From tortilla chips to street tacos, it’s fair to say that tortillas are extremely versatile. And tortilla products all saw nice growth over the past year.

According to data from Chicago-based IRI, for the period ending March 21, 2021, the tortilla chips segment brought in $6.3 billion in sales, up a healthy 8.9 percent from last year.

Segment leader Frito-Lay brought in $4.4 billion in sales, up 6.6 percent. Its flagship Doritos brand grew 7.2 percent to $2.7 billion. Its Tostitos brand grew 14.3 percent to $819.9 million, and Tostitos Scoops grew 9.4 percent to $558.5 million.

Barcel USA brought in $577.0 million in sales, up 24.9 percent. Its Takis Fuego brand leads the way with $494.1 million, up 18.3 percent.

Other strong performers in tortilla chips include:

  • On the Border, recently acquired by Utz Brands, up 22.1 percent to $221.1 million
  • Late July, a Campbell Snacks brand, up 41.5 percent to $44.7 million, and Late July Organic, up 10.0 percent to $65.9 million
  • Siete, from Siete Family Foods, up 91.5 percent to $37.0 million

The tortillas category brought in $3.3 billion in sales, rising 17.4 percent. Mission Foods led the category, with $1.2 billion in sales and an increase of 25.4 percent. Its leading Mission Super Soft tortillas grew an astounding 148.5 percent to $474.0 million, while its Carb Balance line grew 45.6 percent to $260.2 million.

The refrigerated tortillas segment brought in $118.8 million in sales and was up 12.6 percent from the previous year. Segment leader Circle Foods brought in $44.4 million, with an 11.4 increase in sales. Siete Family Foods made $14.4 million in sales, with a gigantic 183.1 percent increase.


Prevailing trends

“During the pandemic, foodservice sales went down dramatically then levelled off and started climbing back up. Retail sales jumped up dramatically and seem to have held steady. The previous trends toward healthier eating—low-carb, organic, clean-label products—became stronger as consumers are more aware of these characteristics when buying for home than when ordering off a menu,” says Jim Kabbani, CEO, Tortilla Industry Association, Arlington, VA.

Kabbani says that he hasn’t seen the introduction of new restaurant-style products, specifically appetizers, to replace those missed by consumers who have stopped eating out. “Not sure if it’s a lack of R&D or lack of emphasis, versus the fact that when consumers buy tortilla products retail they already intend to get creative with them in the kitchen,” he elaborates.

Darren Braulik, vice president, sales, national accounts & business development, AB Mauri North America, St. Louis, says that while standard corn and flour tortillas still dominate the retail space, clean label and healthier-for-you options are quite visible as niche offerings for consumers seeking particular attributes. “For example, consumers who have specific dietary requirements or lifestyle choices can now readily find organic, gluten-free, keto, Paleo, or vegan tortilla options. More recently, we’ve seen several tortilla options that link to the ongoing plant-based food trend by incorporating chickpea and bean flours.”

Braulik says that in foodservice, the menu possibilities are really open to one’s imagination. “Because of their utility, flexibility, & sizing options, flavored tortillas can be paired with many foods to create fun and easy meal or appetizer options, including tapas and street-style tacos.”

Anita Srivastava, Ph.D., CFS, senior technical service manager, bakery, Kemin, Des Moines, IA, says that the COVID pandemic really brought health into a primary focus for consumers, not only in tortillas, but across the food industry. “With health being the driving influence, we are seeing many shifts to healthier ingredients and cleaner labels.”

Srivastava says that this can be seen in a variety of options hitting the shelf, including:

  • Non-traditional tortilla bases made with grain-free alternatives such as chickpeas, cauliflower and spinach
  • Increase in gluten-free varieties
  • Increase in whole grain, multigrain and organic varieties
  • More consumer-friendly ingredients in tortillas such as sea salt, chia seed and quinoa
  • Use of unsaturated fats as opposed to saturated

“These trends are migrating from the retail space into foodservice, as consumers want to know what is in their products no matter where they get it from. For example, Health Dining Finder is an online resource that helps consumers find restaurants that will meet their healthy lifestyle and dietary demands. The increase in these types of resources is putting pressure on the foodservice industry to start cleaning up labels,” adds Srivastava.

“The appetizer segment is always a fun one to watch as we see many new trends take off here that eventually end up in the retail space. One we are seeing gain popularity right now is Bruschetta Nachos. Traditionally these are two completely different products and you see it sold in stores as bruschetta bread and topping or nachos or seasoning packets. The convergence of two very different products into one is something we suspect we will start to see in frozen options,” says Srivastava.

