Although it is a modest-sized segment of the grain-based foods industry when compared with bread or cookies, the tortilla category — hard, soft and refrigerated — is moving product at a solid pace.

In the 52 weeks ended March 20, dollar sales of hard/soft tortillas/taco kits totaled $1,351,909,000, down a shade less than 1% from the same period a year ago, but unit sales were 637,407,400, up 1%, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Strength in the segment was generated by General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, the No. 3 player with dollar and unit sales of $155,786,600 and 68,867,740, respectively, and then a handful of smaller companies, including Ole Mexican Foods, Inc.; La Tortilla Factory, Inc.; B&G Foods Inc.; Hormel Foods and Calidad Foods, Inc. Private label also chipped in, with dollar sales of $119,533,200, up 0.96%, and unit sales of 73,797,900, up 0.71%.

In an April 26 conference call with financial analysts, David L. Wenner, president and chief operating officer of B&G Foods Inc., Parisppany, N.J., pointed to new product development, particularly in tortilla-based products, as driving growth for the company during the recently completed first quarter.

“Our healthy product initiative in Ortega, which includes whole grain taco shells, whole wheat tortillas, and now a whole grain-whole wheat taco shell, tortilla dinner kit was key in driving growth in the brand,” Mr. Wenner said. In the 52 weeks ended March 20, dollar and unit sales of Ortega branded tortilla products rose 13% to $49,279,200, and 19,470,350, respectively.

Mission Foods Inc. and Gruma Corp., the top two selling companies in the hard/soft tortillas/taco kits category, sustained dollar sales declines of 10% and 5%, respectively, while unit sales were down 9% and 4%, respectively, in the 52 weeks ended March 20, according to SymphonyIRI.

A different tune played out in the refrigerated tortillas segment, where category leader Mission Foods propelled the growth while smaller players did not fare as well. Dollar sales of the refrigerated tortillas segment totaled $245,814,000, up 0.45% from a year ago, and unit sales climbed 2%, according to SymphonyIRI. Mission Foods accounted for a large percentage of the increase, as the company’s dollar and unit sales rose 8% and 13%, respectively, during the period. Mission currently commands nearly 50% of refrigerated tortilla sales, according to SymphonyIRI.

“Consumers’ needs and wants for affordable and versatile products such as Mission tortillas are a main reason for strength in the category,” said Terry Hockens, senior brand manager for Mission Foods. “Consumers have modified their purchasing behavior and have cut back on spending due to the economic recession and have been eating at home vs. dining out, in addition to buying staple ingredients like tortillas to have on hand for a quick meal or snack.”

Also providing a boost was private label tortillas, which posted a 13% gain in dollar sales to $23,649,070 and a 14% increase in unit sales to 17,156,360. The strength in private label sales during the period nearly pushed it ahead of the No. 2 player in the category, Azteca Foods Inc., which suffered a 5% drop in dollar sales, to $29,811,770, and a 7% decline in unit sales during the period.

Low sodium, whole wheat innovation

While new product introductions have been limited in the tortilla category in recent years, interest has picked up in providing lower sodium and whole wheat products.

Cargill, Minneapolis, last year introduced its SaltWise sodium reduction system as well as a reduced sodium tortilla featuring 25% to 50% less sodium.

Meanwhile, Ruiz Foods Inc., Dinuba, Calif., a maker of many Mexican foods, including tortillas, this past March joined the National Sodium Reduction Initiative with the goal of having all its products meet the N.S.R.I.’s sodium reduction goals by 2012.

Tumaro’s Gourmet Tortillas, Providence, R.I., is one of the companies to bring something new to market over the past year. In the past six months the company has introduced a whole wheat tortilla, several “Low in Carbs” tortilla varieties, and a line of New York Deli Style Wraps.

“Whole wheat is one of the fastest-growing flavors in the market, and we are delighted to be able to offer it as part of our best-selling retail line of flour tortillas,” said Chris Jensen, director of marketing for Tumaro’s.

Gruma grows with acquisition

An acquisition grabbed headlines last week when Gruma S.A.B. de C.V. said it had acquired the tortilla production assets, inventories, brand and customer list of the Albuquerque Tortilla Co. for $8.8 million. Based in Albuquerque, N.M., Albuquerque Tortilla Co. sells wheat flour tortillas, and to a lesser extent, corn flour tortillas, under the Albuquerque Tortilla brand. The company had sales of $14 million in 2010.

“This acquisition will expand and strengthen Gruma’s tortilla business in the United States through a solid and recognized brand in the south-central region of the country, and is part of a strategy to take advantage of opportunities and synergies in the United States, the most important market in the world for Gruma today,” Gruma said.

Founded in 1987, Albuquerque Tortilla Co. has grown from a neighborhood shop to a company that now produces a full line of Mexican foods, including over four million tortillas a week, serving customers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas.