Sales in the category have been consistently flat from a growth perspective during the past couple years, but that doesn’t mean new product activity has been anything but stagnant, says Tim Zimmer, vice president Sara Lee North American Fresh Bakery, Downers Grove, Ill.

Sales in the category have been consistently flat from a growth perspective during the past couple years, but that doesn’t mean new product activity has been anything but stagnant, says Tim Zimmer, vice president Sara Lee North American Fresh Bakery, Downers Grove, Ill.

“There is a lot of action happening underneath those flat sales, and that is continuing to transition this category toward consumer solutions,” he notes. “Those solutions are coming out as trends around wellness and nutrition, and our opportunities continue to be sharper in providing those solutions.”

In our exclusive online series on trends impacting the bread aisle,Snack Food & Wholesale Bakerymagazine talked to several of the key players in the baking industry.

In an attempt to leverage consumers’ interest in sustainability and the environment, for instance, Sara Lee this month rolled outEarthGrainsbread made with Eco-Grain Wheat, which is grown using farming techniques that benefit the environment because they promote more sustainable agriculture practices. The environmentally friendly product is being promoted as a part of the brand’s “Plot to Save the Earth” that educates consumers on how they can take small steps in everyday life to have a positive step on the environment. It’s another innovative way to add value without discounting, Zimmer says.

More recently, the company introducedSara Lee Soft & SmoothPlus Made with DHA Omega-3 bread, which comes in white and 100% whole wheat varieties. Both contain 12 mg. of DHA Omega-3 per two-slice serving, or at least 10% of what is recommended for children ages 1-13 years. Sara Lee is targeting children because DHA can play a role in the normal development and functioning of the brain.

Unlike in other Omega-3 breads that are made from flax or fish oil, Sara Lee’s new varieties are made from an algae-based nutrient. The goal, Zimmer says, is to provide consumers with proper nutrition through all stages of life especially in younger children.

Additionally, during the past year in the bread aisle, Sara Lee launched three products that provided value as well as a host of wellness and nutritional solutions.

ItsSara Lee Soft & Smooth Mini Bagels, for instance, focused on bringing taste, nutrition and whole grains to children in a snackable form. Additionally, itsSara Lee Delightful hamburger buns deliver nutrition to moms with 80-calorie buns that contain the full-bodied taste of the lower calorie line of baked goods.

Sara Lee also joined the bands of bakers in the burgeoning thin sandwich bun segment. Sold under theEarthGrainsbrand, the products are 100% natural, contain 100 calories per serving and come in varieties such as 100% Whole Grain that provide added nutritional benefits.

Zimmer notes that 85% of the purchases in the thin bun segment are coming from older consumers who live in households without kids.

“It’s a lower calorie and lower carb proposition, and it has higher fiber content,” he explains. “When you look at that consumer and the insights behind that consumer as far as where they are in their life stage, those are important attributes that this product delivers.”

In their effort to differentiate their products in the bread aisle and go beyond high fiber and whole grains, many bakers are stealing a page from the snack and energy bar category with such claims as energy building and active health. 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 consistent in 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.”

On Value
Adding value is not only through price discounting. Rather, Sara Lee is providing it to consumers through coupons that bundle its Soft & Smooth white bread with itsSoft & Smoothbagels or through providing the meal deals or other discounts with the company’s broad line of products in the meat, deli, dessert and other categories. Such cross-category couponing, Zimmer says, increases value of the overall market basket as opposed to just providing a discount on one product.

From a wellness and nutrition perspective, he adds, the value equation includes a number of plusses and minuses that should dovetail nicely into the 2010 Dietary Guidelines when they are finalized later this year.

In some cases, the bakery may add double fiber or additional whole grains or reduce the amount of sodium in its products, which is a company wide initiative that Sara Lee introduced earlier this year across all of its product lines.

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

On Mommy Bloggers
Last summer, Sara Lee’s bakery division brought in 13 mommy bloggers to conduct a back-to-school summit that focused on family nutrition and making student lunches easier to prepare and feature whole grains. In addition to touring Sara Lee’s new R&D facility, the influential moms and the company’s experts exchanged helpful food tips and innovative ways to add more nutrition to school lunches. From there, the bloggers spread the information to other moms via the Internet.

“Over the last six months, we have had more than 50 million impressions from these mommy bloggers going out and delivering a whole grain, healthy habit message to consumers,” Zimmer says. “That’s another way in which we are building a relationship with consumers, and we’re communicating the benefits of this category, and, hopefully, expanding the consumption in this category.”

Sara Lee also is reaching out to kids and families with its partnership through the Disney channel, print and online games, recipes, videos, printable magic tricks and even sweepstakes to promote how to “bring home the magic ofSoft & Smooth” products.

Editor’s Note: Check out next week’s installment on our report about adding value to the bread aisle.