Take the Tortilla Test
By Anne Ford

All things organic are on the rise … or are they? Tortilla manufacturers discuss the pros and cons of venturing into the organic market.
Take out your pencils, class. It’s time for a quick logic quiz:   1. True or false: If tortillas have gone mainstream, and organic has gone mainstream, then it stands to reason that organic tortillas have gone mainstream, too.
Everyone who answered “true,” go to the back of the class.
“But wait!” you protest. “The Organic Trade Association reports that sales of organic foods are expected to grow 11% a year through 2010! And tortilla sales totaled $6.1 billion in 2004! What gives?”
Don’t tell it to us. Tell it to Bob Blaida, executive vice president of Allied Blending and Ingredients, Keokuk, Iowa. ABI sells tortilla ingredient supplies such as BatchPaks (kits that contain everything a manufacturer needs to make flour tortillas, except for flour, water, and shortening or oil) and, for the corn tortilla market, liquid preservatives and conditioners.
“The [tortilla] market in total is so large that natural and organic tortillas have not yet made an impact,” Blaida says. “There’s interest, but it’s not widespread,” even while “the demand for tortillas is at an all-time high.”  
Others in the tortilla industry think organic might have long-term potential. Right now, it’s more of a niche product that’s seeking a broader audience.
“I think [organic tortilla demand] is building slowly,” confirms Matt Lauder, CEO of Lobo Tortillas, Dallas. “I don’t see it overtaking the regular flour tortillas.” His company does produce some organic whole wheat tortillas for its co-packing partners, but none under the Lobo name.
Next question:
2. True or false: Given the answer to question one, the organic tortilla market must be completely flat (uh, no pun intended).
Sorry, this one’s false too.
“We are fully prepared to offer all-natural products and organic products,” Blaida says of ABI. “We have customers who have asked us to work with them to formulate organic tortillas. We are fully involved in the game.”
In other words, it’s not that there’s no demand at all for organic or partially organic tortillas. If that were the case, Los Angeles-based Tumaro’s Gourmet Tortillas wouldn’t have just introduced 10- and 12-in. tortillas made with certified organic flour. And Boulder, Colo.-based Rudi’s Organic Bakery, which already offers organic spelt and whole-spelt tortillas, wouldn’t have two new wraps reportedly in the works. It’s just that demand is growing bit by bit and prospects for the future are ripe with uncertainty.
So what are some of the obstacles manufacturers must address? (Quiz over, don’t worry.)
The Cost Conundrum
Like their colleagues in the rest of the organic market, manufacturers that seek to make organic tortillas face considerable costs. Those costs represent more than just the expense of getting certified organic, says Ricardo Baez, executive vice president for Don Pancho Mexican Foods, Salem, Ore.
“You have to segregate your ingredients,” he explains. “You have to have processes in place that your employees have to follow. You have to be able to QC all of the products. So really to be certified organic requires a top-down effort. And I think a lot of the smaller operators simply don’t have the infrastructure in place in order to support it.”
Those costs, however, did not prevent Don Pancho from introducing a line of certified organic whole wheat and regular flour tortillas at the beginning of this year.
“We wanted to be one of the companies that offered not just a tortilla made with organic ingredients, but a certified organic tortilla,” Baez says. “Any company can make a tortilla with organic flour. Not every company goes through the additional steps of having every ingredient be certified organic. That is a very challenging aspect.”
Another cost-related challenge: convincing restaurant diners to pay more for dishes that use organic tortillas. Cathy Consumer may have no problem paying a few cents more for a package of organic tortillas at the grocery store. But if a restaurant offers, say, an organic wrap made with organic pork, organic produce, and an organic tortilla — all of which cost more than their conventional counterparts — Ms. Consumer might balk at the overall higher price. Fresh and not necessarily organic is the calling card in the foodservice channel.
