Cinco de Mayo fell on a Taco Tuesday this year. And while the coronavirus nixed any plans for celebrating the holiday en masse, it’s a safe bet that families across the country did a fine job cooking up their own festivities at home—or ordering curbside takeout.

That’s because tortillas—the base of any good taco, and the launching pad for so much more—are now as much a feature of American pantries as the proverbial loaf of sliced bread.

State of the Industry: Bakery Report
Overview | Bread | Tortillas | Sweet Goods | Snack Cakes | Pizza | Desserts | Cookies | Buns & Rolls | Bars | Breakfast Products

Which doesn’t surprise category watchers like Darren Braulik, vice president of sales, national accounts and business development, AB Mauri North America, St. Louis. “It’s exciting to see the tortilla market continue to grow. People are attracted to products with a local identity, and they want ethically sourced, healthy, and functional foods, too. Tortillas meet all these needs, offering fast, convenient, and functional options.”


Market data

Thanks to the appeal of those options—and a host of other factors playing in tortillas’ favor—the category continues showing strength.

According to data from IRI, Chicago, representing the 52 weeks ending April 19, 2020, hard and soft tortilla product sales totaled $2.9 billion, an 11.5 percent jump from the year before. Mission Foods dominates, up 16.9 percent to $981.3 million for the year, about one-third of the segment’s total take. But ever company in the top 10 for the segment saw growth for the year.

Mission Foods sales reflect today’s market diversity. While the core Mission product brought in $517.3 million, sales dropped 14.3 percent less than the year before. By contrast, Mission’s Super Soft brand saw its sales skyrocket 285.1 percent to $220.8 million, while sales of the Carb Balance and Street Tacos brands rose 39.4 percent to $176.3 million and 54.6 percent to $42.9 million, respectively. As for Mission Organics, growth slowed to 1.5 percent, but the brand still scored $18.9 million in sales.

Better-for-you tortillas continue to resonate with shoppers, reflected in another strong year for Olé Mexican Foods. Its Xtreme Wellness brand grew 26.4 percent to $61.4 million for the year. Its traditional line, La Banderita, also grew, up 13.2 percent to $222.1 million.

Sales of refrigerated tortillas rose a healthy 10.9 percent over the year, topping out at $107.2 million. Leading the segment again was Circle Foods, which saw sales hit $40.1 million, up 17.0 percent. Azteca Foods, the No. 2 company in the segment, booked sales of $14.0 million during the period, down 5.5 percent over the year before.

Perhaps most remarkable among refrigerated tortillas was the performance of Siete Family Foods, which for another year saw triple-digit growth—256.4 percent—to sales of $5.6 million, thanks to the popularity of its eponymous grain-free tortillas, made with cassava, almond, cashew, chickpea, and chia ingredients.


Looking back

“Tortilla variety and attributes are growing alongside demand,” Braulik says. “Consumers are driving a shift in expectations, and that’s forcing manufacturers to deliver ingredient transparency, product authenticity, and ‘better-for-you’ options.”

The notion of “better-for-you” proved a strong theme during 2019, with a notable increase in tortilla products addressing health concerns, says Anita Srivastava, Ph.D., CFS, senior technical service manager, bakery, Kemin, Des Moines, IA. “From high-fiber, low-carb, and low-calorie, to the use of ancient grains and whole wheat, health claims in tortillas took off.”

Julie Mayer, vice president, marketing and innovation, Azteca Foods, Inc., Chicago, noticed more products made with alternative grains, flours, and gluten-free ingredients—all targeting “consumers looking for better-for-you options,” she says. And while she concedes that this segment remains small, “it’s still very relevant,” she insists.

Braulik notes that organic and gluten-free tortillas are now so widely available that they’re no longer novel. “However, whatever the perceived benefits of these two categories, consumers expect them to be on par with traditional versions and, in some cases, even higher in quality.”

Fortunately for consumers, they increasingly are. “In previous years, gluten-free tortillas were exclusive to smaller bakeries that could handle gluten-free doughs, which feature a different consistency,” Braulik explains. “Now, larger companies have developed special systems to handle gluten-free doughs.” These systems can produce finished tortillas that compare admirably to their traditional counterparts.

Closely allied with 2019’s gluten-free and better-for-you wave was consumers’ preference for tortillas they deem “clean.” And that, says Mayer, meant “a continued desire for shorter ingredient decks and the absence of trigger ingredients, such as preservatives, lots of sugar, and sodium.” Noting that her company’s original thin flour tortillas contain no preservatives, Mayer says, “It’s still all about choices.”

Tortillas positioned as clean-label and organic were all part of 2019 trends, says Srivastava. “Consumers still want minimal ingredients and familiar names in their foods, which means either no preservatives or the use of clean-label preservatives.”