Mel Festejo, chief operating officer, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ, agrees that consumers are searching for better-for-you options. “Tortilla products have evolved in the recent years to adapt to consumer preferences for better-for-you foods that highlight the use of clean-label, non-GMO, organic and non-allergenic ingredients and preferably high in nutrients. A number of tortilla and tortilla chip consumer products have also found traction in the consumer market with their grain-free or Paleo versions, most of which have relied on cassava flour and almond flour as choice ingredients,” he notes.

This roll-out of innovative tortilla and tortilla chip products have also influenced the formats of snacks made with tortillas, says Festejo.

“Tortillas, being core to other snacks such as burritos, quesadillas, and tacos, are now partnered with fillings, dips, and sauces that also address the aforementioned emergent consumer preferences. The changes we see taking place with tortillas can be seen the tortilla’s distant cousins: pita, naan, and other flatbreads. These products are also now undergoing similar reformulations with the current generation of new ingredients,” Festejo comments. “Finally, we are starting to see more cross-over applications, such as pizza toppings over burrito-sized tortillas folded over and pressed like a panini. Foodservice innovators now more readily use these different unleavened breads interchangeably with toppings or fillings that would otherwise have been used, as consumers welcome the break from conventional food offerings.”

Julie Mayer, vice president, marketing & innovation, Azteca Foods, Inc., Chicago, says that what she is seeing at retail has remainder somewhat stable over the last year, and that the bulk of the sales remains in traditional flour and corn tortilla options, both cooked and ready-to-bake. “At retail, while traditional flour and corn tortillas are still the most popular and make up most of the category sales, there have been quite a few new launches of alternate grains and health benefits such as tortillas made with sweet potato, almond flour, and keto friendly options. While solid and exciting options, these still seem to be somewhat niche-based. Whether or not they will become mainstream has yet to be seen. However, this does not necessarily overlap to foodservice,” she says.

Foodservice channels still more often use the tortilla—corn or flour—as a base to unique and delicious creations, Mayer adds. “And we are seeing so many new and exciting and not to mention delicious flavor fusions popping up on menus, which transcend traditional Mexican fare. Many of these creations are found on smaller hand-held appetizer tacos. These give patrons that opportunity to experience multiple flavor options at once. In addition to tacos, new flavorful quesadillas are also popping up on menus.”

Mayer says that she is seeing tortillas not only being used as a base for fresh new flavor experiences, but also growing amongst all dayparts. “Breakfast burritos and tacos are found at many QSR establishments in various flavor options. In addition to breakfast, there is growth in lunch and dinner/snacking options in the QSR environment: convenience stores, retail deli, and more. In addition to in-store experiences, the tortilla is growing as a solid part of the newer category of meal kits.”

Stephen Reynosa, director of operations, BE&SCO, San Antonio, TX, says that over the past decade, the demand for higher quality food has been redefined, especially for tortillas. “Though tortillas have been a staple flatbread for years, we have recently seen that consumers have become more health-conscious and fresh focused, as it relates to quality. Consumers are beginning to move away from pre-packaged (preservative-laden) tortillas, and are looking for recognizable ingredients and freshly made product,” he says.

Retailers and foodservice are working to meet these demands by prioritizing fresh, made in-house tortilla programs, Reynosa adds.

“These innovative programs focus on ingredient transparency and allow merchants to react to future trends without supplier oversight. The creative landscape of tortillas is expanding from the limitations of traditional options of flour or corn. Imaginative recipes are now beginning to flood the market; from blue corn/flour hybrids, all the way to beet root and sweet potato tortillas.”

Jill Stang, North American bakery sales manager, IFF Nourish, New Century, KS, says that tortillas have really embraced the "better for you" trend, including low carb, organic and non-GMO, gluten free, added healthy grains- whole wheat, alternative non-grain options, and added protein. “According to Mintel, in North America alone, from 2018 to 2020, high/added fiber, vegan, organic, and non-GMO were found to be some of the fastest growing claims (Mintel 2021 GNPD). IFF has also seen a rise in new and popular flavors for tortillas. Spinach tortillas have been in the industry for the last few years and are widely popular while new and exotic flavors such as cilantro-lime tortillas are quickly growing in popularity,” she notes.

Mark Zoske, founder and CEO, SaltWorks, Woodinville, WA, says that SaltWorks collaborates with a lot of tortilla chip manufacturers, and has experienced first-hand the expansion of the category to include much more variety, especially within retail. “With consumers seeking healthier choices, manufacturers are producing a variety of better-for-you options, from whole and multigrain varieties to grain-free and gluten-free varieties,” he says.

