A Congressional resolution declared the first “National Tortilla Month” last September, as annual tortilla sales topped $6 billion. And, for the first time in U.S. history, sales of tortillas are poised to outpace sales of sandwich bread. Bakers who understand Hispanic culture and preferences can capitalize on this growing market segment.
Recent census statistics show Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States. Currently, this segment includes about 45 million U.S. citizens, or roughly 15 percent of the population. The Selig Center for Economic Growth at The University of Georgia, Atlanta, predicts that by the year 2020, nearly one in four American children will be Hispanic.
Hispanics are a diverse group. The U.S. Hispanic population is shifting rapidly from a group consisting primarily of immigrants to a population of second and third generation families born and raised in the United States. Hispanics tend to have larger families, and shop 26 times per month for food on average, according to the Los-Angeles-based research company New American Dimensions (NAD). This desire for freshness has an impact on their bakery preferences.
But, while Hispanic purchasing power tops all other minority groups, the appeal of many Hispanic foods extends beyond the Hispanic population. Studies show 75 percent of those choosing ethnic foods are not of the same ethnicity as the food's origin, according to NAD.
In 2000, “Americans consumed a total of seven billion pounds of tortillas … the equivalent of 85 billion tortillas, or one tortilla per American each day,” according to the Tortilla Industry Association (TIA), McLean, Va.
In recent years, the industry has grown about 8 percent per year. Some of the growth can be credited to the popularity of wraps instead of sandwiches. The shift is part of an overall focus on more healthful eating habits by consumers.
One challenge for tortillas is freshness. “Traditionally, Hispanics would purchase fresh tortillas daily,” notes Jim Kabbani, executive director, TIA. However, an industry push to mass-market tortillas necessitated the move beyond traditional formulations toward those containing more preservatives and stabilizers. Typical preservatives used in tortillas include fumaric acid, calcium propionate, potassium sorbate, and methyl and propyl paraben. Preservatives can cause a chemical aroma when consumers open the tortilla package and should therefore be minimized, if possible.
Corn versus flour
Tortilla sales in the United States are split about equally between flour and corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are made from dough with a rising and proofing component. In contrast, corn tortillas are made from masa using a roller and sheeting process. “The most popular wholesale Hispanic bakery items using [our] masa flour have traditionally been tortillas, other related flatbreads, taquitos, tamales and, of course, tortilla chips and taco shells,” says Alan Davis, sales director, snack industry, Azteca Milling L.P., Irving, Texas.
“Nixtamalized corn is whole grain corn cooked in a lime or a calcium hydroxide solution. Nixtamalization is associated with the traditional lime corn cooking process, which originated in Mexico. Nixtamalized corn is low-in-fat, cholesterol-free, hypo-allergenic, and gluten-free. It is a good source for B vitamins, calcium because of the lime addition, and provides the opportunity to capture savory roasted corn flavors in the finished product,” Davis says.
Masa flour is a multi-functional ingredient that enhances texture, flavor and helps extend shelf life through moisture retention, Davis notes. “The highest growth potential for Hispanic bakery items will be Mexican flavored line extensions, such as breakfast related menu items, whole grain tortillas, breads, muffins, other flat breads, crackers and multigrain opportunities in all related categories,” Davis adds.
Mexican artisan breads
Consistency and authenticity are important to the Hispanic consumer, which is why one Mexican bakery has developed a successful business selling frozen dough and fully-baked, frozen, Hispanic bakery items. It is advantageous for restaurants and grocery chains to use frozen products because they never run short of product, they don't have to rely on skilled bakers and they save money, notes Roberto Keyvan, vice president, marketing and sales, Artimex El Gallo Giro Inc., Sante Fe Springs, Calif.
“It's difficult to find true artisan bakers, individuals who can produce breads that remind first generation Hispanics of product that they grew up with in Mexico City,” Keyban notes.
“The fundamentals of artisan bread-making have carried over from three generations of Hispanics to Artimex, where artisan breads are produced daily,” says Brent Galasso, director of bakery operations, Artimex. The company also produces authentic Hispanic bakery items for several private labels. Customers can take the product out of the freezer, thaw for 30 minutes and bake. “The two most popular items are bolillos and conchas (see sidebar). Hispanics purchase these items in high volume. Other popular items are bolillos integral made with whole wheat flour, telera and pan fino (see sidebar for product descriptions),” Galasso adds.
