it found that even these could contain more than a third of the daily recommended allowance.
Independents are not necessarily better
The report stated that of the 21 independent boulangeries included in the study, on average, the salt content was just as high as the bread bought in supermarkets and chains.
The report concluded that if all manufacturers reduced the salt content in their bread to the same as those in the least-salty 5% of those tested, it would mean the average person in France would consume half a gram of salt less.
This would “probably” be enough to avoid a significant number of heart attacks and cerebral vascular accidents, the report said.
Last year, major manufacturers in the industry signed an agreement to establish caps on the salt content in bread.
However, the agreement is voluntary and the text already acknowledges “the difficulty of engaging most artisan bakers in an effective way”.
The agreement has also been dismissed as “unlikely to change anything” by Christian Rémésy, a former nutrition researcher at the research centre Inrae.
He said: “In contrast, in several countries, including Portugal and Belgium, stricter limits on salt levels in flour are included in the law.”
Similar measures have been resisted in France due to the baguette’s “emblematic place in French gastronomy” and a desire to “ensure that only achievable objectives are offered to bakers”, said the French ministry of agriculture and food sovereignty.
It added that it did not want to impose norms on the sector, and would instead want “the initiative to come from professionals themselves”.
Yet, Dominique Anract, president of the national boulangerie-patisserie federation, the CNBPF, said: “Regulation caps wouldn’t worry us, because everyone would be required to follow the same rules.
“We could compensate for a drop in salt by letting the yeast ferment for longer, or by increasing the cooking time. But for some special breads, for example with cereals or lardons, when you forget to put salt in it, clients don’t really complain. It’s a question of what people are used to.”
Rather than legal limits, some have suggested that a ‘halfway house’ measure would be to require boulangeries to display nutritional information, so enable consumers to make a more informed choice about the bread they buy.
France’s health ministry is already set to require items sold by unit to display a Nutri-Score by the end of 2023, which could extend to boulangeries.
Mr Anract said: “It would be possible. But consumers don’t like it, because it looks industrial.”
The UFC-Que Chosir study found that most bread has a Nutri-Score of around C, especially those made industrially. This is because they tend to have higher levels of refined flour, less fibre, and a higher level of additives.
The study found that across the country, all types of bread and boulangerie included:
Most wholegrain ‘complet’ bread has a Nutri-Score of A to C
‘Campagne’ bread from around B to C
While baguettes from C to D
This is not solely due to salt levels, but also to the different levels of fibre, which can vary from 9% to 37% of the recommended daily allowance, depending on the type of bread.
When it comes to additives, they are more likely to be found in industrial bread, such as that found in supermarkets and chain boulangeries like Louise and La Mie Câline, the study said.
As for independent boulangeries, Mr Anract said that “most independent bakers sell their own produce and do not use additives”. However, he admitted that a minority may use flour mixes, which could contain some additives and preservatives, to keep them for longer and to reduce proving and cooking time.
Overall, Mr Rémésy said: “It’s scandalous, this lack of constraints and information about a product that we eat every day.”
The study summarised:
Avoid white baguettes
Prioritise wholemeal and organic loaves
Choose independent boulangeries where possible
Avoid adding to the salt or sugar content with extra spreads