What do you do if you produce the best selling loaf of bread in the United States? If you’re Sara Lee, you tinker with the formula. Sounds outrageous, but this is exactly what the Downer’s Grove, Ill.-based company has done.
This innovative mass producer of bakery foods tinkered with its “bread and butter” product. But, the company didn’t improve the product to make it taste better, nor did it alter the formula to cut costs. Instead, Sara Lee modified its best selling bread formula to make the product more healthful by giving its white bread the benefits of whole grain nutrition without changing its texture or flavor.
The company’s most significant launch, Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White, ushered in a new era for white breads. Times have changed. Sara Lee has been leading the charge, driving the baking industry forward with innovative products. “Prior to our launch of whole grain white breads, there really hadn’t been any advances in white bread for a long time,” says Michael Becherer, Sara Lee Fresh Bakery Group’s director of marketing. “Obviously, it was the perfect timing due to all of the information on whole grains coming out, and it gave consumers no compromise.”
Turns out, Sara Lee’s “no compromise” guidelines propelled its white wheat launch to the front of the pack. When Sara Lee launched its Soft and Smooth Made with Whole Grain White in July 2005, it implemented a 70/30 blend of enriched white flour to white whole wheat flour. Other bakeries launched 100 percent white whole wheat breads.
Sara Lee refused to make the leap to a 100 percent white whole wheat product because the company didn’t want to compromise on the three most important attributes of white bread: flavor, texture and color.
“The reason we stopped where we stopped with the white wheat versus refined flour blend is because that is as far as consumers would let us go,” Becherer says. “When we tried to add more whole grains at that time, consumers rejected it. They did not like the product, and that’s how we ended up with the mix we had at the launch.”
This 70/30 blend of refined flour to white whole wheat flour was seen as a transitional formula as Americans added more whole grains to their diets. Simply put, it helped consumers incorporate whole grains into their diets without shocking their taste buds.
In July 2005, a 70/30 flour blend was as far as Sara Lee could push the whole grain envelope until consumers started pushing back. Today, the company has capitalized on supplier innovations in growing and milling techniques to push a little farther.
“The advancements our suppliers have made with wheat crops over the two years since we launched the product were such that we have been able to push another 25 percent whole grain without compromising what consumers expect from white bread,” Becherer adds.
A nationwide roll out of the new Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread hit store shelves in mid-September. The reformulated product now contains a 64/36 blend of enriched white flour to whole grain flour. More importantly, the new product does not compromise, Becherer says, on the three product attributes consumers look for in white bread: Whether the color is white enough and the texture and flavor are the same as white bread.
In fact, the only notable difference in the reformulated product is the packaging, which carries a label that states the product is “Now with 25 percent more Whole Grain.” This label is in addition to a laundry list of other health properties the bread carries, including no trans fats, no artificial colors or flavors, excellent source of calcium, and good source of vitamin D and folic acid. The price of the product remained the same with an average suggested retail price of $2.79.
Before rolling out the product nationwide, Sara Lee test marketed the product in select areas to ensure consumers saw no compromise in flavor, texture and color for the sake of more whole grains. “The growth of this newly formulated product was twice as much as the same product outside of these test markets,” Becherer says.
White wheat blends
No specific new wheat hybrid was developed solely for white wheat products. White wheat is a general classification for a variety of wheat that includes hard white winter wheat, hard white spring wheat and soft white wheat.
New advancements in processing techniques in the last five years paved the way for whole wheat flour with comparable attributes to white flour. Further milling and growing advancements in the last few years have allowed flour suppliers to make white whole wheat flour that is whiter, finer and free of the bitter taste associated with most whole wheat flours.
Despite these advancements, creating a 100 percent white whole wheat product that mimics white bread is difficult. That is why bakeries, such as Sara Lee, use the blended approach. Although many consumers have embraced whole grain nutrition, they have not all embraced hearty, dense loaves. Blends of white whole wheat and refined white flour provide the ideal formulation for consumers that want whole grains without comprising on white bread’s popular attributes.
“Someday it would be great if Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White was a 100 percent whole grain product,” Becherer says. “Consumers will let us know and technology will guide us as to how quickly we can get there.”