Take a look at some of this year’s hottest bakeries and find out what they’re doing to meet trends and stay on course.

By Lauren R. Hartman and Marina Mayer

As more and more consumers latch onto healthy yet inexpensive items, bakers are leveraging consumer needs and wants with new or modified products, such as flatbread, pitas, wraps, “skinny” buns and even slider-size buns.

Whole grains and multigrains are the phrases that pay these days, along with natural, “better-for-you” ingredients and clean labels. Meanwhile, companies are improving their labels with more specific content statements and particularly, what ingredients products are listing imparticularly don’t contain.

Some bakers are working on gluten-free, allergy-free, dairy-free and other beneficial specialty formulations, while others are finding alternative options. Some are even dabbling in social media or revamping their packaging lines to better “speak” to their consumers.

While this year has proved challenging for several bakers, thanks to a slumping economy, rising ingredient costs and consumers opting for healthy, yet cost-efficient products, a slew of bakers have risen above these road blocks and continued to produce better-for-you products that stretched the boundaries of traditional baking.

Take a look at some of this year’s hottest bakeries and find out what they’re doing to meet trends and stay on course.

Wonderful World of White Bread
Several industry experts and food bloggers tag white bread as the unhealthy kind because it doesn’t deliver the same nutrients and vitamins as its whole grain counterparts. As a result, some white bread varieties have taken a back seat to the ever-prominent whole grain and ultragrain options.

For several consumers though, the mere vision of white bread creates childhood flashbacks when it was the primary component of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Thanks to companies like Hostess Brands, consumers can relive those cozy childhood memories.

For example,Wonder Smartwhitemimics the taste and soft texture of conventional white bread but offers the fiber of 100% whole wheat bread, says Stephany Verstraete, vice president of bread marketing.

Wonder Smartwhitealso provides a good source of nine vitamins and minerals such as iron, Vitamin D and folic acid and has 33% less sodium than regular white bread. Each slice is only 50 calories,” Verstraete says.

White bread may produce a comfort-food feeling, however, families also are looking for nutritious bread options that taste great, regardless of the flavor, Verstraete adds.

“Our recent Wonder Smartwhite advertising campaign focuses on connecting with parents on an emotional level, reassuring them that we know they are concerned about what their kids want and need, but they don’t have to worry about the nutrition in our breads and specifically newWonder Smartwhite,” Verstraete says.

In response to consumer trends, the Irving, Texas-based company launchedNature’s PridePremium Harvest gourmet-sized hamburger buns and deli rolls, which are baked with 100% natural ingredients. The 100% Whole Wheat buns, for instance, provide a good source of fiber, 34 g. of whole grains in each bun and have 25% less sodium than regular 100% whole wheat buns. Meanwhile, the Country White buns provide 7 g. of protein in each bun and have 25% less sodium than regular white buns. The Country White Deli Rolls provide 7 g. of protein in each roll and have 25% less sodium than regular white rolls.

“We recognize the importance of lowering the amount of sodium in consumers’ diets and are actively working toward lowering sodium levels across our portfolio of bread products,” Verstraete says.

Just last month, Hostess Brands introducedNature’s Pride OvenClassics, which are shaped like a loaf baked in your home oven. They come in 100% Whole Wheat, Oatmeal Bread, Honey Wheat with Fiber and Potato options.

“We all know bread is a wonderful comfort food for consumers. Just talking to consumers about their experiences with bread invariably brings a smile and a fond memory. What we can’t lose sight of is the fact that it also offers many of the nutritional benefits today’s consumers are looking to add into their diets,” Verstraete adds. “We are committed to developing solutions that are in line with these consumer trends and are focused on reminding consumers of the goodness that a delicious slice of bread can bring, whether it’s a nutritious and delicious choice from their iconic childhood brand or venturing into an arena of all-natural.”

Better-for-You Taste, Packaging
More consumers today understand the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity and are becoming smarter when it comes to making food choices, according to Janice Anderson, vice president of marketing at Flowers Foods.

“In the bread aisle, this has meant increased consumption of breads with higher amounts of whole wheat and whole grain content and a greater interest in breads offering other healthy benefits, such as higher fiber, reduced sodium and Omega-3s, Consumers’ interest in foods with simple portion control, whether that is a package of mini cupcakes or 100-calorieNature’s Own Sandwich Rounds, is clearly linked to the better-for-you trend,” she adds.

