In the bread aisle, bakers are taking bolder steps to differentiate their brands from the competition’s with wholesome products that offer solutions for consumers’ health needs and lifestyles, but how far is too far?

By Dan Malovany

Thou shall steal that idea if it can make money. Since the beginning of time in the bread aisle, that’s been first commandment of competition and the golden rule of innovation for all too many companies. One potato bread became two potato, three potato, four. Fat-free products then turned into a free for all. No salt and no sugar meant no taste. Low-carb morphed into a craze until consumers came to their senses. Then 100-calorie options multiplied by 100 fold, and continue to do so to this very day.

Likewise, during the infancy of the whole grain movement, the bread aisle became the great numbers game that, in the end, resembled something unlike Sotheby’s auction. Gimme five whole grains, do I have seven, nine? Nine, do I have 12, 15, 18 or 21? Sold to the bearded man in the back of the room with a chainsaw.

More recently, the aisle transformed itself from a multitude of multigrain products to a game of blackjack as every baker couldn’t resist doubling down in the name of health. Double fiber and double protein bequeathed double Omega-3, oats and more to provide consumers with key nutrients that they may be lacking in their diet. Many of the players who are holding these cards found them paying big dividends as the American Heart Association and the Whole Grains Council now provide seals of approval to those products that meet their groups’ strict requirements.

In another effort to go beyond whole grains, bakers like Ft. Worth, Texas-based Mrs Baird’s Bakeries added plant sterols and prebiotics to offer aid in digestive health. Last summer, Flowers Foods rolled out itsNature’s OwnGrains & Granola Bread to leverage the wholesome image of cereal and bars into a bread form. Additionally, agile specialty bakers such as French Meadow Bakery, Eagan, Minn., even jumped on the never-say-die, gluten-free movement with 100% Flourless Bread and Bagels and a line of gluten-free breads.

In addition to making white bread with whole grains, which has created an entirely different, better-for-you segment in that market, several companies such as Cincinnati-based Klosterman Baking Co. are naturally adding Vitamin D and calcium to make up for deficiencies in consumption by children. Hostess Brands reformulated itsWonder Classic sandwich breads to provide the same amount of calcium as 8 oz. of milk in two slices of bread and a good source of Vitamin D, says Rich Seban, Hostess Brands chief marketing officer.

“Wonder has always had a commitment to health, and we look forward to continuing to reinforce this heritage in the coming year,” he says.

In a distribution play to gain entry to natural and health food chains, even some of the nation’s biggest bakers cleaned up the labels of existing products by eliminating artificial flavors and preservatives to go all natural. Irving, Texas-based Hostess Brands, formerly known as Interstate Bakeries Corp., last year came out with itsNature’s Prideline of 100% natural breads, which are distributed across the country.

“An increasing number of consumers are adopting a ‘natural lifestyle’ with a focus on health and well-being that includes green living, sustainability and natural products,” Seban explains. “As a result, the popularity of natural food products continues to increase as more and more consumers look for wholesome and healthy foods that they can feel good about feeding their families.”

Bakers also are taking a page from history with products filled with ancient grains and other wholesome ingredients that have been around for centuries. In a slightly different move, Aunt Millie’s Bakeries last fall rolled out its Early American breads with no genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). The products come in Whole Grain White, Amber Grains, 100% Stone Ground Wheat and Honey Oatmeal varieties.

“Aunt Millie’s introduced Early American breads as a premium, all-natural bread that appeals to the growing segment of consumers who are looking for health from natural resources,” says J. Bohn Popp, vice president of marketing for the Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based company. “These consumers want whole grains and fiber, and non-processed ingredients, including flour. This line reflects the direction of Aunt Millie’s premium bread line as a whole.”

Redefining the Guidelines
Although the whole grain movement seemed to have plateaued over the last year, especially as the slumping economy has stifled new product innovation throughout the food industry in general, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that are up for renewal this year may ratchet up the call for consumers to change their eating habits and incorporate even more whole grains into their diets.

“Although it’s too early in the process to predict a certain outcome, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines may recommend a shift from specific nutrients such as eating less fat and more fiber to specific foods to help individuals make better food choices and consume the nutrients they need,” says Janice Anderson, vice president of marketing for Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga. “The guidelines also may emphasize choosing less calorie-dense and more fiber-rich foods,” she says. “It would seem that all of these would benefit whole grain breads.”

Another change on the government’s radar involves lowering the recommended sodium intake.

“Since breads are already fairly low in sodium, this may have minimal impact in the bread aisle, but we may see bakers further reducing the sodium content of some offerings, as we did with ourNature’s OwnLight breads in 2008,” Anderson says.

Norwalk, Conn.-based Pepperidge Farm, as a part of a corporate initiative by its parent company, Campbell Soup, lowered the sodium in its breads and baked goods last year. This year, Sara Lee followed suit with its own corporate initiative to reduce sodium in all of its product lines. For some nutritionists, the concern is that Americans consume bread so frequently that the new guidelines may draw attention to the total amount of sodium, albeit small, that consumers get from bread, rolls, buns, bagels and English muffins each day as part of their daily diets.

In some perspectives, cutting sodium while emphasizing whole grains could be a win-win for the baking industry, says Tim Zimmer, vice president of Sara Lee North American Fresh Bakery, Downers Grove, Ill.

