For better or for worse, consumers seem to be eating less sliced bread. Sandwich bread still represents the biggest seller in the category; however, it also had the greatest loss in unit volume sales of any other segment in the bread aisle from 2006 to 2011, according to market research firm SymphonyIRI, Chicago, IL. Consumers appear to want something different, and tortillas and flatbread producers expect to fill that gap.

“Generally speaking, from what I see, the bread market is declining in terms of soft breads because of all these other varieties,” said Jerry Chizick, vice-president and general manager, Handi Foods, Weston, ON, which manufactures flatbreads, bagels, thin buns, pitas, crackers, crisps and double-baked pita chips. This year, SymphonyIRI reported increased dollar sales for tortillas despite declining unit sales. Although tortillas are experiencing price increases this year similar to those impacting packaged bread, the category saw consistent dollar sales growth from 2006 to 2010.

Tortillas and flatbreads have become mainstream in restaurants as consumers readily accept them as an alternative to conventional menu items. In 2006, McDonald’s introduced a snack wrap, a reinvention of its popular sandwiches with a tortilla instead of a bun. In 2008, Subway started offering flatbreads as an alternative to its freshly baked rolls. Today, flatbreads can be found on most casual and fine dining menus as well as a host of other establishments throughout the food service industry.

As consumers try to reduce their caloric intake, they often turn to flatbreads, which generally have fewer calories and carbs because of their inherently thinner profile than their sliced-loaf counterparts. Flatbreads’ more malleable texture makes them a versatile, portable meal component with which consumers and restaurants can be creative.

Tortillas: gateway flatbread

As tortillas continue to flood the general market, they introduce consumers to other flatbreads from around the world. First gaining traction because of the growing

Hispanic population in the US, tortillas have staked their claim as a staple for all consumers.

“Initially, tortillas were looked at as an ethnic item. That was in the past,” said Alon Ozery, owner of Ozery Bakery, Inc., Vaughn, ON, which makes thin-sliced buns. “The fact that you see tortillas all over because of the Hispanic influence makes it easier for other flatbreads to be accepted and tried.”

Even though tortilla sales have stalled after five years of growth from 2006-11, marketing research firm Mintel, Chicago, IL, shows in its report on bread that two-thirds of 2,000 survey respondents indicated that they use tortillas/taco shells.

The majority of tortilla sales are still driven by the Hispanic population; however, that may be changing. According to Robin Tobor, director of marketing for Mission Foodservice, a division of Mission Foods, Inc. based in Irving, TX, the company’s biggest customers are not necessarily Hispanic restaurants. Tortillas can be easily globalized, she said, with applications across many different cultures’ foods.

The term “flatbread” applies to a wide range of thin breads originating in all corners of the world — such as naan from India, pita from Greece and lavash from Armenia.

“We’re exposed to all the multicultural foods, and now you have the various kinds of bakery products that go with these multicultural options,” Mr. Chizick said.

Also, consumers are excited to try them. Mintel reported that 62% of primary or shared shoppers buy new types of bread just to experiment and 58% are interested in trying breads from other cultures and geographical locations. Most of this experimentation takes place in ethnic or quick-service restaurants, before consumers purchase these products for their own pantries.

“Consumers try a new flatbread at a QSR, and they start looking for an opportunity to try that at home or in their lunch bag,” said Christopher Plummer, CEO of BonSavor Foods, Dallas, TX.

Flatbreads’ healthy halo

Flatbreads wear the health trend well, often finding shelf space in natural food stores before spilling over into the general market. Flatout, Inc., Saline, MI, specifically targets health-conscious consumers with its flatbread products. The company even partnered with the Hungry Girl brand to develop a line of Foldit flatbreads specifically for the brand, according to Bob Pallotta, the company’s vice-president of marketing.

Flatbreads’ health and wellness appeal draws consumers looking for ways to cut calories or carbs. By their very nature, flatbreads, being thinner than other types of breads, have fewer calories and carbs per serving compared with sliced loaf bread and buns.

“If your goal is to control calories and carbs, eating lesser weight always helps,” said David Mafoud, principal and third-generation owner of Damascus Bakery, Brooklyn, NY. “With flatbreads, you can make a sandwich with the same amount of fillings but often with much less bread weight, which means you’re ingesting less carbs, less calories and less sodium.”

