Modern Baker, Oxford

Modern Baker is a pioneering and ground-breaking healthy bakery based in Oxford.   It combines modern science with ancient technology via slow-carb baking and fermentation. Founder Melissa Sharp is determined to make a difference to our health with science-based breads created in a Government funded state-of-the-art bakery. The cost of poor diet to society is estimated to reach almost £50bn per year by 2050 but conflicting advice and information overload is causing people to doubt their food choices . Here Melissa tells how she has created her own solution.

Where did the Modern Baker journey begin?

As so often in life, the motivation for Leo and I to start Modern Baker came from adversity. I became seriously ill and supplemented my ‘weapons-grade’ medication with a whole food diet, aiming for certain upsides to counteract side effects. But the wider benefits to the rest of my health were so clear, obvious and profound we felt we had to act on them.

What was your lightbulb moment?

I’d always enjoyed baking a cake, but having cut out all unnecessary sugar, I was faced with never being able to bake my go-to, fail-safe carrot cake again. Then one day, I suddenly thought why don’t I try adapting it, to my new standards?

I halved the sugar, switched to lower GI coconut sugar, used higher fibre stoneground flour and made a cashew nut topping – all organic, of course. The result was even more delicious than the original.

Plus, I saw how fascinated friends were about what I’d done. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was the spark for Modern Baker – and the recipe is in our cookbook. It’s called ‘Melissa’s Life Changing Carrot Cake’, because that’s exactly what it was. Once we knew our future was in Slow-Carb Baking, we needed a vision, which became ‘to democratise healthy baking, for the common good’.

Why sourdough?

Founding a startup in the Wellness sector, we concluded we had to be in an area that genuinely mattered, and wasn’t already being addressed. It didn’t take long to realise the bakery sector was a shocker. Industrial bread is an Ultra Processed Food packed with unnecessary additives. It causes blood-glucose spikes in the same way that sugar does. Not only that, but Ultra Processed Bread brings zero gut health benefits and many cakes and pastries are as sugar-laden as branded chocolate.

The natural, long fermentation technology we use transforms the digestive qualities of grains. So much so, we refer to it as alchemous. And indeed in many languages, the word alchemy is actually synonymous with the word sourdough. Sourdough is so-called because it has a distinctly sour flavour that comes from the little wonders that are lactobacilli – well known today as “friendly bacteria”. Produced by the fermentation process, these bacteria are very creative, helpful and dynamic, as long as they are left for 12 hours or more (we leave our dough for 48 hours for maximum effect) to do their work. For more about this science, check out our blog. Other countries have defined the process and protected the sourdough name, but not the UK. The big retailers average 10% extra margin on the ‘sourfaux’ category, profiting hugely from this deceit, so they aren’t going to affect change. It’s not right.

What is the science behind your baked products?

People don’t realise that how you prove and ferment bread (and there are hundreds of different ways) not only affects the taste and texture, but more importantly the nutritional profile.

Our mission is to improve the quality of dietary carbohydrates, without any compromise on taste.

In 2018 we built a dedicated R&D centre to drive forward £1m worth of government funded science projects. Plus, our own new product development. Our science is focused on 3 key areas, minimising the blood sugar effect during digestion, delivering meaningful fibre into the gut and further improving both of those through freezing techniques. The prize is huge – offering consumers baked products that are actively beneficial to human digestion, that are delicious too.

What are the highs and lows of running Modern Baker?

One of the highs is when we receive a ‘validation’, which can be anything from: a fanatical customer’s email, to another record month in Planet Organic, to new R&D grant wins (we have had 5 successive wins), to approaches to buy or invest in us, to a recent offer of £1m sponsorship to set up an educational unit. The main lows are the ‘oh shit’ operational glitches that are much harder to absorb when you’re small. Printers’ deadlines spring to mind. Also, when you wake up in the middle of the night reminded of the enormity of the task you’ve set yourselves. Our long term aim is to affect the Public Health agenda, so nothing big there.

Fibre is the answer. Stop counting calories, count fibre.

What advice would you give to a wellness entrepreneur starting out now?

Make sure your purpose is strong, prepare for the business to become your life and be brave.

What have your learnt about yourself running the UK’s first healthy baking brand?

That the dutiful side of me is great for seeing things through. In the past I’ve found it incredibly hard to switch off. If we didn’t watch it, Leo and I would talk about the business 24/7. I’ve now learnt to carve out some personal time in which I like to cook, practice meditation and pilates and take my French bulldog, Bobo, on as many walks as possible. I’ve also learnt to hold my nerve because nothing is as bad as it might seem at the time.

What are your best-sellers?

Whilst our social followers are 80% female, it’s conspicuously men who are most fanatical about our bread and of our breads. Our Seedy Seedy is the best seller. Conversely, our sourdough biscuits are very much a women thing, with our Oat & Cranberry topping the list. Vegans love our whole range of biscuits, as now all of our biscuits are vegan.

Where can we buy your bread and what makes it different?

We don’t use the term artisanal, which is focused more on craft than health, and often seen as a ‘weekend’ loaf. Our loaves come sliced and in resealable bags, for everyday use, ideal for breakfast and sandwiches. At the moment we are still in ‘beta’ operations, which means we’re in a limited number of retailers, such as Planet Organic, Selfridges and As Nature Intended, as well as in our own cafe in Oxford. That is swiftly changing as we are now talking to the national retailers. And we have just started a next-day, nationwide home delivery service, from our website.

Why did you decide to write a book and what is your favourite recipe?

The office of a local, well known, literary agency was full of people who had effectively opted for a life without bread and cakes. When they discovered our café, they realised that not all carbs were bad and persuaded us to write the book, A New Way to Bake, which went to a three way auction. They recently published it in the USA with a very different cover.

What is next for Modern Baker?

Because healthy bread is scarce, we’ve just launched a next-day, nationwide delivery service.

Most of our bread ends up in the freezer, as customers tend to buy four or more loaves. There are multiple benefits of this.

Firstly, there’s less wastage. Secondly, you have bread on hand when you need it! But critically, it actually increases the nutritional value of bread.

Modern Baker research indicates that post-freezing,  your body has a lower blood glucose response. Amazingly, if you then toast it, the blood glucose response is lowered again and adding butter means a yet lower response once more! The freezing process makes the starch more resistant to digestion which means there is more food for your gut.

Our main aims for 2019, apart from gaining distribution through the national retailers, is to start a new project on optimising fibre and digestive health, called Slow-Carb Baking, and another one on a new generation of packaging. Ultimately, our goal is to affect the Public Health agenda and allow those in power to realise Big Food’s effect on the current NHS health crisis caused by diet-related chronic disease.

To buy Modern Baker’s products from our shop click here.