“It’s another way to add value to the product, and that’s through the removal of negatives,” he notes. “I think the removal of negatives actually will have a positive impact on the category.”

In response to consumers nutrition concerns and pending Dietary Guidelines, King’s Hawaiian Bakery launched a Honey Wheat version of its classic Hawaiian bread that’s available in round loaf, dinner rolls and snacker rolls.

“For King’s Hawaiian, our Original Sweet recipe will always remain at the forefront of our flavor offerings, but now with the addition of the Honey Wheat with wholesome grains recipe, we are extending to consumers a choice lower in calories and fat,” says John Linehan, executive vice president of strategy and business development for the Torrance, Calif.-based company.

Likewise, Cleveland, Ohio-based Orlando Baking Co. is seeing fast growth with its Ciabatta multigrain roll, which some consumers are slicing it in half and toasting it as an alternative to English muffins, notes Nick Orlando, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing.

“It falls in line with people looking for smaller sizes, plus it’s less bready,” he says. “It has a light interior, a light texture, a muffin-like texture. People are eating less bread, but they’re trading up to a higher quality bread or nutritious bread. Ciabatta has no fat, it’s low calorie and now we have the multigrain variety for people who are looking for more fiber and not white flour.”

Although hopeful that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue to highly value grains as a necessary component for the average American diet, Popp suggests that any decrease in emphasis in the upcoming guidelines could derail the momentum that the baking industry gained over the last few years.

“I feel that even if this does occur, commercial bread will not suffer too greatly,” he adds. “I do think whole grains will most likely be advocated while enriched grains may be not. Whether or not reduced sodium is pushed by the USDA, it should become more of a factor due to the aging demographics. Most sodium intake - more than 70% - is consumed in processed foods.”

Me-too Versus Too Far
Today, producers of bread, rolls, buns, bagels, English muffins and the abundance of baked goods that populate the bread aisle have stolen an idea from the snack, granola and energy bar segment and have begun to tailor their messages to target consumers’ lifestyles, to gender-based men and women breads and even to providing possible remedies for a plethora of ailments, illnesses, conditions and disorders.

Rohnert, Calif.-based Alvarado Street Bakery, for instance, has rolled out its Diabetic Lifetyles bread, which has been clinically tested by the Glycemic Research Institute in Washington, D.C., to certify its low-glycemic claims and show that diabetics experienced a reduction in blood glucose by the end of the testing period. This product is made with sprouted organic whole wheat berries and flavored with organic dates and raisins.

Horsham, Pa.-based Bimbo Bakeries added to itsArnoldandBrownberryGrains & More line with a Grain Lovers variety that contains millet, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, Kamut oats and teff blend with flax and sunflower seeds and boasts 20 g. of whole grains per slice. Additionally, the brand’s 100% Active Health variety supports digestive heath by being an excellent source of fiber and offering 18 g. of whole grains and 100 calories per slice.

Digestive health, however, is not only a concern of North American consumers, says Gary Jensen, president of Roman Meal, Tacoma, Wash.

“We’re looking at new product introductions across 20 countries, and what we saw is that aiding digestion showed up as the leading benefit for consumers, more than any other,” Jensen notes. “It’s just not domestic. It’s much, much bigger than that.”

Positioning products for active heath and other lifestyles is emerging as the next step that some marketers are taking to go beyond whole grains and high fiber to differentiate their products for the bread aisle. Not surprisingly, many bakers are cautious about following in those footsteps.

Recently, the government shot down “smart choice” claims for some food products because the label could be possibly misleading. In an industry where bakers traditionally copy successful ideas in the bread aisle, the issue today may be striking a balance between “me-too” and “too far.”

Although the fresh bakery category is a “wonderful vehicle to deliver wellness and nutrition to consumers,” Zimmer says, Sara Lee remains on the sidelines because it wants to be focused on how it delivers on consumer expectations and ensures that it’s following well-defined governmental and regulatory guidelines on making such claims.

“As we develop our products, we want to make sure they are consistent and relevant and delivering the expectations of our consumers,” he explains. “We always want to be careful that we’re not providing consumers a medicine cabinet from a nutritional standpoint. We want to make sure that we’re consistent in the products we deliver, and we’re not over-delivering claims on packaging.

“We also want to be careful that we’re not jumping in and providing nutrition I would say is not consistent, sustainable and provides nutritional requirements for consumers,” he adds. “There are always a lot of fads that are going to pop up from a nutrition standpoint. We want to make sure that we’re responsible, we’re credible and believable in the nutrition that we are providing consumers.”

Likewise, Flowers Foods is proceeding cautiously when it comes to jumping on the health claim bandwagon.

“Our No. 1 focus is to maintain the trust consumers have in our baked goods,” Anderson explains. “We do this by using pure and wholesome ingredients and by being very sure of any health benefits we elect to call out on our packaging. That said, we don’t know just how far bakers may go with additives that offer specific health benefits. UnderNature’s Own, we already have breads with high whole grain values, more fiber, no sugar, less calories and Omega-3. As we continue to review the latest nutritional and health research and listen to what our consumers say they want, we will look at other possible ingredients and additives-but again, we will proceed with caution.”