Health claims such as low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium and high-fiber are being prioritized, as are ingredient labels updated with cleaner ingredients like sea salt avocado oil—even getting a nutritional boost from ingredients like sweet potato, chia seeds, flax and quinoa. Organic and non-GMO labels have also become more common on product packaging, Zoske adds. “With more people eating at home, snack food sales have been soaring. A variety of fresh and bold flavors are continuously being introduced to satisfy at-home snackers while manufacturers share their latest launches across a variety of channels including TV, social media, print media and more. It’s easy to see the increased marketing spend many manufacturers have started to implement to set themselves apart in this growing category.”


Supply-chain developments

Ken Schwenger, Bakery Concepts International, LLC, Enola, PA, notes Rapidojet technology can help improve production of corn tortilla products, running as a continuous mixer.

“We have two patents on our simple ‘Mixing Chamber,’” says Schwenger. “This device replaces the traditional mixing bowl. However, unlike the diverse size and shape of various mixing bowls designed for the wide range of hydration levels and volumes of final products, Rapidojet utilizes only one simple and sanitary design for all products.”

The Mixing Chamber facilitates instant mixing and hydration, notes Schwenger. “Dry and liquid do not meet until halfway down our patented vertical Mixing Chamber,” he says. “This Mixing Chamber is removed from the machine in less than two seconds with no tools. It is washed in the sink in a few minutes.” If a customer outfits production with two Mixing Chambers, they can achieve zero downtime related to the process, he says.

Schwenger suggests Rapidojet provides the following benefits as a result of the elimination of their traditional mixers:

  • 90 percent less mixing energy due to our lack of a metal mixing tool—all Rapidojet requires is a high-pressure liquid pump
  • 80 percent less labor due to Continuous Mixing
  • No coolant is needed
  • Production downtime and related cost is eliminated
  • Mixing bowls and hoists are eliminated
  • Maintenance costs are dramatically reduced—no moving parts to wear or break
  • Sanitation is improved

“Producing fresh in-house tortillas on-demand was once a costly endeavor, due to outdated technology and/or the need for skilled labor, forcing restaurants and retailers to solely rely on manufacturers to supply tortillas on a daily or weekly basis. Emerging technology now empowers businesses to economically produce fresh tortillas on demand, while reducing the need for skilled labor,” says Reynosa. “Anticipating these needs, BE&SCO has re-designed our equipment to better adapt to these developing trends. Our newest updates give businesses more control, allowing for scalability of future production demands and inventive product variations,” he notes. “This control is made possible with the integrated product adjustment handle, which simplifies thickness and diameter changes. We also introduced a new proprietary conversion-ready technology, allowing our equipment to transform from manual to fully automatic, therefore improving production levels without the need to invest in new equipment.”

In the ingredients sector, Srivastava says the main driving force in ingredient innovations for tortillas today is the concept of clean-label ingredients. A few ingredients that are particularly hard to find alternatives for are:

  • Clean-label hydrocolloids—carboxymethylcellulose is commonly used in tortillas to help provide flexibility, but is not considered clean label, so alternatives include guar gum or pectin, but they do not quite offer the same functionality
  • Clean-label emulsifiers—SLS and DATEM are common synthetics used in tortillas to provide antistick properties, and alternatives include lipases with oil, but this solution doesn’t help with all textural characteristics
  • Nixtamalization is commonly used in tortilla development, but manufacturers are seeking a more-sustainable process and ingredient solutions that generate less water, and enzymes and natural flavorings can help provide similar texture and flavor as the lime used in nixtamalization

Corn tortillas are very popular as a gluten-free option, but many consumers want corn tortillas to hold together like gluten-containing flour tortillas do, Srivastava adds. “There are many hydrocolloids and enzyme blends available which help get the texture of corn tortillas close to that of flour, but they aren’t quite comparable. This is a challenge across the industry.”

For tortilla formulas, Stang recommends emulsifiers and enzymes as the backbone. “Emulsifiers and enzymes give the tortilla flexibility and stretchability, allowing the tortilla to be rolled and folded without cracking, helping to keep the filling in place, and improving the overall eating experience. These are both critical characteristics especially in foodservice. Non-GMO and gluten-free versions of emulsifiers, enzymes, and hydrocolloids fit well into free-from claims,” she adds.

“Pea and soy protein are good options for added protein claims, which have seen a significant rise over the last couple of years,” says Stang. “We will continue to see positioning around carb control or low-carb as a result from the health halo of tortillas.”

