Tortillas are about as old as time — or at least the pre-Columbian era. For centuries, Mexico was home to this unleavened, corn-based flatbread. But in more recent years, the secret has gotten out. With the increasing popularity in international cuisines, particularly Mexican and Southwestern foods, the United States and other countries have adapted the traditional wrap to fit their own cultures.

Made of corn or wheat and even other ingredients; tortillas come in all sizes and are incorporated into meals other than with burritos or tacos. In 2018, the tortilla global market was approximately $38 billion, according to The Insight Partners’ February report. The Tortilla Industry Association (TIA) saw US sales at $17.1 billion or more with corn and flour tortillas leading the way and the total number of Mexican restaurants in the country increasing.

The wrap’s success is due to its ability to fill gaps within the food industry with benefits such as meal and flavor versatility, on-the-go formats and health-minded lifestyles.

Jim Kabbani, executive director of TIA, said the category’s growth comes from a “perfect storm” of drivers. They include an increasing Hispanic demographic whose heritage includes tortillas, a greater interest in the product’s flavors from non-Hispanic consumers and health-conscious dietary trends that include gluten-free and alternative grains.

IbisWorld’s industry analysis from August 2019 concluded that consumers are purchasing tortillas as a “healthier substitute to bread.” With the healthy eating index increase, the desire for products that have higher nutritional content, lower net carbohydrates and low-fat content has also increased. Tortillas often fulfill this demand.

To keep up the momentum from these growth drivers, companies — those that have or haven’t originated with the production of Mexican cuisine — must remember to be mindful of what’s inside the product.

Versatility in eatability

Since many consumers view tortillas as a healthier option than other types of bread products, companies can make them the vessel for a variety of fillings. Not only do they make Mexican favorites like tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and burritos, but tortillas are also being stuffed with Italian foods, sandwich meats, vegetables and even ingredients like peanut butter.

Pepperoni Pizza Roll-ups from Farm Rich, St. Simons Island, Ga., were released in 2019 and are made with layered mozzarella cheese and pepperoni slices wrapped up in flour tortillas. Its Fiesta Chicken Roll-ups include three seasoned flour tortillas that are filled with chipotle chicken and pepper jack cheese.

Maker of wraps, pitas, rolls, bagels and other bread products, BFree, Chicago, rolled out a line of gluten-free wraps. Sweet Potato, Multigrain, and Quinoa & Chia tortillas are free from all major allergens, high in fiber and have no added sugar. The company’s Sweet Wraps line has the same qualities as the others, but it’s made with kids in mind. It features sweet potato, banana and apple and can be filled with sweet or savory foods, from hummus to nut butters to fresh fruit.

Because of the diversity of tortilla fillings, the product now transcends a specific daypart. It’s no longer just a lunch or dinner meal component but also a full snack or part of a dessert or breakfast. Jimmy’s Egg LLC, Oklahoma City, offered Chorizo Breakfast Tacos with its 2019 limited-edition winter menu. The flour tortilla is filled with scrambled eggs, chorizo, diced potatoes, pico de gallo, cilantro and chipotle mayo.

St. Louis-based Panera Bread refreshed its breakfast menu to include three new whole grain breakfast wraps. The combinations include maple-glazed bacon with scrambled eggs and gouda cheese; chipotle chicken with scrambled egg, avocado and peppadew peppers; and the vegetarian Mediterranean with scrambled egg white, roasted tomatoes, spinach and feta cheese.

“Our focus on breakfast isn’t just about a single item or category; it’s about looking at the market and bridging a gap for guests,” said Blaine Hurst, chief executive officer of Panera. “People are compromising between convenience and quality in the morning, and we know that’s a problem Panera can help solve.”

Restaurants aren’t the only outlets viewing tortillas as a profitable opportunity. According to TIA data, dollar purchases in 2018 by marketplace type were as follows: 48% retail, 24% restaurant, 21% schools and government institutions, and 7% other. From supermarkets to c-stores to specialty stores, the recent product releases featuring tortillas are increasing.

January brought two more filled tortilla products to the frozen retail aisle: Buffalo-Style Chicken and Cauliflower & Broccoli Cheddar pockets from Mikey’s, Bethlehem, Pa. They join the company’s snack-like Pepperoni Pizza and Cheese pockets, and breakfast Egg & Cheese and Egg, Ham & Cheese pockets. Michael Tierney, founder and CEO of Mikey’s, wanted to deliver a frozen product that was free from the six of the top allergens, better-for-you and convenient, and the result included a tortilla as the carrier.

The demand for international cuisine includes c-stores as well. A recent Foodservice IP study reported that 18% of consumers who visit a c-store in the morning purchase a breakfast burrito. In 2018, 7-Eleven acquired Texas c-store chain Stripes, along with its Laredo Taco Co. brand, which has been added to other 7-Eleven c-stores. Laredo Taco features handmade tortillas, protein and salsa made in-house daily as well as a salsa bar.

Out and onward

When looking at flour tortillas, corn tortillas, tortilla chips, taco shells and tostados as one category, The Insight Partners’ February report stated that the global market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 5.2% from 2019 to 2027 to reach approximately $59 billion.

Mr. Kabbani said the segment has evolved with increases in automation, efficiency, consolidation, diversification and geographic expansion. But to move forward, he suggested companies maximize their involvement with the other producers and suppliers to learn more about the latest impacts on tortillas.

Through awareness and action, manufacturers can impact consumers. Create a flavor that tastes good and is healthy. Fill the product with something new. Or make it easily accessible and convenient. The solution isn’t just to provide an everyday tortilla; rather, a tortilla with all these qualities wrapped up in one.   

This article is an excerpt from the April 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on tortilla trends, click here.