The world of tortillas and tortilla chips is constantly evolving, but one thing remains constant: Consumers want great taste and flavor in the products they eat. The modern day challenge for snack and bakery producers is to keep making great-tasting products—but also some product selections that feature healthier, organic, clean-label ingredients.

Healthy directions

Consumers continue to buy tortillas and tortilla chips, but they’re being more discerning about the nutritional labels.

“There is a movement toward healthier, better-for-you types of products—in particular, a demand for products that are in the ‘free from’ category,” says Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager, confectionary and bakery, Ingredion, Bridgewater, NJ. “Non-GMO is also a trend that continues to grow, and the snack category is one of the largest categories for new product launches making a non-GMO claim.”

“Consumers today are leaning toward eating healthier or adding healthy benefits to the foods they already eat,” explains Steve Mc Iver, tortilla and flatbread specialist, Brolite, Streamwood, IL. “This means having clean labels, using non-GMO and organic ingredients, and adding whole grains. This also means creating finished goods that are high in protein and in fiber, but low in sodium and trans-fat-free.”

These preferences have grown more prevalent. “Consumers want healthier and more-nutritious options, including products that are gluten-free, organic, low-carb, non-GMO, trans-fat-free and low-sodium,” says Oscar Carreon, development and technical services manager, AB Mauri North America, St. Louis. “The need for a cleaner-label solution also continues to grow.”

One of the biggest trends coming out of the millennials consumer group is the demand for simpler and cleaner ingredient labels, notes Kathy Sargent, market director, bakery, Corbion, Lenexa, KS. But she notes that the desire for “consistent quality and freshness” remains.

“Today’s consumers prefer fresh, daily-made tortillas over the pre-packaged tortillas,” says Aaron Escamilla, president, BE&SCO, San Antonio, TX, noting an increasing consumer sensitivity to preservatives. “There is more of an awareness of the ingredients and the shelf life of our food.”

Escamilla says that tortillas and flatbreads are now used in creative ways to extend the “boring menus of the past,” and to create new recipes and new flavors.

“Traditional offerings such as flour and corn continue to make up the bulk of the business, but the industry has identified the need for more niche offerings to bring a greater variety to market,” remarks Tim Romero, product sales manager, tortillas, Taconic, Petersburgh, NY. “From whole-wheat to whole-grain, the market is continuing to evolve.”

Trending upward

For the past decade, tortillas have been found on about a third of restaurant menus nationwide. Currently, flour tortillas have dipped slightly on menus, while corn tortillas have been growing steadily, says Mike Kostyo, senior publications manager, Datassential, Chicago.

“This is partly due to the growth of street tacos and more-authentic taco varieties,” says Kostyo. “Street tacos have increased their menu penetration by more than 220 percent in the past four years.”

Build-your-own nachos and loaded nachos are also trending on bar menus, and Latin/Mexican restaurants are offering more customizable burritos and quesadillas, comments Patricia Cobe, senior editor, menu, Technomic, Chicago.

“The customization trend in restaurants, particularly fast-casual, is definitely driving consumption of tortillas and tortilla chips,” says Cobe.

According to the 2015 “Hispanic Foodservice Consumer Trend Report” from Technomic, more restaurants are featuring premium and creatively designed tacos on their menus. Also, the report suggests that more restauranteurs in general will begin integrating more Hispanic culture into new restaurant concepts.

Seafood dishes with tortillas and tortilla chips have also increased at restaurants, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. Seafood nachos have increased more than 29 percent year over year between Q4 2015 and Q4 2016. Seafood quesadillas are also up, by 6.9 percent.

“Many chefs are looking beyond Mexican-American dishes and seeking out next-level Latin American dishes or ingredients to set themselves apart. Tortillas and tortilla chips can easily leverage these trends,” says Kostyo. “For example, instead of ground beef and liquid cheese on nachos, we’re seeing nachos topped with barbacoa beef and a sprinkling of Cotija cheese.”

Tortilla chips appear on one out of every five menus in the U.S. today, Kostyo adds. On Datassential’s “MenuTrends Keynote Report” on snacking, the firm asked over 3,500 consumers to tell them everything they ate outside a regular meal in the past day, and 41 percent responded that they ate a salty, crunchy snack—the top choice.

From restaurants to retail

The tortilla market also continues to evolve due to greater exposure to authenticity. “As more consumers are exposed to, learn about, and enjoy tortillas, their interest in home-style, artisan and hand-stretched options continue to grow,” says Carreon.

“Restaurant trends have been increasing their influence on the snack aisle,” says Nicholas Ahrens, product applications technologist, Bay State Milling, Quincy, MA. “Trends specifically in the Latin American and Mexican cuisine have been driven by big, bold, authentic flavors.” Specialty grains and seeds are also going into tortilla products, continues Ahrens, and are increasingly recognized by the mainstream consumer.

Snacking often equates to mobility. “Today’s consumers are all about convenience and eating on the go, which drives up the consumption of tortillas as more consumers purchase wrap-style entrées and meals,” says Sargent.