“Tortilla products are a great example of continued industry innovation,” says Sheila McWilliams, technical sales manager, Fiberstar, Inc., River Falls, WI. “Tortillas have pivoted to include gluten-free versions, multiple sizes, keto-friendly formats, and cleaner-label varieties. Citri-Fi citrus fiber is an ideal functional fit for tortilla development. This powerful clean-label fiber and emulsifier can be used to replace monoglycerides for a more consumer-friendly label while still providing optimum emulsification. A unique function of this citrus fiber is water binding due to its high surface area. Bound water translates to a softer textured product. Consumers perceive softness as freshness. At low usage levels, 0.2 to 1.0 percent, Citri-Fi provides a soft and natural texture without having the gummy bite that enzymes typically give tortillas.”

McWilliams notes consumers are looking for products that support healthy food choices, in addition to providing a sustainable story—a good fit for Citri-Fi, which is an upcycled ingredient produced from byproduct of the citrus juicing industry.

Shima Agah, Ph.D., food scientist, Allied Blending & Ingredients, Keokuk, IA, says that as new tortilla options continue to flood the market, consumer trends are showing that tortillas are becoming more of a staple in daily meal planning in homes. “The tortilla industry will continue to strive for nutritious and healthy, upping its already vast set of offerings. Thus, there is a need to develop ingredients with improved functionality to market newly developed healthy products for tortilla industry.”

Understanding the impact of these alternative formulations on processability, finished product quality and shelf stability continues to be a challenge, says Agah. “Developing a product with improved nutritional profiles can be a complex process as it often involves removing or replacing highly functional ingredients traditionally used for specific purposes. This rebalancing of ingredients can affect the products shelf life, flavor (sensory), texture, storage and other quality key characteristics that consumers expect to remain similar,” she notes. “Hence, it is important to ensure that such alternative ingredients do not interact with other ingredients in the formulation and affect the appearance or taste of the finished product. R&D departments have to deal with the paucity of technical and product development expertise for formulating with alternatives.”

Agah says that the Allied Blending & Ingredients R&D team has developed several healthy trend-based tortilla premixes (BatchPaks) formulations specifically designed to customers’ preference. “We do this by supplementing it with other carefully selected functional ingredients to provide the best results,” she says. “Some on-trend AB premix (BatchPaks) formulations include Non-GMO, Clean Label, Reduced/Low Sodium, Low Carb, High Fiber, High Protein, Organic, Low Fat (No Trans Fat), Gluten Free, Heart Healthy, Multi Grain, and Fluffy White Gordita.”

In terms of salt, Zoske says companies that have “low-sodium” salt often achieve that by adding chemicals, which negatively affect the taste and quality of the product. “Consumers are looking for products with fewer ingredients, and those searching for reduced-sodium options don’t want anything artificial. Not all salt is created equal. The key is to choose a salt that has the correct feature and functionality for the product. Choosing the right salt can actually improve the flavor of the food. The shape and texture of the salt crystal can make an enormous difference in sodium content,” he recommends.

“Our newest additions to our ingredient sea salt line-up include Pacific Blue Micro Flake and Mini Flake sea salts. These new offerings are exclusively designed with a larger surface area than more traditional granular salt to adhere to foods better and offer enhanced flavor impact without using as much salt for many applications, or any additives or chemicals,” Zoske adds.

“Because of this, not only do they offer a clean, sea salt-forward flavor, but incorporating them into snack food products like tortilla chips may also help naturally reduce sodium, making them ideal for brands aiming for lower sodium content.”


Flavor trends

Betsy Morreale, VP, salty snacks, Campbell Snacks, Camden, NJ, says that over the past year, Late July has noticed consumers’ interest in spicy, bold flavors in the snack space. “We looked at these trends, and expanded our line-up to include spicier versions of our handcrafted chips. Late July’s latest innovation leans into this hot trend with our new Late July Organic Restaurant Style Jalapeño & Lime tortilla chips, launched in September 2020, and Late July Beat the Heat! Red Pepper Vegetable tortilla chips, launched in February 2021,” she adds.

“At our core, we are committed to delivering better snacking options for our consumers in the organic, non-GMO, vegan, and gluten-free snack spaces that still deliver on taste and are full of flavor,” says Morreale.

Mayer says that in January 2021, Azteca launched a new shelf-stable line: Baja by Azteca. “While Azteca is a refrigerated brand, and the continued growth of the tortilla category overall, we felt this is a good segue to the shelf-stable environment. We are targeting not only the traditional in-line set, but the deli and bread departments.” Baja by Azteca offers three flour and one corn option, as well as consumer-preferred flavors. These include Whole Wheat with Honey; Spinach and Herb; Jalapeño and Cheddar; and Sundried Tomato & Spice.

