IIt is creamy white in color with a dark brown rind. It has a slightly floury flavor, but more of a salty pungency. It crisps beautifully in the toaster and is the perfect accompaniment to butter, jam or hummus.
This is bread – but not as you know it. By replacing soy flour and some of the wheat with faba or fava beans, scientists at the University of Reading are finding ways to make British diets much more nutritious and sustainable through secrecy.
The challenge is to fully recreate the flavor of white bread to reach consumers uninterested in the food marketed for its health benefits.
“We want to ensure that the entire population enjoys the benefits of this bread, including disadvantaged populations who often have more difficulty with their diets. We try to give them healthy food and we hope they don’t understand the difference,” says Prof Julie Lovegrove, who led the project.
“We know what people should eat, but we need to motivate people to change their behavior, and it’s extremely challenging. For example, everyone knows how to lose weight – you move a little more and eat a little less – but it’s a very difficult thing to do because we just eat. “We don’t eat for fun, we eat for reward as a social event, for comfort. If we can improve the health of foods that people are happy to eat, like bread, they will benefit without having to change their diet.”
Bean bread is more nutritious because it contains more digestible protein, which increases feelings of fullness and can help people avoid overeating, as well as more iron and fiber that many Brits do not consume enough, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But – Hannibal Lecter’s references aside – the cores have a PR issue. Dr Jane Parker, a flavor chemist who studies the taste of bread, said people avoid beans because they think they have a bitter taste. “It should taste as good as or better than your regular standard loaf,” she says.
He believes this may be an unfair bias. He did an experiment with his own family: When he offered bread based on pods, he was told it was “too fluffy.” The next day he served the same loaf and no one noticed that it was not white bread.
Supermarkets can’t fool their customers the same way, so researchers are working with the British Nutrition Foundation to change people’s negative perceptions of beans and legumes. The project is supported by £2m government research funding as part of a broader program to make UK food systems healthier and more sustainable.
The broad bean is native to the United Kingdom as it grows best in temperate climates and was a common source of protein in the diets of Britons until the Industrial Revolution. But as processed foods and products from around the world hit the market, beans fell out of favor.
His expertise in crop sciences formed the basis of the project, Prof. naturally sweeter. Successive generations have lost their cultural knowledge of growing, cooking and eating beans.
Yet the pods are having a momentous moment. They are still widely produced, but are often exported to the Middle East or used as animal feed. Hailing them as a “revolutionary crop”, Tesco is working with suppliers to spread them across their product lines and ingredients.
This is partly because legumes are getting into the sustainability drive. Beans are known as “nitrogen fixers,” meaning they take nitrogen from the air and release it into the soil, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers. Its flowers also attract bees, which is good for biodiversity. And most importantly, they have a lower carbon footprint than imported soybeans, as they grow well in the UK.
There are two potential drawbacks that scientists need to address: First, the level of acrylamide, a carcinogen, is not very high; the other is that it is edible for people with fava beans, a genetic disease that can cause a severe reaction to fava beans.
Over the next three years, the team will extensively test the bread’s nutritional profile, hold focus groups with consumers, and refine the recipe to ensure it perfectly matches the taste and cost of production of white loaves. The team is working with Waitrose for now, but the goal is to stock it in cheaper supermarkets.
O’Sullivan says it may surprise people to learn how much research has been done on everyday products. “There’s an incredible amount of science and technical knowledge to get the loaf every time and on a massive scale.”