Romero points to an increased prevalence of tortilla-based wraps in fast food, which has helped the industry grow.

“Fresh, handmade tortillas are in high demand in larger restaurant chains, as well as smaller authentic Latin and Mexican restaurants,” says Escamilla. “With the rise of social media influence, customers are creating a larger awareness of popular food culture and trends, with fresh tortillas being at the top of those trends.”

Functional and compelling

The ingredients used in tortillas and tortilla chips continue to diversify and expand.

“The use of plant-based ingredients is growing, is on-trend and adds interest to products,” explains Rodriguez. He suggests pulse-based ingredients to add nutritional benefits, like protein, while still addressing the desire for clean-label products.

“Ancient grains and seeds are being added for a nutrition boost, as well as to add texture and visual appeal,” says Vanessa Brovelli, manager of product development, Bay State Milling. “Natural ingredients can be used for dual purposes, for both visual appeal and for functional benefits.” Chia or ground flax can provide a differentiated look and a nutritional boost in a tortilla, and also have the added functional benefit of increasing a tortilla’s flexibility in place of gums, she notes.

“In addition to taste, tortilla manufacturers are also using ingredients that not only help them improve processes, but also deliver on consumer expectations around cleaner labels, freshness and rollability,” Sargent says.

Early adopting consumers also now know to look for certain buzzwords other than just “gluten-free” and “non-GMO,” too.

“The terms ‘heirloom,’ ‘ancient’ and ‘heritage’ corns and grains have become popular descriptors that manufacturers are using to differentiate their products in a very competitive commodity marketplace,” says Ahrens.

“Bakers are using whole grains, seeds and different spice blends in tortilla and tortilla chip formulation,” says Mc Iver. “It gives the product added texture and extra flavor.”

The demand for organic is hot in the industry right now, and consumers have great interest in buying organic options, notes Carreon—and they’re willing to pay more for it.

“The constant drive for healthy alternatives by consumers will continue to develop this segment of the industry,” says Romero.

Natural selection

Selecting healthy ingredients can help create better-for-you tortillas and tortilla chips.

“Particular ingredients can be used to add fiber or protein; reduce fat; and/or reduce the number of ingredients—and convert from a modified label to a clean label,” says Rodriguez. He suggests resistant starch to add dietary fiber, which carries multiple health benefits. In 2016, FDA authorized a qualified health claim for Ingredion’s high-amylose maize starch related to reduction of the risk of type 2 diabetes, he adds.

In addition, Rodriguez points to a soon-to-be-launched line of snack texturizers that will help facilitate enhanced texture, optimal expansion and reduced breakage in baked snacks. “The new texturizers enable a healthier snack option and help to deliver a texturally satisfying eating experience,” he says.

Ingredients like fiber and non-allergenic protein sources are right on-trend: They can increase satiety, and a tortilla or tortilla chip can be perfect delivery vehicles, Brovelli says. “Organic whole-wheat flour in tortillas can often be added without compromising tortilla rollability or taste, and many consumers are looking for more high-quality organic options.”

AB Mauri helps bakeries decrease levels of sodium or shortening, while maintaining the same product quality. “These changes require bakeries to adapt their processes, as some of the varieties are more difficult to produce, or require longer bake times. However, if this meets the end consumer’s needs and adds value to the product, our customers are willing to adopt these changes,” says Carreon.

“We can add fiber and protein while lowering sodium and unwanted fats to help the consumer reach their specific dietary needs,” notes Mc Iver. “By adding grains and seeds to the formula, you can give the consumers a change they can actually see, too.”

Often, it’s simply a matter of matching product goals with the right ingredients. “We have a technical support team that will work side-by-side with tortilla manufacturers to integrate ingredients to help them create better-for-you tortillas, thereby ensuring maximum results and success in the marketplace,” says Sargent.

Ongoing innovations

Considering the pace of today’s tortilla market, equipment manufacturers continue to innovate.

“Manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve production, sanitation and safety,” says Romero. “Technology in this industry is becoming more and more advanced, and the push to produce excellent product quality at a high rate of speed is directly related to the implementation of advanced technologies. With improvements in vision systems and more-efficient production and sanitation practices, manufacturers have raised the bar considerably over the last few years.”

Machines that provide ease of use, easy maintenance, energy efficiency, food consistency and minimal use of space see demand. Flexibility is also an asset. “Our tortilla machines press and cook not just the tortilla known in our region, but other flatbreads from around the world,” comments Escamilla. “We have a brand new tortilla press that can press up to a 16-inch tortilla, too, which is very popular on the West Coast, where they love their California burritos.

“We can also press and cook roti, naan and pita,” continues Escamilla, “which puts us worldwide in grocery chains, restaurants and corner stores.”

As cultural culinary expansion progresses, tortillas and tortilla chips will continue their pathway toward establishment as truly mainstream U.S. foods.