As a part of our roundtable with our panel of experts, Baking & Snack’s editors explored formulation and new product questions, including how to communicate health and wellness benefits to ever-fickle consumers. Here’s what they had to say about myriad R&D issues.

Baking & Snack: How are consumer trends impacting what’s going on in the commercial wholesale baking industry from an ingredient or formulation standpoint?

Theresa Cogswell: Food safety, in general, has driven change in recent years. One such development affecting the baking industry includes consumers eating products before they are prepared according to the directions on the package, They buy frozen cookie dough or pot pies, for example, and don’t bake it off. They choose to eat it in the form in which it was purchased rather than baking as directed. Because major brands were affected by some of those issues, we now have heat-treated flour.

Another problem is that we bring perfectly sterilized bread and buns out of the oven and send them around the bakery for an hour to cool. In effect, we reinoculate them with flour dust and other airborne contaminants. I’m not saying we’re going to end up going to heat-treated flour across the board, but it solved a problem for companies that had severe issues with their brands.

Jim Kline: Along the lines of clean label, we just ­finished building two bakeries that were both four-­ingredient operations: flour, water, yeast and salt. I found it interesting that these companies headed in that direction at the wholesale level. One of the two bakeries was for fresh distribution, so we’re talking about pushing more of a European-style out there.

Donna Berry: Without a doubt, people believe “less is more.” Perception-wise, the consumer thinks, “Oh, this is just flour, water, salt and yeast.” And because consumers do not see ingredient statements on items bought through certain outlets, there is some benefit to going that route because a baker isn’t revealing what’s in there. You could have all the preservatives in the world in an in-store ­bakery product, and the consumer does not know they are present due to the lack of an ingredient legend like that found on a wholesaler’s packaged bakery products.

Ms. Cogswell: One of the challenges we’ve had with the sodium-reduction trend is that you can’t reduce the sodium in baked goods and list only flour, water, yeast and salt on the label. Any salt replacer is going to have another chemical-sounding name and explaining that to the Centers for Disease Control or at the Food and Drug Administration is part of the challenge. We want lower sodium because we know it’s healthier for the heart, but then the customer wants the clean label. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive in total, but this creates a challenge.

Ms. Berry: The importance of making clean ingredient choices is definitely being communicated to consumers at the retail level. I bought my kids heart-shaped Valentine cookies at Trader Joe’s, and the guy at the register could not stop talking about how wonderful they were. He kept pointing out how the company uses natural colors and beet juice instead of Red No. 40. Who knows where they’re making their stuff. Probably in California, and they’re shipping product across the country. But the fact that it got down to the guy at the register who knew about the beet juice in the heart-shaped cookie was interesting.

Switching gears, what are the biggest mistakes product developers make, and what steps can they take to avoid some of the pitfalls?

Ms. Cogswell: One of the biggest is basing decisions on assumptions. For example, say I want you to make me a tutti-frutti cupcake with lime icing. That’s always my example because nobody would ever copy that product. But who is your target? What’s your price point? Product developers must decide if they are a high-scale, chemical-free, high-end baker or are they the “stuff them and feed them” type of baker. Depending on the answer, your approach to product development — as well as determining a price point and defining your target — is completely different. You must have all the data collected before starting a project. You can’t say, “Bill, make me that cupcake today, and we’re going to see how it tastes.” Otherwise, you’ve probably just wasted that eight-hour day.

Ms. Berry: I agree with Theresa. First, you need to step back and identify who your customer is. There are two extremes here: customers for high-end products and a middle-average guy. Then, you need to determine the price point, the packaging distribution and the expected shelf life. After you know what those targets are, you formulate the product. You figure out the flavor, the color and the ingredients. Is it clean label or is it not? If someone wants a cupcake or cookie to last six months and sell it from California to Mexico, it’s going to need a whole different set of ingredients. Those are the pitfalls. It could be that the traditional R&D person is not communicating with packaging, marketing and distribution to understand their criteria.

Jeff Dearduff: From an operations and R&D standpoint, we’re seeing a couple of different fronts to be aware of. One is that there are traditional ingredient suppliers racing to be the one with the best clean-label package, so I think we’re going to see a lot of competition here. As this continues to ramp up, bakers must be aware of the differences, the service levels and things like that as all the big suppliers try to get in that position.

On the other side, customers drive a lot of this. When I say “customers,” I’m referring to both the consumer buying off the grocery store shelf and the foodservice and bigger wholesale-type customers who ask for clean-label food items. We’ve got to find a balance between our customers’ demands and our companies’ philosophies to make things better. I see an interesting dynamic coming at us here as everybody tries to knock down the doors to get their clean-label package to the bakery.

It’s a race. Baker A deals with Supplier B, but Supplier B doesn’t have the solution and has to start looking at Supplier C. It creates an interesting dynamic for the baker and for those suppliers.

Ms. Cogswell: Most bakers have a preferred supplier, whom they utilize and depend on for technical assistance. If that company can’t produce what you need and you have to expand your preferred list, it makes you feel vulnerable. And the supplying company feels vulnerable when they lose that ingredient business to a different source. They wonder, “Am I at risk of losing my old standbys — those commodities products that are used in most all products?” It can have a snowball effect.