When it comes to health and wellness, the bread category is the place to be.
Nearly a year and a half has passed since the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, which encouraged consumers to increase their daily intake of whole grains to three servings (48 grams). The influx of new bread products introduced last year following the publication of the guidelines was impressive, but the pace of innovation has accelerated in recent weeks and months.
Since the beginning of April, four of the nation’s largest bakers have expanded their presence in the bread, roll and bun segment’s hottest sub-category: the "made with whole grain" sector.
In introducing a flurry of these types of products, companies are looking to hit a home run with consumers’ taste buds by offering bread products that look, taste and even feel like traditional white bread products but contain the nutritional benefits of whole grains. And the benefits of whole grains and their impact on health are well documented in epidemiological studies, showing benefits as a guard against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. "Consumers are demanding healthier foods that taste great," said Fran Strazzella, vice-president of marketing for George Weston Bakeries, Toronto, when the company introduced its new line of white bakery products made with whole grains. "Made with Whole Grain products helps increase grain consumption while providing the characteristics children and adults want from white bakery brands. These foods have hidden nutrition, and can help parents get more whole grains into their families’ diets."
A blending bonanza
Like many of the new bread products on the market, George Weston’s "Made with Whole Grain" line contains a blend of 30% whole grain and 70% white flour. And, like most companies, George Weston has been hesitant to disclose the source of its blend for the new products.
An exception has been Sara Lee Corp., which pioneered this segment with its Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread. From the outset, Sara Lee said the whole grain flour in the bread is Ultragrain, milled by ConAgra Food Ingredients, Omaha. The Sara Lee product has been one of, if not the most, successful new product in the bread category in years. Between July 16, 2005, and Dec. 25, 2005, the company sold 16.7 million 20-oz loaves, or $32 million worth of the product, according to Information Resources, Inc.
Ultragrain subsequently was incorporated into Sara of breakfast bread and English muffin products late last year and just over a month ago began to be used in Sara Lee’s Made With Whole Grain White Hot Dog Buns and White Hamburger Buns.
ConAgra said blended bread offers "a good compromise" for consumers who want to include whole grains in their diets, yet prefer the taste and appearance of white bread.
"It is certainly possible for white bread customers to acquire a taste for traditional whole grain products," ConAgra said. "It’s like switching from whole milk to skim, people will often start drinking 2% before moving to 1% or skim milk. Ultragrain blends are a perfect way to move toward greater whole grain inclusions. But here the new 100% whole grain will look and taste more like white bread than traditional, 100% whole grain products."
More recently, General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, debuted DuruWhite, a Lee’s line white whole grain bread mix. DuruWhite differs from Ultragrain in that the former uses whole durum flour.
"Traditionally, whole grain durum flour is not used in bread baking, but rather in pastas predominantly," said John Althoff, director of Fresh Bread Solutions at General Mills. "But whole grain durum flour is lighter and has less bitter notes than a lot of whole grain wheat flour that is used by others."
Mr. Althoff said whole durum flour makes up more than half of the DuruWhite mix, with the remainder coming from white flour.
He added that the decision to introduce DuruWhite makes sense, given industry data showing rising consumption of bread made with whole grains and emerging science illustrating whole grain’s benefits in combating heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
"This is the real deal," Mr. Althoff said, noting that with the government actively promoting whole grains consumption the movement is being viewed as a way of life going forward, not as a fad diet.
K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation Trust and leading founder of the Whole Grains Council, sees blended bread as a valuable product in the larger quest for increasing whole grains consumption.
"It think it’s fine," Mr. Gifford said. "It’s more palatable for people who find it weird at first. That’s okay. The fancy (phrase) we use is transitional practices. It’s changing consumer habits."
Mr. Gifford should know about changing consumer habits. As head of the W.G.C., he oversees an organization that through its Whole Grains Stamp program is attempting to raise awareness of the healthfulness of certain grain-based foods products, including bread.
This month, the W.G.C. made changes to the familiar blackand-gold stamp, which now states the number of grams of whole grain ingredients included in each serving of a product. As of January, more than 600 products were authorized to use the stamps.
"Eating healthier is easy if you look for this stamp on packaging, because you can trust the stamp," Mr. Gifford said.
Beyond whole grains
While whole grains has served as the predominant health and wellness issue holding sway over the bread category during the past year, several other areas of interest have gained traction.
Omega-3 fatty acids, an ingredient with heart health benefits, have been an integral part of Flowers Foods’ Nature’s Own Double Fiber line for close to a year. Although sales of fresh bread with omega-3 claims on packaging actually dropped in 2005, according to ACNielsen, Flowers identified the Nature’s Own Double Fiber bread as a successful new product launch. "The variety is doing well and sales are growing, but we believe the real appeal of this bread is its fiber content, which is 5 grams per slice," said Janice Anderson, vice-president of marketing for the Flowers Foods Bakeries Group, Thomasville, Ga. "The omega-3 is an additional nutritional bonus."
Ms. Anderson said she sees bread with omega-3 being a niche product. Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with
decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease and mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and are necessary for properly maintaining human health from conception to childhood and throughout life. The body lacks the ability to make adequate amounts of some omega-3s for chronic disease treatment and prevention.
"Consumer awareness about omega-3 and its health benefits is relatively low," she said. "Even if awareness grows, omega-3 probably will never become a significant selling point with mass appeal. It will probably continue to be associated with niche products, like soy is today." Weston Bakeries is in the process of reformulating its omega-3 bread.
"We feel consumers are not quite ready for it yet, but are starting to recognize the heart health benefits of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids," Mr. Strazzella said.
In addition to an omega-3 bread, other products included in the Arnold Smart & Healthy bread line from Arnold Foods Co. include Fibre Goodness, Sugar Free and Made with Organic Grains. Based in Horsham, Pa., Arnold Foods is a subsidiary of George Weston Bakeries, Inc.
Sales of the Fibre Goodness variety have done well, Mr. Strazzella said, noting each slice has 5 grams of fiber, making it an excellent source of fiber.