The humble corn-based flatbread that originated in Mexico has expanded far beyond its roots to secure a lasting place in the American diet. While the mainstreaming of Mexican cuisine in the United States certainly contributed to the tortilla’s surge in popularity over the past several decades, its versatility and association with healthful dining have helped make it a coveted item with many more applications than taco night.
Indeed, half of adults say they have eaten flour tortillas during the past month, while 39 percent have eaten corn tortillas, according to a February 2011 custom consumer survey by market research firm Mintel. Moreover, Mintel data indicate that tortillas, taco shells and taco kits are a $1.7 billion category in food, drug, and mass stores (excluding Walmart), indicating that these “little cakes” are in high demand across retailers.
“Mexican food is definitely fairly mainstream these days, which is why tortilla usage is so high among adults,” says David Browne, senior analyst at Mintel. “And tortillas will likely benefit further from the fact that they are inherently lower carb/calorie than bread, and are also appealing for other types of foods, such as wraps.”
According to Juv Marchisio, senior marketing manager at B&G Foods Inc. (Ortega), consumers seek differentiated products that still appeal to a wide audience, like tortillas. “Moms are especially vocal in this category–looking for products for their families that won’t disrupt the routine, yet add health benefits,” he says. Tortillas act as vehicles for health that are easily integrated into a variety of family meals, from grilled fish tacos to egg and turkey bacon breakfast wraps, he adds.
The most sought-after addition to Ortega’s soft tortilla lines in recent years has been “whole wheat or whole grain,” Marchisio says. Ortega launched its first line of whole wheat soft tortillas a few years ago to meet demand. Today, that item and white flour tortillas are two of the brand’s most popular products.
As Americans’ definition of wellness has evolved to become more nuanced, tortilla brands have innovated formulas to include everything from omega-3 fatty acids to whole grains to fiber to low sodium, Browne says. “The challenge for the sector, however, is that some of these offerings simply don’t taste as good as traditional tortillas.”
Marchisio says as consumers show greater interest in healthy food options, they are less critical of flavor. “A reduced sodium tortilla might taste less savory, and multigrain or whole wheat can be heartier, but many of these applications do not have drastic effects on taste. Consumers are accepting these changes for the health benefits.”
Private label on the rise
Private label is proving to be a proverbial thorn in the side of national brands across bakery product categories, as consumers grapple with higher food prices. According to SymphonyIRI, private-label tortillas saw a more than 10 percent increase in sales since last year.
“Certainly, higher food prices are affecting this category,” says Browne. “It’s certainly led to trade downs to more value-based brands and products, private labels, etc. It may actually lead to less overall interest in premium and ‘value-added’ breads that come with a higher price typically, though keep in mind that these types of products usually appeal to a more affluent audience.”