Cheese breads are a staple throughout Latin America. “Cuban groceries in Miami produce a cheese bread stuffed with a thick layer of a fresh, Hispanic, non-melting cheese like Queso Fresco,” notes Dean Sommer, cheese application specialist, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison.
Many regions have specific breads and cheeses. “A Colombian cheese bread called Pandebono includes farmer's cheese or Queso Fresco. A Paraguayan cheese bread called chipa is filled with a cheese from Queijo Minas Curado. A famous Brazilian cheese bread called pao de queijo uses farmer's cheese or Cheddar cheese or Parmesan,” Sommer notes.
Empanadas are common throughout much of Latin Americaand often use a fresh, Latin American, non-melting cheese in their formulation. “In Venezuela there are cheese arepas, which are cheese-filled corn-based pancakes/breads. Typically, these use a melting cheese, such as a Manchego or Chihuahua-type cheese. Venezuela also has a cheese pastry called tequeños, which use cheeses, such as Queso Blanco, Chihuahua or Muenster. Venezuela has cachitos de jamón, which are like French croissant-filled pastries with ham and cheese,” Sommer adds. “In Cuba, they have pastelitos, which are turnover-like Cuban pastries filled with cream cheese. In Mexico, they have a type of rellenos, which is a cheese-stuffed poblano chile in pastry. Finally, in Puerto Rico, they have sebadas, which are deep-fried cheese-filled pastries.”
“The overriding functional issue processors need to be aware of in using Hispanic cheeses is melting characteristics. In some of the products, melting is undesirable, and any melt that occurs wrecks the bakery product. Conversely, in other Latin American bakery products, melt and flow are desirable. So, a sound understanding of cheese melt and flow characteristics is critical to successful use of these products in bakery applications,” Sommer adds.
Shelf life issues also are important. Sommer explains, “Some Latin American cheeses, especially the fresh ones, have relatively short shelf lives, (less than two months).” They also tend to water off because of their high pH. In addition, they are subject to off flavors during storage because the pH is so high and no competitive starter culture microflora exists to protect the cheese from outgrowth of spoilage organisms, Sommer adds. Once bakers understand these technical aspects, they can greatly expand their product lines by including cheese breads.
Sweets and special occasions
Cookies or galletas are popular among Hispanics. They often include cinnamon, almonds, anise seed or coconut. Polvorones are available in white, pink, chocolate and trebol, or clover, which is a combination of all three. “Our frozen cookie dough can be laid on a tray for 30 to 45 minutes and then put directly into the oven,” Galasso says.
Hispanics have two holidays that require special breads. Pan de muertos is a specialty bread sold for the Day of the Dead on Oct. 31. Rosca de reyes is sold for the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. Keyvan notes that despite the economic slowdown, this year was the company's highest sales for Rosca de reyes. “The Hispanic community will not sacrifice their stomach, especially for these special holidays,” Keyvan adds. Jelly rolls, wrapped in raspberry and coconut also are popular sweets.
“More mainstream groceries are trying to add Hispanic products,” Keyvan says. “If bakers can attract the first generation of Mexican immigrants with authentic artisan-inspired Hispanic bakery products, the second and third generation of American-born Hispanics will become regular customers.” Don't be surprised if the fresh-baked aromas and interesting colors also attract a loyal following of non-Hispanic customers.
Popular Hispanic baked products
Bolillos — A lean baguette baked on the hot oven floor; this salty French-type roll has a thick, crunchy crust; used to make sandwiches with avocado or beans
Churros — Fried strips similar to a donut; they resemble the horns of the churro breed of sheep; churro dough is piped through a special nozzle to produce the characteristic star-shape
Conchas — Traditional bread produced from a rich dough and shaped like a shell; topped with a sugar, butter and flour mixture seasoned with vanilla or cinnamon
Empanada — A pastry stuffed with meat or cheese, folded and baked or fried
Pan Fino — A soft sugary bread with a distinct cinnamon flavor; this hand-shaped bread is often decorated with frosting and may have fruit filling
Polvorones — Delicate crumbly cookies popular during holidays
Puerquitos — A bread shaped like a piglet; molasses gives the dough its distinct flavor and color
Pan de Huevo — A sugary bread roll covered with a raspberry topping and coconut; made with eggs and yeast and has a soft texture
Rosca de Reyes — Mexican holiday bread
Telera — a Mexican bread similar to a French roll with a scored and flour-dusted crust