He stressed that flatbreads’ healthfulness comes from the weight of the product, not necessarily the bread itself. “If you eat 4 oz of a flatbread versus 4 oz of ordinary bread, I don’t know that 4 oz of flatbread is necessarily healthier,” he said.

Additionally, bakers seem to be doing everything possible to make flatbreads nutritionally healthier. Formulators are pumping them up with fiber, omega-3s, calcium and vitamin D, as well as reducing their sodium content.

Handi Foods packs a serving of vegetables into a pita as well as other baked and double baked goods — complete with third-party validation, according to Mr. Chizick. Tortilla and flatbread producers are switching to whole grains and experimenting with ancient grains, with flaxseed and chia being among the latest grains to make appearances in these products. The segment is also jumping on the natural bandwagon with clean label formulations.

Damascus Bakery started producing all-natural flatbread after Mr. Mafoud’s wife informed him that their children would no longer be eating his bakery’s bread.

“I’m not going to work a hard day and have my money go to buy someone else’s breads, so I started making bread for my first daughter,” he remembered. “Finally, I said, ‘Why don’t we go to market with this? This bread is so healthy every kid should be eating it.’ ”

As a carrier of other foods and a component in meals, flatbreads feature a healthy image that encourages consumers to pair them with fresher, more nutritious foods, according to Mr. Plummer of BonSavor.

BonSavor offers consumers both healthy and indulgent recipes for its flatbreads and tortillas because  the products’ ability to jump from healthy meal applications with olive oil, vegetables and low-fat cheeses to extremely indulgent choices with chocolate and cream cheese. “In a sense, that’s harder to do with the bun and sliced bread recipes,” he said.

Playing with flatbreads

Tortillas’ and flatbreads’ many shapes, weights and levels of malleability lend them to portability and versatility when creating snacks and meals.

Mission Foodservice has been working with its supermarket customers on ways to incorporate tortillas in the deli, re-creating sandwiches as wraps. Ms. Tobor said Mission Foodservice developed a rectangular flatbread for supermarket delis to make pinwheels, a dish consisting of sandwich ingredients rolled into a flatbread and then sliced into bite-size pieces. Pinwheels can be found on party trays and used in catering as appetizers. Consumers can also make their own pinwheels with flatbreads as a portable lunch. Flatbreads, especially tortilla wrap sandwiches, also provide a convenient alternative for dashboard dining.

In many ways, flatbreads can serve as a blank canvas with seemingly endless meal possibilities.

“Kids love it because you can roll it or fold it,” Mr. Mafoud said. In its bread report, Mintel noted children’s and teens’ fresh loaf bread usage is lower than adults. The research company attributed this decline to those demographics’ shift to tortilla/taco shells possibly at the expense of loaf bread.

To help consumers take advantage of flatbreads’ functionality, BonSavor developed recipes that incorporate the brand’s tortillas, flatbreads and pitas into snacks and meals. The company makes these recipes available on its website and packaging.

“People are looking for new creative things to do at home,” Mr. Plummer said. “They’re leaving work at 5 p.m. and looking at the supermarket for something exciting and new to do. If you look at our recipes, they’re all exciting and delicious and can be as complicated or as simple as you want.”

Flatbreads and tortillas can be used to make bruschetta or pizzas. Thin is in, even when it comes to pizza crust. Flatbreads provide a thinner but stronger base for pizza than normal thin pizza crust.

Flatbreads such as naan are also useful for dipping or scooping hummus and other spreads. Smaller flatbreads and pitas appear with vegetables and meats as small appetizers. Pita pockets offer another alternative to wraps and sandwiches.

“It’s bread that has a lot of opportunities, and I think people are getting that,” said Mr. Mafoud, noting that flatbreads are not the next big thing because they are here to stay as a bread for the family table.

With tortillas and flatbreads thoroughly incorporated into the nation’s diet, the industry now shifts its focus from how to produce flatbreads to making them better. At present, that means embracing flatbreads’ international heritage, making them healthier and helping consumers incorporate flatbreads into their everyday meals.