“We had a customer last week that wanted an organic tortilla, so we showed them a sample and gave them pricing, and it was just too high,” says Ken Sanchez, vice president of marketing for Mi Rancho Authentic Mexican Foods, San Leandro, Calif. Mi Rancho does offer an organic version of its Estilo A Mano corn tortilla, however. “In foodservice, the price of a tortilla is built into the whole plate,” Sanchez says. “So they might say, ‘Why is this plate so expensive?’”
The Ethnic Angle
Several tortilla manufacturers say the Hispanic market, particularly the first-generation sector, simply isn’t focused on organic products.
“I don’t think I’ve had one of my Mexican restaurant customers ask me for an organic tortilla,” Sanchez says. “It’s not something that’s on their radar right now. The non-Hispanic market is where you’ll really see the trend.”
However, “if you go back in time, all of the tortillas that were made by the Aztecs and all of our ancestors were 100% organic and natural, right?” Baez points out. “They didn’t have any preservatives. So to make a blanket statement to say that the Hispanic population isn’t interested in that type of product, I would disagree with.”
That said, he continues, “the Hispanic consumer is more geared to a corn tortilla product. It’s got fewer preservatives and has been made with more natural products than a wheat flour tortilla. So they’re kind of there without really knowing it.”
On a related note, the tortilla’s general reputation for healthfulness might actually be hurting its chance of success in the organic market.
“Ever since it’s hit mainstream America, it’s been pushed as a clean, healthy product — a very tasty, simple, convenient, and good-for-you carrier,” Blaida says. “It doesn’t have to dig its way out from anything.”
That is, the perceived benefit of switching from a nonorganic to an organic tortilla doesn’t seem to be as great as the perceived benefit of switching from a nonorganic to an organic cookie.
Stifled by Success?
Ironically, the great popularity of the tortilla might mean that manufacturers are less able to meet the demands of going organic.
“The market growth and the demand for tortillas is at an all-time high,” Blaida says. “The manufacturers are so busy making tortillas that to add a flanker brand isn’t real high on their list. They just don’t have the time and production capability. If I’m running 24/7, the last thing I need to do is make another product.”
What that may mean, however, is that the smaller players in this highly fragmented industry may take on the organic challenge to a greater extent than their larger colleagues.
“If I’m a big tortilla maker, if only 1% of my sales are going to be organic, I’m not going to bother,” Blaida finishes.
The logical conclusion? “It’s the smaller, regional tortillareias that are going to push faster on the organic than the big guys do,” he says. SF&WB
Taste Troubles?
How hard is it to make an organic or all-natural tortilla that tastes just like its conventional counterpart? Depends on who you ask.
“There’s not a problem there whatsoever. It’s interchangeable. Some people will claim it actually tastes cleaner and better.”
Bob Blaida, executive vice president of Allied Blending and Ingredients, Keokuk, Iowa
“There is a little bit of a flavor difference in that the type of preservatives that are used on an organic tortilla are different. We feel that the flavor of our tortillas is as close as we can get to a regular, non-organic tortilla.”
Ricardo Baez, executive vice president for Don Pancho Mexican Foods, Salem, Ore.
“From what you’re used to from a normal tortilla, it will taste different, but that’s what some people are looking for.”
Matt Lauder, CEO of Lobo Tortillas, Dallas
“On the corn side, you don’t taste any difference at all. On the flour side, a lot of organic tortillas are kind of dry, and they’re more brittle. We have a whole wheat and a white [variety], and our flavor profile is pretty close to our standard tortilla. The elasticity is there also. There is an off color because you can’t use bleached flour. But the taste and the quality of the product we’re pretty proud of.”
Ken Sanchez, vice president of marketing for Mi Rancho Authentic Mexican Foods, San Leandro, Calif.
“The softening and conditioning ingredients typically used in conventional formulations are not available in natural or organic versions, so the typical emulsifying and enzyme systems used for freshness and pliability cannot be used. This results in tighter controls for time, temperature, and absorption during processing.”
Beth Swanson, marketing manager for Charter Baking, Inc. (Rudi’s Organic Bakery), Boulder, Colo.