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Warbutons bread firmness assessment

In 1870, a British couple opened a grocery shop in Bolton, Lancashire. Reacting to a downturn in the grocery trade in 1876, Ellen Warburton started baking her own bread at the rear of the shop. The first batch sold out within an hour.  125 years later, Warburtons is the UK's largest independent baking business, employing over 3000 people at 10 bakeries and nine depots. Despite enormous production volumes, quality remains the cornerstone of Warburtons' philosophy.

Like most quality control departments in the food industry, Warburtons has relied on subjective quality testing for many years. Using a scoring system, samples taken from production lines were manually pressed to assess their softness.  Interestingly, however, this method was not used in conjunction with taste testing, which can provide a useful organoleptic profile of a product.

This manual procedure, while offering an indication of texture, fell short of Warburtons' requirements. It was not unusual for two assessors to score the same sample differently, and there were considerable problems defining "soft", and where the line was drawn between "soft" and "hard". According to Sue Thompson, Warburtons' Product Assessment Coordinator, differences between samples were especially problematic. "Sometimes we had two products which both seemed to be soft enough to pass the QA test, but we simply couldn't measure those small differences in texture which can make a product acceptable or unacceptable to a consumer. We needed an objective, reliable and repeatable way of measuring softness so that we could be confident of our assessments."

Texture Analysis of bread

In light of this, Warburtons purchased a TA.XT2i texture analyser, supplied by Stable Micro Systems. "We can now detect minute differences in the texture of our products and alter the recipe or baking process accordingly," comments Stuart Jones, Quality Control Manager.

The softness/hardness tests now performed on the majority of Warburtons' product range are well-established and easy to carry out and understand. A flat, circular plate compresses the sample while a loadcell contained in the texture analyser's horizontal arm measures the force required to perform the compression test. As the test is performed, the proprietary software, Texture Expert Exceed, gathers the information and displays it, in real time, as a graph, which can be used for further data analysis.

Furthermore, decisions about the selection of new raw materials are now strongly influenced by their effect on the finished product's texture. The effects of fats, bakery improvers, emulsifiers and stabilisers and any other proposed new ingredients can be quickly and accurately measured: and if they do not improve the end product noticeably, they are not added.

Stuart Jones sums up: "There's a lot of talk about quality in the food industry now, and no manufacturer can afford to ignore it. We believe that keeping up quality standards is essential to our future, in terms of customer loyalty, market share, sales and profits. Texture analysis is now so advanced that we are able to perfect every aspect of our recipes, production, packaging and transport without the inconsistency or subjectivity of relying only on manual testing."



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