Looking forward

As we move through 2020 and beyond, ingredient suppliers and tortilla manufacturers aim to give consumers that and more.

For clean preservation, Srivastava advises using cultured products as alternatives to synthetic preservatives, and she predicts that enzymes will see greater use as replacements for synthetic dough conditioners like L-cysteine and sodium metabisulfite.

Tracy Snider, marketing director, human nutrition and health, powders, flavors, encapsulates, and inclusions, Balchem, Maryland Heights, MO, adds that the use of natural colors and flavors, as well as clean texturizers and shelf-life extenders, is also on the rise.

That’s where Snider sees her company’s encapsulates coming in. “Our encapsulated acids prevent mold growth on the tortilla’s surface, extending shelf life,” she says. “Our patented technology also enables better yield, consistency, and visual appeal versus conventional acids.” And this is achieved via a clean-label, label-friendly product line.

When it comes to boosting tortillas’ nutritional credibility, Braulik stresses that consumers increasingly choose foods “that align with their diet and lifestyle choices, such as keto, Paleo, low-carb, high-protein, plant-based, or even vegan.” As such, he sees a promising future for tortillas made with grain-free ingredients and plant proteins. “The use of vegetable proteins to increase nutritional value is a big opportunity,” he says. “Tortilla producers are looking for different options that can impact the nutrition, but not the flavor, of the final product.”

Srivastava promotes protein diversity, in particular, as a means of supplying tortillas with essential amino acids like lysine and threonine. Legume flours like those derived from lentils can help formulators build more-complete complements of amino acids into their tortillas, she says. Dietary fibers from wheat, oat, cellulose, and even modified starches and beta glucans, she says, will help tortillas meet health-conscious consumers’ demands.

And with COVID-19 on everybody’s minds, tortillas that include immune-boosting ingredients could provide more opportunities for producers to combine exciting new flavors and colors with “better-for-you” product positioning, Braulik says.

Srivastava points to several functional immune boosters that can meet this demand, including antioxidants like lutein, lycopene and phenolics, phytosterols, ginger extract, and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. “These ingredients will have an easy sale in baked products,” she wagers. “In addition, we’ll see prebiotics and probiotics becoming new additions to tortillas.”

But as far as Snider is concerned, the main tortilla trends we’re observing fall into two categories: those you can taste and those you can’t. And falling squarely into the former category is “the growth of new flavors that bring excitement to tortillas,” she says.

Profiles Snider is monitoring run from spicy—think jalapeño and Hatch chile—to “more mellow and rounded flavors from herbs, tomato, and cheese.” The “bold flavors and vibrant colors” of Mexican cuisine naturally resonate in the tortilla space, she adds, which is why profiles like sweet-mango salsa, mole, pico de gallo—even lime—also have potential.

“We see these flavors—and colors—making their way into the trusted tortilla,” Snider continues, “elevating homemade quesadillas, burritos, soft tacos, and more.” And her calling out of color is no accident: appearance, along with texture, is as critical to a tortilla’s success as flavor. She sees inclusions as potential vehicles for conveying multisensory appeal to tortillas.

Yet while some brands incorporate flavors directly into their tortillas, others position their products as neutral canvases. “Many consumers still prefer the standard white-flour, wheat or corn tortilla as a foundation for many different types of flavors and meals,” Mayer notes. “What we see is the consumer creating new flavor experiences and combinations. Tortillas are the best foundation for these creative food adventures.”

Mayer has seen those adventures gather inspiration everywhere from Southeast Asia to Africa for “an exponential degree of traditional and fusion innovation,” she says. “It’s more the creativity of what you put into the tortillas that spurs category growth than a new flavor or type.”

Speaking of which: Mayer foresees more traffic in meal-prep and kit options, where tortillas help generate strong growth among ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat products at both retail and foodservice. Case in point: Azteca has launched a refrigerated ready-to-bake crispy flour taco shell that bakes into a form of the consumer’s choosing, from tacos and quesadillas to tostadas and salad shells. Product packs include six moldable shells and formers—but, Mayer notes, no preservatives.

Amidst all the hubbub surrounding flour tortillas, Braulik implores brands not to disregard what he calls “the humble corn tortilla.” Thanks to street tacos, food trucks, and culinary fusion, he anticipates a broader renaissance for the variety. “Not only are corn tortillas carriers for traditional fillings, they also have the potential to be innovative costars when used creatively.”

Which is exactly what consumers are doing. And the entire tortilla category benefits. As Mayer says: “Tortillas transcend daypart, meal types, and ethnicities. They don’t just mean ‘Mexican’ anymore. This will continue to be a key driver of category growth.”

State of the Industry: Bakery Report
Overview | Bread | Tortillas | Sweet Goods | Snack Cakes | Pizza | Desserts | Cookies | Buns & Rolls | Bars | Breakfast Products