Our columnist Keil Hubert takes a close look at the ingredients on his weekly loaf of bread and discovers something startling in the ingredients…

Terrifying: NOBODY KNOWS what’s in bread. Even though they tell you, technically.

I was reading the prospectus for the next Business Reporter print supplement to the Sunday Telegraph over breakfast this morning, and one little paragraph brought my meal to a screeching halt.

Under the ‘editorial themes’ section on page three, it says that new food labelling regulations are coming to the UK. If I interpreted the theme correctly, the main benefit of the new rules is supposed to be that consumers will be better able to make informed decisions about what we buy, cook and consume. Sounds … helpful, really. Will it be?

I’ll bet you twenty quid that it doesn’t help. Just because you have an accurate description of the components, that doesn’t mean that you necessarily understand what a given component is or how harmful it might be. To make my point, I reached across my table for the first two food products I could reach.

First up, a tin of Scottish shortbread. Ingredients: “Wheat, butter, flour sugar, salt.” I know what all of those things are. Right! That’s approved for continued consumption, then.

Next up, a simple loaf of bread. Among the ingredients (84 words long) came this string: “… Datem, Ethoxylated Mono- and Diglycerides, Azodicarbonamide …” Now, I took organic chemistry in university and I have absolutely no idea what those ingredients are or how they affect my health. Yes, I’ve been “informed,” but the information doesn’t help me at all.

Crunchy: Who knew flour contains plastic-making chemicals?

Labelling, in and of itself, isn’t a solution. In order to turn data into useful information, one must also have relevant education. Confused, I consulted the Internet and “learned” that “Azodicarbonamide” (or C2H4O2N4for my boffin friends) is a flour-bleaching agent. A few clicks later and I learned that it’s legal for baking in the USA, while illegal in the EU and Australia. More clicks: it’s used to make foamy plastics. More: the UK Health and Safety Executive has identified Azodicarbonamide as a possible cause of asthma. Good grief!

Twenty more minutes wasted on Google introduced me to a bunch of pro- and anti-Azodicarbonamide posts. Ten minutes later, I felt a headache coming on. As funny as the “your bread tastes like a gym mat” jokes were, the zealots’ arguments didn’t educate me so much as irritate me. I wanted facts and practical advice, not hyperbole.

Right … so, no toast for breakfast. Shortbread and coffee it is.

The thing is, this information has been written on my bread bag for years and I’ve never worked out that a chemical stabilizer used to make foamy plastics is in my toast. I’ve never camped out in my grocer’s with a smartphone for a long afternoon of researching scary ingredient names. I’ve certainly never formed a considered opinion about where I stand on the use of “flour-bleaching agents.”

If there are any bakers reading, I concede. You’ve won. For most of my life, I’ve simply gone into my grocer’s looking for bread, saw some bread, bought some bread, took the bread home, made a sarnie, ate the darned thing, and got on with work.

Unverständlich: You may as well write labels in German, nobody understands them anyway

Information is only useful when it’s accessible, credible and intelligible. The new UK food labelling rules accomplish the first and second requirements, but only individual initiative, a strong desire to learn and a fast internet connection can accomplish the third. Or perhaps … and this is only one very frustrated consumer’s suggestion … I submit that the rollout of the new EU labeling rules means this is an excellent opportunity for food producers to teach us consumers how, why and with what they make our consumables. Co-opt us into your advocates.

This is an opportunity to earn and maintain our trust through preemptive transparency, disclosure and rational dialogue. Listen: enough with all the cartoon mascots and Facebook promotions. Talk to us like rational adults and make a coherent argument. Earn our buy-in along with our grocery money. Convert us consumers into loyal and informed brand advocates, and we’ll help you (in turn) to succeed in the marketplace.

If you’re a successful modern company then you already have the omnipresent cloud provider booked and the wiki-everything knowhow. You likely also have the necessary IT boffins working for you already. Just put a few of the techies together with some dedicated writers and start engaging honestly with your public. You can even produce tiered versions to best suit your audiences; one highly-complex one for the engineers, another optimised for upper management, and so on. What’s critical is to get out there and start with the frank dialogue.

I admit it: I’m not nearly as informed about what’s in my breakfast as I probably should be. Still, a little knowledge is a potentially counter-productive thing. Shortbread for breakfast never sounded appealing … until now. It certainly seems to be healthier for me than a foamy plastics additive. That said … water can be far deadlier than any of the other listed ingredients in my bread (in sufficient quantities). 

RIP: They all ate bread and drank dihydrous oxide.

Maybe my baker has the right of it and this bleaching agent is safe and effective when you factor in how they use it. The plain fact is that I don’t know … and I don’t like not knowing.

It puts me right off my breakfast.

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).

His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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