A premium on health

by Ryan Atkinson
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It’s no secret, and it’s nothing new: A large chunk of the population is interested in living a healthier lifestyle.

With endless reports detailing a continuingly grim picture of public health, consumers look for ways to take a bit of guilt out of their diets. Nearly all factions of the baking and snack food industries are dealing with this and looking for new and better ways to offer their customers a more wholesome, healthier product.

Hold a few conversations with those in the know, and it’s quickly apparent that the premium bread world is no different.

“There has been a shift in the mindset of consumers,” said Lindsay Borum, director of sales for Farm to Market Bread Co., Kansas City, MO, which produces breads ranging from an Asiago Ciabatta to a San Francisco Sourdough using natural ingredients. “I can’t remember the last time I got a call from a customer wanting to talk about price or something. Everyone calling wants to know what’s in the bread. They’re watching what they eat, and they want a healthy product.”

That may not be as big of a challenge in some realms, but consumers expect a top-notch product when they slap down their debit cards to make a $4 or $5 bread purchase. Producers are challenged with offering a high-end product — one that looks, feels and tastes better than a typical slice of bread — while making sure they are targeting the growing number of people with health on their minds.

“Breads containing unique flavor combinations and particulates such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and even chocolate seem to be an emerging trend,” said Amanda Osorio, marketing manager for J&J Snack Foods, Pennsauken, NJ. “At the same time, whole grains are continuing to rank high. Consumers want to treat themselves while eating something that falls into the ‘better for you’ category at the same time.”

It all goes hand-in-hand, said Michael Girkout, president of Alvarado Street Bakery, Petaluma, CA. Alvarado Street specializes in sprouted breads, including protein rich loaves and low glycemic bread for diabetic lifestyles.

“There are a lot of people who are coming to us for wholesome bread, and there are a lot of health attributes to what we do,” Mr. Girkout said. “But people buy our bread and keep coming back because it is great bread. It all works together.”

Clean ingredients

The good news for premium bread bakers is that most of their products are already considered a healthier option to many baked goods. High-quality ingredients, for the most part, usually produce a food that will be sought after by a health-minded public.

“That’s probably the biggest thing we see people looking for, clean ingredients,” said John Friend, vice-president of Farm to Market. “Customers like our bread because they can call us or look on the label and see there are just a few ingredients, and they can pronounce all of them.”

You’ll find similar talking points if you ask Sandra Zanette, director of marketing and business development for Backerhaus Veit Ltd, a Woodbridge, Canada, family-owned company that produces artisan breads, rolls, buns and soft Bavarian style pretzels.

“Customers are looking more for grains now. They look for simplicity in the ingredients and for nutritional facts and benefits,” she said. “They want clean ingredients, no artificial colors or flavors. We don’t use a lot of preservatives. The only time we do use them is when a customer says they need a longer shelf life.”

Those clean ingredients include pre-soaked seeds to maximize the bioavailability of natural vitamins and minerals and fruit inclusions that go through a pair of screening processes.

“With fruit inclusions, we go through a filter before we get the product, and then we do a hand screening here,” Ms. Zanette said. “We actually have a person going through the raisins to make sure there are no sticks or stones within the products. That isn’t done many places.”

At J&J Snack Foods, the Bountiful Selections sweet and savory bread line caters to those looking for quality products with premium ingredients. The 20-oz pre-formed frozen dough loaves — like Heartland Grains, Pumpernickel Harvest and Cranberry Orange — are said to offer artisan appearance and flavor. “We’re looking to please everyone from seasoned foodies to finicky children while offering quality bread,” Ms. Osorio said.

Battling gluten-free

While some in the industry say they already see signs of its influence easing a bit, the gluten-free movement has been a powerful force over the past few years. It has pushed some customers away from premium bread purchases and away from baked goods in general.

It’s not the first time bakers have had to deal with such a craze.

“With the Atkins Diet blowing up in 2004, we saw a 10% drop in sales, and there was a slowing of the artisan movement,” said Mark Friend, owner of Farm to Market and father to John. “We haven’t seen anything of that measure with gluten-free, but it has made an impact. Research is showing that 30% of people are saying they’re staying away from bread because of the gluten movement.”

Mr. Girkout divided the consumers attracted to the gluten-free movement into two categories — those with celiac disease, who truly cannot eat gluten, and those who view gluten-free as a healthy alternative. “The majority of the market views it as some sort of healthful diet, which is counterintuitive when you look at the ingredients of most gluten-free breads,” he said. “You can find healthier options with natural breads like we offer.”