That’s why the Thomasville, Ga., company introduced a lineup of items under itsNature’s Ownbrand that deliver better-for-you ingredients mixed in with a tasty texture and slick packaging.

As a way to provide options for all consumers, Flowers Foods introducedNature’s Owngluten-free bread, which is currently in test markets in select stores in the Atlanta metro area. Made in a dedicated wheat- and gluten-free facility, this gluten-free loaf contains 8 g. of whole grains and 3 g. of fiber per slice and is perfect for sandwiches and toasting. Shoppers can select from Extra Fiber White and Health Multi-Grain varieties.

Meanwhile, theNature’s Own35 Calories per Slice 9-Grain offering contains three times the amount of fiber as regular fiber-filled bread, is just 35 calories per slice and delivers 30% less sodium than enriched honey wheat bread. This lineup comes in Light Wheat, Light Honey Wheat and Light Premium White options.

The team of 100% whole grain Sandwich Rounds offers a nutty taste, with 20 g. of whole grains per round and just 100 calories per serving. Versatile enough for burgers, sandwiches and mini pizzas, these rounds come in 100% Whole Wheat, Healthy Multi Grain and 100% Whole Grain varieties.

The thin-sliced bagels, on the other hand, are 4-in. diameter bagels that offer a slimmer and thinner profile and eke out just 140-150 calories per serving. They come in Original and 100% Whole Wheat varieties.

Additionally, Flowers Foods re-introduced itsNature’s Own 35-calorie breads, complete with five less calories than previous light breads and 20-35% less sodium than similar regular breads. They are available in Wheat, Honey Wheat, Premium White and now 9-Grain.

“We’re going to see the better-for-you trend continue to impact the bread category, whether that’s with more portion-controlled options or more varieties offering specific healthy attributes,” Anderson says. “I think more attention will be paid to ingredients, as we’ve seen with high-fructose corn syrup.Nature’s Own breads have always been made with no artificial preservatives, colors and flavors. That has never changed. However, in response to consumer requests, we removed high-fructose corn syrup fromNature’s Ownproducts last year. I also think there’s an opportunity for the industry to further educate consumers about the role grains and whole grains play in a healthy diet.”

Flowers Foods also experienced significant packaging innovations by adding a zipper closure to itsNature’s OwnSandwich Rounds packaging for example, Anderson adds.

“Consumers have been asking for some sort of resealable packaging for years, but it’s just not appropriate for any type product,” she notes. “With our new sandwich rounds, however, we had a product perfect for a convenient, zipper-closed bag. We partnered with one of our packaging suppliers to come up with the packaging and invested in the necessary equipment and technology. We plan to expand our use of this type of package on future new products.”

Furthermore, all of Flowers Foods’ packaging complies with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which took effect back in 2006, says Mike Beaty, executive vice president of supply chain.

“When we develop a new product, we consider which of our bakeries will be producing the item and try to avoid introducing a new allergen to those bakeries,” he adds. “The same is true for kosher items. Bakery foods that don’t meet kosher requirements are not produced in bakeries with kosher processing lines.”

No Need to Consume Less Bread
Consumers are gravitating to items such as flatbreads, pitas, wraps, thin buns and even slider buns, says Nick Orlando, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing for Orlando Baking Co., because the idea is for consumers to either consume less bread or fewer thick, heavy breads.

On the flip side, the trends also allow consumers to select from a variety of better-for-you options, complete with high fiber, less fat and fewer calories.

That’s why the Cleveland-based company introduced a whole grain Ciabatta roll and a slider bun option.

“Orlando has always offered artisan breads that are either low or no sugar, are low or no fat and without preservatives,” Orlando, Jr. says. “So when we talk about the trend of breads moving toward more natural ingredients, that is a trend that Orlando has always believed in.”

Orlando Baking also is in the process of developing a probiotic-enriched bread, designed to aid in digestion.

“The biggest question on a baker’s mind is how are we going to sell more bread and at the same time continue to stay current on new consumer demands and trends?” Orlando, Jr. asks. “There are so many different roads to take within the bread industry and we’re often left asking which way should we go -- gluten free, higher in fiber, multigrain, etc.”

