A trend that took off in the commercial bread aisle is making its way into retail bakeries. The increasing popularity of whole grain presents bakers with an opportunity to address health conscious consumers’ food decisions.
| Clear Flour Bakery’s German rye once only interested a small ethnic community. Now, the bakery is producing it three days a week. |
|New flavors and varieties are helping whole grain breads shake off the reputation for being heavy and bitter. |
The correlation between whole grain and cardiovascular health is quickly approaching common knowledge-status. This is due in part to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommendation that people consume at least three servings of whole grains per day and efforts of the Whole Grains Council, Wheat Foods Council and other industry groups promoting the benefits of whole grain consumption. Meanwhile, bakery manufacturers producing whole grain-rich products have shattered old assumptions that whole grain equates to heavy, course and bitter bread. Sales figures reflect the increasing supply and demand for whole grain bakery products.
According to the Mintel Gobal New Products Database, sales of whole grain products experienced a greater jump than products with any other health claim in the past three years. Whole grain products generated $221 million in total bakery sales in 2006, nearly triple 2004’s $64 million. As of 2006, whole grain generates the third most bakery sales of any health claim, behind only low- or reduced-trans fat and all natural claims, according to Mintel.
These figures are buoyed by the immense success that whole grains have had among large, wholesale bakeries. “We’ve recognized a shift, but we’ve seen it more in the commercial aisle at this point of time,” says Bill Mihu, bakery director, Schnucks Markets, St. Louis. “By my estimation, sometime within the next three years, whole grain will surpass the white bread category on the commercial side, then we’ll take a closer look at items that make sense to replicate on the fresh side.”
The packaging in the commercial aisle is a more effective vehicle to generate customer response in terms of health, but in-store operators still see opportunity to garner sales from whole grain’s popularity. Mihu says he will be keeping an eye on the commercial side and determining the potential of those fresh whole grain products for the in-store bakeries.
Jump in sales
Many retail bakers and specialty wholesalers already are producing a wide variety of whole grain breads and are seeing a jump in whole grain sales.
“People are asking more than they used to if things are healthy,” says Abe Faber, owner of Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, Mass. “Whereas a few years ago, we sold authentic rye breads to only a few German families, now almost almost all of our customers enjoy our expanded line of whole grain breads.”
Faber notes that he hasn’t seen the demand for whole grain items grow from his wholesale customers. For him, restaurants, hotels and other wholesale clients are increasing demand for inclusions of fruits, nuts or exotic herbs and spices.
Jeff Yankellow, owner and head baker of Simply Bread in Phoenix, is finding different results from his foodservice and wholesale customers. “We’ve sold more of our 100 percent whole wheat sandwich bread in the last three months than we had in the previous eight months,” Yankellow says. “The demand is primarily coming from hotels and restaurants.”
The demand is growing because American consumers are generally more aware of their diets. Whole grains are a vehicle by which those consumers can be reached. “A wonderful and unintended consequence of the somewhat simplistic and silly ‘low-carb’ fad was that some of the better diet books pushed people to explore the health benefits of whole grain breads,” Faber says.
Look no further than supermarket aisles for an indicator of the growing public affinity for whole grains. Health claims and nutritional recommendations from the Whole Grains Council are now emblazoned on packages from energy bars to cereals. “The sure sign that whole grain is a big trend is that big companies like Sara Lee are getting into it,” Yankellow adds.
Consumers seem to understand what the claims mean, thanks in part to the Whole Grains Council. “We are working to make sure there is a market for whole grain out there,” says Cynthia Harriman, Whole Grains Council director of food and nutrition. “If we worked just on the supply side, nobody would know about it.” The Council has made a significant mark in grocery stores, and is currently taking aim at the restaurant and foodservice market, hoping to ensure every menu has a whole grain option.
Retail bakeries are invited to join the Whole Grains Council and use the whole grain stamp, but it is up to individual bakers to weigh the importance of membership.
“We know that we have been positioned to take advantage of increased demand for whole grains,” says Dave Dahl of Dave’s Killer Bread in Portland, Ore. “Becoming a member wasn’t much of an expense, so this is a way to take advantage.”
“The Whole Grains Council is doing its job of educating people out there,” says Kurt Schmidt, owner of Deerfield’s Bakery with three locations in suburban Chicago. “But when you start blending flours, you might not have the fiber content you need in order to get a certain stamp, and whole oats won’t get a certain stamp due to different fiber packaging. I see their problem; it was a tough decision for them, but to me it was a big issue.”
Yankellow is confident that his products speak for themselves, and that he doesn’t need a stamp to qualify his products. “We put a little thought into the stamp, we just feel that we are who we are; we use fairly pure ingredients; we don’t use preservatives, and we go on that across the board,” he says.
Bakeries aren’t going to change their stripes overnight, but many are getting ahead of the health trend wherever they can. “I’ll never be able to make a croissant or a donut that’s healthy for you,” Schmidt says, “but you can still bring in the people who are leading the wave in healthier food trends.”
He conceptualizes retailing as a circular process in which businesses need to evolve in order to stay competitive. “Now and again a retailer goes out of favor, but they come back because they’ve found a new way to merchandise themselves,” he says. “Whole grains are something that can allow an evolution in bakeries to occur, so they can stay in favor.”
Staying in favor presents challenges, though. The first challenge is whole grain products’ reputation for yielding a less desirable flavor. “I think we are past that stage,” Harriman says. “It’s not like you can just remove your white flour and add whole grain, but everyone’s fiddling with formulations and there are a lot of delicious options out there already.”
Bakers also recognize production challenges that whole grain doughs present. Whole grain doughs handle fewer inclusions like seeds, grains and raisins, and require more mixing care and skill, as well as adjustments in formulation, Dahl says.
“It’ll take additional water, you have to keep a closer eye on it while proofing, and you have to handle it a little more carefully,” Yankellow adds, “ but don’t be afraid of whole grains. They aren’t as scary as you think.”
Beginning to offer whole grain products can be a gradual process, and not necessarily the leap that is often perceived. Schmidt is starting simply with a line of whole grain muffins and a few other products, noting that bread isn’t the only thing that can be whole grain.
Dahl says that while a particular SKU might not fulfill every Whole Grains Council requirement, it still may contain a serving or two, and bakers can tell customers that. Yankellow, too, emphasizes that bakers don’t have to go overboard to offer the nutritional value of whole grains. “Too often we focus on what the product doesn’t have, like the low-carb label overshadowing the nutritional value of bread,” he says. “Just because it isn’t 100 percent whole grain doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a benefit, and that can easily be explained to customers.”
Whole grains are growing by leaps and bounds in terms of baked products’ market share, so they offer a unique opportunity for bakers to capitalize on an increasingly health conscious customer base. Faber contends that the whole grains trend is a silver lining result of the ‘low-carb’ craze. It took Americans’ ‘low-carb’ overcorrection and snubbing of processed grains to realize the rich whole grain traditions they have been missing out on. “Who cares if it came in the form of a somewhat Draconian anti-bread campaign,” Faber says.