Remember when bread was considered the staff of life? Keith Seiz tells how one Minnesota-based bakery is helping revive the segment with its unique product line. Their recipe for success includes natural yeast-free leavening, and the incorporation of unique grains such as quinoa, amaranth, kamut and spelt
The demise of the bread industry has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, the category is not performing like it used to. But questionable research that reports 40 per cent of Americans are eating less bread than a year ago simply does not match the data from supermarket scanners.
Instead of a mass consumer exodus away from the bread category, consumers are looking for new products in the bread aisle. And, number one on their list is premium breads that not only offer great taste but also provide healthful benefits. This shift is one of the many reasons why French Meadow Bakery has consistently grown its sales by 15 per cent or more for 20 years.
Returning bread to its proper position as the staff of life has been Lynn Gordon?s ambition since she founded French Meadow in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ?The products that French Meadow sells are always born of my personal needs as a consumer,? Gordon says. ?Generally, they are products that were not available.?
Gordon?s first foray into bread baking was formulating a loaf that could conform to her macrobiotic diet, which prohibited her from consuming breads loaded with yeast and sugar. Baking a great-tasting bread is difficult enough, but doing so without yeast and sweeteners posed immense challenges. French Meadow overcame them by incorporating natural leavening and sprouted grains. Today, the bakery still uses these same processes, but on a larger scale. In its 20-year existence, French Meadow has moved from Gordon?s kitchen, to the night shift at a cheesecake factory, to a 25,000-square-foot bakery in Minneapolis.
Breaking the mould
Enhancing the value of the bread category has not come without its challenges. Foremost is the bakery?s insistence on manufacturing certified organic loaves without bakers yeast. The reasons are twofold. First, the bakery believes that a natural leavening process creates a better-tasting product that is both naturally sour and naturally sweet. Second, Gordon believes bakers yeast creates an imbalance in intestinal flora, and does not allow for important nutrients to be digested. ?The natural leavening process breaks down the complex carbohydrates and the glutens, rendering the bread more digestible and the nutrients more easily absorbed,? Gordon says.
Although this process has nutritional and taste benefits, most wholesale bakers stray away from this process due to its time constraints. ?Instead of being proofed and ready in 45 minutes, our process is spread in a cycle over three days. The dough must adapt to a seasonal cycle to allow for a consistent product year round,? says bakery production manager Mike Simon.
To prepare its doughs for baking, French Meadow mixes a starter with stone ground flour and allows it to rest overnight in a controlled temperature environment. After resting, the dough is divided, moulded and proofed three to six hours before baking. The company also uses a variety of sprouted grain mixes in its line of functional breads, such as organic quinoa, amaranth, alfalfa, spelt, kamut, barley and oats. These grains soak in cold water for 48-56 hours. After soaking, the bakery grinds the grains and adds them to the mix.
The foundation of French Meadow?s product line is its four functional breads. Women?s Bread — the company?s first foray into functional loaves — contains 512mg of soy isoflavones, designed to lessen menopause-associated symptoms. Soy isoflavones also support heart health by lowering cholesterol. The formula also incorporates organic flaxseed, sprouted grains and cranberries to support healthy skin and increase fat metabolism.
The HealthSeed Spelt Bread was launched after consumers began requesting a bread that would provide the protein and fibre content of a nutritional bar without the sweeteners. The company turned to flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sprouted legumes and grains to deliver 5g of dietary fibre and 6g of protein per slice. The bread also contains high levels of omega-3 (346mgs) and omega-6 (1,035mgs) fatty acids.
Healthy Hemp Sprouted Bread, which uses hemp seeds and hemp seed flour from Canadian-based Hempola — in addition to other high-nutrient grains — was the company?s third venture. Each slice is rich in protein (7g); dietary fibre (6g); and essential fatty acids such as omega-3s (250mg), omega-6s (860mg) and omega-9s (380mg). The omegas have been shown to promote heart health and suppress tumour growth in breast and colon cancer. ?Hemp bread sales have gone through the roof in the last two years,? says John Lough, French Meadow?s national sales manager. ?It?s one of the most heart-healthy breads on the market.?
French Meadow?s fourth and most recently launched functional bread is its Men?s Bread, which is formulated with sprouted fava beans, an ingredient high in zinc that can strengthen the immune function and support a healthy prostate.
Focus on functionality
When French Meadow formulates a new bread, it has no template. Few high-volume bakers have studied how hemp seeds and fava beans influence dough, for example, and fewer bakers have launched commercial breads using these noncommercial ingredients. As a result, French Meadow pools two unique sources together to help develop new products: the research and development expertise at Cargill, which is a major supplier of soy isoflavones; and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), a non-profit corporation that seeks to enhance Minnesota?s farm commodities by offering technical services.
Similar to its line of breads, French Meadow?s product conception process is unique. All of the bakery?s ideas come from Gordon, who then works with Charan Wadhawan, a cereals and nutrition specialist at AURI, on formulating a loaf incorporating the ingredients that will give the bread its necessary health component. Once finalized, French Meadow production manager Simon begins testing it in a wholesale bakery setting. ?It?s a process of elimination, and trial and error,? Gordon says. ?We?ll taste four or more different formulas, and add different ingredients to change the taste and texture.?
To further its innovation, the company has launched Organic Concepts, a separate baking company that operates a bakery and research and development lab in Eagan, Minnesota. The new bakery will ease the capacity at French Meadow?s bakery, which currently operates 24 hours a day.
The French Meadow name did not transfer to the new facility because some of the products being baked at the new facility contain bakers yeast, a forbidden ingredient at the Minneapolis plant. The new plant also will help fulfil one of Gordon?s goals: ?When I first started, I wanted to become the organic Pepperidge Farm,? Gordon says. ?I want to produce an entire line of products from bread to Texas toast to cakes.?
French Meadow is beginning to realize Gordon?s goal. The latest introductions are 100 per cent Spelt Garlic Texas Toast, 10 Grain Sprouted Parmesan & Garlic Texas Toast and Crusty Sourdough Garlic Bread. ?These are products that have never been done before in the natural or mass market,? Gordon says. ?They are innovative because they are organic and made with real butter. The new garlic breads also contain no trans fats and are nonhydrogenated.?
A company that began in Gordon?s kitchen now has a nationwide presence in conventional supermarkets. With a new bakery in Eagan and a 6,000-sq-ft expansion planned for the Minneapolis facility, French Meadow is poised to return bread to its proper place as the staff of life.