There are many different types of bread preservatives, both chemical and natural, but all usually work towards one or more of three main goals: strengthening the overall integrity of the loaf, slowing the growth of mold and decomposition, and fighting off bacteria. Bakers typically rely on a range of preservatives to help keep their bread fresh and shelf-stable for more than just a few days. Home cooks often don’t need to worry about this, particularly not if they plan on eating their creations right away, but preservation is often a real cause for concern for commercial manufacturers. Chemical additions to bread have been going on for a long time, but the practice is nevertheless debated, particularly in health circles. Many research organizations have begun questioning the safety of many additives, and have lobbied for more “all natural” selections. Food regulatory agencies in many places have also placed certain limits on what many commercial breads can contain, as well as how the contents must be disclosed to consumers.
The main idea behind any sort of bread preservative is to help keep loaves fresher for longer. At its most simplistic, bread is often little more than flour, water, yeast, and sugar. Loaves made with only the basics aren’t likely to last long, though, since their spongy, yeasty interior is often an ideal breeding ground for mold and bacteria. This isn’t usually a big problem for home cooks who are able to eat their products within a day or so of baking, but it can be a serious issue for commercial bakeries and companies that need to ship bread over long distances and wait for it to sell on store shelves. Adding certain chemicals and chemical derivatives can help keep things fresh, moist, and tasting good for weeks or even months after baking.
Supporting Starch Molecules
One of the most important ways to preserve baked goods like bread is to improve the chemical structure of the dough by supporting and strengthening starch molecules. These molecules, which are common in most kinds of flour, help give bread its characteristic softness and chewiness. When they weaken, the bread can dry out and often “sink” a little bit, growing denser and less flavorful.
Several different additives perform this and similar functions. Ascorbic acid, for example, which is also known as vitamin C, can both assist bread in the rising stage and strengthen starches when used in small quantities. Ascorbic acid lowers pH levels and stops the enzymatic process that makes bread go bad. Polysorbate 60 is an emulsifier and prevents bread from getting stale, and lecithin, an antioxidant that stops oxidation and prevents bread from going rancid, can also fall within this category.
Calcium propionate and sodium propionate are two of the most common additives in bread sold commercially. Both are compounds of calcium or sodium salts and propionic acid, and their main function is to prohibit mold growth. They work by making the chemical structure hostile to mold growth, even though it is otherwise an almost ideal environment for decomposition. Cultured whey performs in almost the same way.
Sodium bisulfite and sulfur dioxide are additives that prevent bacterial growth. These preservatives are most common in products that are going to be spending long amounts of time either exposed to the air or in long-distance transit. In most cases they’re used sparingly because they canalter the taste of the end result. They might also cause severe reactions in people who have certain ingredient-based allergies or sensitivities.
There have been a number of discussions in modern times over the safety of using chemicals in bread, and most governments have set regulations when it comes to which preservatives can be used and how this information must be disclosed to consumers. Detailed ingredient lists are required in some places, for instance, and labeling restrictions and advertising rules might also apply. Certain chemicals are banned in some places, too, or else restricted when it comes to amounts that can be used. Most evaluating agencies and groups have concluded that chemical preservatives are safe in small amounts, but not everyone agrees and there is still a lot of debate on this topic.
People who want to preserve the shelf life of their bread without resorting to chemicals often need to look no farther than their kitchen pantry. Ginger, garlic, honey, clove, and cinnamon are all natural bread preservatives.. All prevent bacteria and mold growth, and also have the bonus of adding flavor to bread. Powdered ginger also can be used as a preservative without adding much in the way of taste.
Alternatives and General Storage Tips
Preservatives are a good way to keep bread safe from spoiling, but there are other precautions that can be used to help maintain freshness. For instance, bread can be stored in an airtight container or in a cool, dry, and dark place, like the refrigerator. Airtight containers will keep out airborne bacteria, and cool places that don’t see much sunlight are less hospitable to mold and bacteria.