The elder Mr. Friend said bakers can use the fact that their high-end breads have built-in arguments to counter the gluten-free mindset to their advantage.

“With artisan bread, besides using natural ingredients, there is a long fermentation process, and a lot happens during that time,” he said. “Besides the yeast leavening the bread and the bacteria making acid, there is enzyme activity. Some researchers are arguing that the protein enzymes breaking down can improve the situation when it comes to gluten and celiac disease. The amount of gluten isn’t changing, but the quality is.”

Mr. Girkout said Alvarado Street’s use of sprouted grains is a natural counter to the gluten-free movement. Since sprouted grains are plant matter, it produces more appealing dough than processed flour.

“If you remember from our school days, if you mix water with flour you get paste,” he said. “Essentially, that’s what is going on in your gut when your body is trying to digest something made with processed flour. But when you’re eating truly sprouted bread, those sprouts were living breathing plants, and we grind them up into dough.”

Sprouting a trend

The sprouts Mr. Girkout talks about is what Alvarado Street Bakery uses for one of its biggest selling points.

“We’re finding that one of the biggest trends is the sprouted thing,” he said. “We’re in our 35th year of business, and we’ve been making sprouted breads long before that was cool. Now it’s finally cool. It’s more and more on everyone’s radar.”

While Mr. Girkout said some people may not fully understand what sprouted bread is all about, they certainly know that it’s good for them.

The bakery is billed as a global supplier of certified organic whole grain breads and bagels made with sprouted wheat. All of its products, like the sprouted soy crunch bread or the sprouted soy sourdough French bread, contain no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), preservatives additives or dough conditioners.

Instead of flour, Alvarado Street uses organic wheat berries and soaks them in filtered water until they sprout and begin to grow. The living sprouts are ground into a wet and mushy dough that becomes the base for all recipes.

That all adds up, Mr. Girkout said, to a premium bread that is good for the body.

“Digestibility is really the attractiveness of sprouts,” he said. “It’s also extremely low on the glycemic index. There is not a retailer in the country that doesn’t have diabetic customers.”

The one challenge Mr. Girkout said the company has run into is the word “sprouted” itself. It has become a selling point, meaning traditional flour-bases breads, enhanced with a handful of sprouts, are now being billed as sprouted bread.

“That is very different from what we do,” he said. “We use no flour. There’s still a learning curve going on for the sprouted category, but it is clearly a category, and most astute retailers want to have something in that category.”

Building premium muscle

Bread, premium or otherwise, has never been viewed as a vital part of a ­muscle-building diet. Consumers generally look to meat, dairy or nuts for their fix of protein. But premium bread bakers are seeing an increase in the need for protein-rich products.

“Protein is really on the rise now,” Ms. Zanette said. “There is a definite increase in people looking for different sources of protein, and there is certainly a significant number of people looking for vegetarian options in protein.”

Across the continent, high-protein bread is center stage. Mr. Girkout said that the California Style Complete Protein bread is Alvarado Street Bakery’s best-selling product nationwide. It offers 5 g protein per serving.

“That combination of legumes and whole grains makes for a more complete protein,” Mr. Girkout said. “We’ve been doing that bread for more than 30 years now, and it’s our most popular.”

Sodium on deck?

The low-carb craze has been quiet for a few years now, and with gluten-free predicted to settle back into normalcy at some point, a new trend will soon emerge. Ms. Zanette said that trend has been coming on in the last six months, and it’s emerging in the form of low sodium.

“There are certain customers who have always been looking for it,” she said. “I think it has become more heightened across the community of retailers and food service clients because consumers are now aware of it. They’re the ones looking for it. Advertising and media has a lot to do with that as well.”

A demand for low sodium offers challenges of its own. As Ms. Zanette put it, “How do you balance the sodium level with the functionality of the dough with the taste profile the consumers want?”

Backerhaus Veit, with its in-house research and development team, tackles that with its line of dietetic/lifestyle breads. These breads — a white and wheat version of panini bread and a Swiss grain boule — target those concerned with reducing sodium.

“With our R&D, that’s how we balance those three portions,” Ms. Zanette said, noting that eventually even the low-sodium demands will calm down and a new challenge will present itself in the premium bread category. “With gluten kind of quieter now, sodium has taken over and is the next big thing. Then sugar will probably come along and be next in line.”

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