Go Gluten-free
Fluctuating ingredient prices and price constraints from major retailers are just a few of the challenges that several of today’s bakers face. However, they’re nothing compared to trying to keep up with consumers’ demands.

That’s why Canada-based Kinnikinnick Foods Inc. introduced a team of new bakery items over the past six months, and continues to keep at least six new products in the research and development stage, according to Jerry Bigam, president. The folks at Kinnikinnick Foods also are revamping their packaging labels to better speak to that niche consumer.

“We are changing all product labels to reflect prominent new dairy-free and nut-free logos in addition to the packages’ gluten-free description,” Bigam says. “All of our products are made in a dedicated gluten- and nut-free facility, and all but our Tapioca Rice Cheese bread are dairy-free as well. Our new labels will prominently display this allergen-safe designation.”

In addition to a label enhancement, Kinnikinnick Foods is undergoing a social media makeover to provide immediate feedback to consumers and reach out to mom and teen bloggers, Bigam says.

For example, Kinnikinnick TV, www.kinnikinnick.tv, features “Gluten-free,” a free video series teaching users how to cook and bake gluten-free. Viewers can choose from KinniTOOS cheesecake and lemon meringue pie, among others.

“[One of the greatest opportunities for growth in the bread category is] continuing to expand the variety of products and upgrade the quality of gluten-free food [and] continuing to expand the presence of gluten-free food into all retail market segments as well as foodservice applications,” Bigam says.

Thin is In
It’s not a secret - thin is in. Regardless of how healthy the product is though, consumers still want more of the good stuff. That means more whole grains without all of the carbs.

Milwaukee-based Kangaroo Brands took this challenge a step further by creating a slew of products that not only meet consumer demands, but do so in an innovative way.

For instance, Hot Dog Pockets allow consumers to enjoy grilling without worrying about hefty, oversized buns. These folded-over pitas create a pocket for the hot dog and condiments in a zero trans-fat option.
The Itsy Bitsy Pockets are a smaller-sized option that provides just 40 calories per pocket.

“At just 40 calories per pocket, they are the perfect companion for a variety of salads, spreads and other fixin’s,” says Jenna Kashou, communications manager.

Meanwhile, the Fiber 5 Sandwich Pockets provide 5 g. of fiber and are designed for fillings and toppings such as chicken, tuna, salads, and more.

“Kangaroo pita is the original thin bread, and has always been a great alternative to spongy or dense preservative-filled bread,” Kashou says. “The Kangaroo heat-and-eat omelet pitas are the perfect healthy breakfast for families on the go. They only take 60 seconds to cook in the microwave and provide a satiating mix of 70% protein and 30% carbs to keep people full for the entire morning.”

The Kangaroo lineup also received a facelift with its logo and packaging, Kashou adds.

“The clean white look mirrors the clean ingredient list and the tamper-evident resalable packaging on the bread ensures consumer safety and helps the bread stay softer longer,” she notes.

100-Calorie Explosion
Portion-control products are king when it comes to serving up healthy, better-for-you products. For Calise & Sons Bakery, it’s the 100-calorie items that are key in bringing consumers what they want.

“There has been an explosion of 100-calorie products over the past couple of years,” says Michael Calise, president of the Lincoln, R.I.-based company. “Also, there has been greater acceptance by consumers of wheat and whole wheat products, including those enriched with fiber.”

That’s why Calise & Sons launched 100-calorie deli rolls in Whole Grain White and 100% Whole Wheat options. These 100-calorie thin sandwich rolls contain 5 g. of fiber and zero trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup.

“Moms and dieters are definitely consumers of 100-calorie products, wheat products, whole wheat products and fiber-enriched products,” Calise says. “We are trying to come to market with new products that meet these requirements and taste good too. For teens, it seems that the whole grain white products are more acceptable than traditional wheat and whole wheat products. For on-the-go consumers, we began slicing most of our sandwich rolls for convenience.”

Calise & Sons also overhauled its label claims by eliminating ingredients such as soy flour from its ingredients lists.

“In 2009, we abandoned use of potassium bromate completely as the first step in cleaning our label. In 2010, we are going to lower our sodium in all retail and school products,” Calise says. “Additionally, we do not use high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils in our products.”

