Hovis Invisible Crust is the first bread to be baked without a crust. Warburtons' Healthy Inside is baked with a natural prebiotic ingredient. Allied Bakeries' Burgen brand offers a choice of Soya & Linseed, Hi-Bran, or Wholegrain & Cranberry loaves. And now Tesco is selling a wholegrain loaf containing 17% Guinness.
Never has product development in bread been so alive and well. Or, as in the case of Waitrose's selenium-enriched bread, sometimes not so well - the product was pulled from the retailer's shelves just months after it was launched in 2005. Lack of public awareness regarding the benefits of selenium was blamed for its poor sales.
Nevertheless, despite the odd marketing miscalculation, speciality breads are the place where bakery innovation is taking off in a big way. According to figures from Cereform, part of the yeast and bakery ingredients division of Associated British Foods, total bread consumption in the UK is likely to fall to 35.6kg per head by 2015, down from 41.2kg per head in 2000. And white bread is in decline too, down 4.5% by 2015, the forecast suggests. But speciality breads have a rosy future, set to grow 26% between 2001 and 2015.
It is really the same trend that you have in the rest of the food industry that is driving the growth in speciality and artisan style breads, suggests Marion Bauer, head of marketing at Cereform.
"People want healthier food and are prepared to pay more for it. In addition, there is a big trend towards continental style breads and artisan-looking breads."
Authenticity is the key, says Karen Clayton, development director at Bakehouse. The company supplies speciality and artisan breads to retailers for baking off in-store. "We are seeing much more naturally produced products," says Clayton. "There is a definite move away from the traditional plant produced breads towards more craft and artisan methods using natural yeasts and levains (sourdough starters). Coupled with long fermenting and dough resting times, these give you lots more flavour."
In a typical plant bakery, the dough is produced using the Chorleywood process, which combines lots of yeast and chemical dough improvers with intense high speed mechanical mixing to slash fermentation times to a few hours. But in artisan or craft baked breads, the dough is often made the day before and left overnight to rise and prove, says Clayton, allowing much more intense flavours to develop.
"The Chorleywood process is coming under pressure. The whole food market is moving towards natural, organic, less processed, slow food. Traditional bread is seen as natural and better for you."
Clayton also sees a continuing move towards more organic breads and the use of different types of flour, such as a rye breads and more seeded breads. A return to spelt wheat, which has been used for breadmaking in Britain since Roman times, is also on the cards.
As an ingredient supplier to the UK speciality bakery market, Fermex deals with medium and large bakeries. The firm's technical expert, Sarah Autton, says consumers are beginning to understand that bread can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, rather than being seen as totally free from nutrition.
"Bread has had such a poor name for itself for such a long time. But the tide is beginning to turn. People are beginning to understand that bread is a very good way of getting slow release carbohydrates into your system."
Also, people are seeing bread as a definite accompaniment to a meal, rather than something they put in the toaster. "They are getting more adventurous about their bread," she says.
As a result, there has been a growth in the artisan kind of speciality bread with people keen to find good ciabattas, French breads and sourdough breads, she claims.
Artisan breads, particularly the long-fermented and sourdough types, are also seen as one way of counteracting the lack of flavour caused by government demands to reduce salt levels in bread, suggests Autton. "If you have ever tasted bread without salt, it is extraordinarily revolting. But if you make bread with sourdough, it has a fabulous sourdough flavour. Or if you make it with a sponge and dough process, it has a lovely fermented taste. Or bung a load of seeds at it to give it a gorgeous seedy flavour. Whatever it is, it takes people's mind off the fact that the bread isn't salty any more."
One of the big challenges for plant bakers wanting to get in to speciality and artisan breads is where to store the dough while it ferments, says Clayton. "In traditional bread making you mix the dough, or part of the dough, in advance and leave it to ferment. Now with the volumes most plant bakeries produce, where do you hold all that dough when you are geared up to continuous production?"
Another challenge for plant bakers, suggests Clayton, is the consumer move towards stone baked bread. This involves traditional cooking methods, where the bread is baked on the floor of the oven. "How do you do that in a tunnel oven with lines of tins going through at high speed?" she asks.
But plant bakers dominate the UK bread market (82% by value). And most can't, or don't want to, adapt their automated plant to the demands of the relatively small speciality bread market. Instead, they are trying to clean up their labels - getting rid of all the E numbers, suggests Bauer.
"E numbers are associated with bad. Our customers (the plant bakers) are looking for the highest quality ingredients and less chemicals. They ask us if we can get rid of the E numbers on their labels."
It can be done, says Bauer, but at a price. "An example is ascorbic acid - a functional ingredient in bread making. It's an E number you can replace with an alternative made from a berry, but it would at least quadruple the price of the loaf, so we need to look at alternatives that are affordable."
Simon Cannell is marketing manager for desserts and bakery at foodservice supplier Brakes. He claims that the big trend is about provenance. "People want to know that the products they are buying are of the utmost quality. If it is a French baguette, then it should come from France and it should be made with French flour milled in France."
Brakes has returned to traditional bread-making methods to produce a new range of artisan breads - baguettes, paves, bloomers and focaccias. They all use natural ingredients, with some bulk fermented for up to eight hours to reduce the amount of yeast used and to allow flavours to develop. And Brakes has moved production of its French bread range over to France so that it is now made in France using traditional French baking methods.
"France is very proud if its bread, they see it as part of their heritage and they really look after it," says Cannell. "We seem to have lost the art of real breadmaking in the UK. There hasn't been much of a market for it, but that is now coming back a bit. It comes down to people wanting this wholesome, rustic, home-made feeling that they don't have any more. That's the feedback I'm getting from our customers."
But there's more to bakery than bloomers and baguettes. Maggie Dagostino is marketing director for Dawn Foods, one of the UK's largest independent sweet bakery manufacturers. She suggests that sweet-toothed bakery consumers are also demanding choice, but choice with the recognition that the products must be of good quality and fit for purpose. "That is, the Danish pastry must look good, be finished well, taste great and have suitable packaging or eating implements with it," she says.
"Consumers are getting far more cosmopolitan in their tastes and they take the inferences from a place and bring them back into their own environments. Croissants are nearly English now, just as pizza is, and Danish pastries are never considered as a continental delicacy, just a day-to-day treat item."
Products will also need to be more complete. "The finish of a product will be as important as the actual product itself - not just because shelves are getting busier and products need to jostle for attention - but because their finish will denote the added value nature of the product."
And cakes? "Health will never be a big player in the cake sector, but some consumers will want to ensure that there is some perceived health benefit from all the food that they consume. Therefore superfruits, grains and natural ingredients with provenance are all becoming more important, although not sustaining a category of their own.
"Most consumers are not really interested in the make up of products as long as they look good enough to eat," she says. FM