Soft and Smooth
For the first time in category history, sales of wheat bread surpassed white bread, says Jeff Dryfhout, director of Sara Lee Bakery North America. However, there is an audience that wants some whole grain nutrition but from a white bread.

“Sara LeeSoft & SmoothMade with Whole Grain White bread not only delivers 10 g. of whole grain per two-slice serving, but is also provides other benefits – it’s a good source of whole grain and fiber, an excellent source of calcium and a good source of Vitamin D,” Dryfhout says.

Sara Lee also expanded itsSoft & Smoothline of better-for-you bread options with aSoft & SmoothMade with DHA Omega-3 kind. Available in 100% Whole Wheat and Made with Whole Grain White varieties, contains 12 mg of DHA Omega-3 per two-slice serving and at least 10% of suggested daily amount for kids, according to the Institute of Medicine’s standards.

“We listen to our consumers and aim to give them a product that tastes good as well as delivers the nutrition they can feel good about,” Dryfhout says. “From Facebook to Twitter to promotions with Disney, we strive to provide mom with the types of bread she is looking for to feed her family well, while also giving her interesting and useful information that she can use.”

The Downers Grove, Ill.-based company also made a company-wide commitment to reduce salt by nearly 20% over the next five years throughout key product categories, Dryfhout adds.

“Our corporation is committed to a set of standards that touch every aspect of our business - every product we produce, every location where we do business around the globe and every stakeholder with whom we have a relationship,” he notes.

Additionally, Sara Lee endorses a number of community efforts, including the Sara Lee Foundation, which funds cultural organizations and groups supporting disadvantaged Chicagoans; the Douwe Egberts Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to improve the living conditions for small coffee and tea producers; and the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a conglomerate of food producers who aim to reduce calories by 1.5 trillion by 2015.

“Our consumer is our top priority and we will continue to listen to their needs and provide innovative solutions that have the nutrition they can feel good about as parents, but also taste delicious,” Dryfhout says.

Growing Fast in Florida
For the fourth consecutive year, Tortuga Rum Cake in Miami has been namedInc. Magazine’s top 5,000 fastest-growing businesses in America. Tortuga Imports, Inc., which does business as Tortuga Rum Cake, handles worldwide sales and distribution of rum cakes and Caribbean gourmet products.

“Given the economic times, we are especially proud of this accomplishment and strive to continue to grow our business,” says Monique Hamaty-Simmonds, president and CEO of the Tortuga Rum Cake Co. “Our entire team is dedicated to providing excellence in our products and service to our customers. We offer an authentic ‘taste of the Caribbean.’”

The company sells rum cakes in 4-, 16- and 33-oz. sizes in nine tropical varieties, as well as flavored gourmet coffees, hot and savory Caribbean sauces, rum fudge, honey, pepper jelly, conch chowder and more. The products are available throughout North America and in the Caribbean, on more than 100 cruise ships and online at www.tortugarumcakes.com.

International flavors are growing in popularity, says Hamaty-Simmonds.

“That’s helping our company expand U.S. distribution of our authentic Caribbean brand,” she adds. “Most consumers are first introduced to Tortuga Caribbean Rum Cakes on a cruise or vacation in the islands. We evoke memories of tropical breezes, sandy beaches and carefree sunny days. They are delighted to discover our rum cakes at their local grocery or specialty food shop.”

Packed in brightly colored octagon-shaped cartons printed with either swashbuckling pirate graphics or a Caribbean design, the cakes are now being discovered in many market channels.

“Tortuga Caribbean Rum Cakes are an affordable indulgence,” Hamaty-Simmonds says. We know from our stores in the islands that the power of, ‘if they try it, they will buy it’ works. We offer sampling programs to retailers and have an extensive media relations campaign that encourages mommy bloggers to taste and review our rum cakes.”

But one of the company’s biggest challenges is ensuring the proper supply as demand expands.

“Our bakeries are located in Grand Cayman and Barbados, so the importing logistics and facility capacities come into play,” Hamaty-Simmonds says. “Of course, we welcome this type of challenge.”

There are many opportunities for growth with international specialty products, such as the rum cakes.

“However, we do not want to encourage other bakeries to get into the rum cake business,” Hamaty-Simmonds says.