Jamie Howe, trends and insights, Datassential, Chicago, says that 36 percent of all U.S. restaurant menus mention tortillas—and that doesn't include all the applications where tortillas are not mentioned.

“While handhelds like tacos, burritos, and wraps are popular there are some interesting pockets of growth in the last 4 years: breakfast is up 16 percent, pizza is up 21 percent, and burgers are up 14 percent. Pizza and burgers are notable applications, as tortillas are often used in Mexican mashup items,” she says. “Obviously, tortillas can be a carrier in a pizza, but they also can be a crunchy topper leading to some really fun spins like tortilla straws in lieu of onion straws on a burger.”

Howe also mentions that Taco Bell is getting in on the chicken sandwich wars, proving tortillas are for more than just tacos. She has a few predictions for the rest of 2021 and onward:

  • Long-term remote work and virtual learning will be here for a bit, and this impacts occasions like breakfast and lunch
  • Specialty diets continue to grow, and there is already innovation targeting carb reduction to appeal to whole 30/Paleo/keto
  • Salad toppers are getting more inventive—focusing on different flavor profiles like Parmesan crisps and red pepper crisps, and tortilla chips already play host to flavors like lime and cheese, so flavored strips are a natural extension
  • Plant-based trends are not going away, and as Americans look to put more veggies on the plate, tortillas are a great canvas for other ingredients like tomatoes, peppers, sweet potato, black beans, and beets, as well as peppers like aleppo, hatch, and chipotle, opening the door to flavor innovation

Ranjana Sundaresan, lead research analyst, Spoonshot, Minneapolis, says that tortillas have a steady following amongst both consumers and businesses, and in the last couple of months, tortillas have gotten quite a bit of attention thanks to the TikTok tortilla trend.

For those who are unfamiliar, the TikTok trend involved cutting a slit to the middle of a tortilla, and filling each quarter with your favorite toppings or ingredients. Then, consumers fold each quarter triangles onto themselves until you have a layered wrap. A panini press or griddle can be used to toast the tortilla, as well.

“Spoonshot data registered a spike in interest amongst consumers as a result of the viral trend. This interest is measured in terms of articles and blogs written by consumers and influencers in consumer media channels,” says Sundaresan.

Consumer interest in tortillas in the US grew by 19 percent over the last 12 months, but by 50 percent in the last couple of months, thanks to the TikTok trend. Business interest in tortillas went up by 3 percent over the last year, Sundaresan says.

“Usually such products would be relegated to fad status, expected to fade away as quickly as it grew. But this one does seem to have some staying power. The ease with which it can be made, the versatility of ingredients, and the convenient format makes this an ideal food to innovate,” says Sundaresan. “It works at home, for takeout, for on-the-go occasions, all meal times—and it opens the door for so much personalization. Maybe tortilla makers will start offering pre-slit tortillas to add a greater degree of convenience.”

Sundaresan says that tortillas made with a range of alternative flours are emerging, including bases like rice, cassava, beans, and chickpeas, as well as other lentils and legumes. “These ingredients are grain-free and gluten-free. Legumes can also add a high-protein aspect to the tortilla. Consumer interest in high protein foods has gone up by 38 percent in the last two years.”

High-fiber and low-carb diets are also currently trending. All of these trends can be translated into different forms of tortilla chips, notes Sundaresan. “Alternative flours and functional ingredients can help make appetizers/snacks in packaged form fall in the better-for-you category. They can also be paired with unusual dips or toppings from different parts of the world to generate greater interest among homebound consumers who haven’t traveled over the last year. Given the growing interest in plant-based food and lifestyles, we can expect to see greater incorporation of plant-based ingredients into the tortilla base, including vegetables like squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato,” she notes.

“We may also see the vegetables themselves become the tortilla,” says Sundaresan. “It isn’t new to see lettuce or other leafy vegetables being used as the carrier, but there is scope for others, as well, like jicama, to add a new dimension to this space.”

Plant-based auxiliaries for tortillas—fillings like meat alternatives or protein alternatives, vegan cheese, and so on—for tortillas will also likely grow to cater to consumers, she says. Business interest in plant-based has exploded over the last few years, and since 2019, it has grown by 131 percent.

Health is front and center for consumers now, especially in light of the pandemic, Sundaresan adds. “Consumers are going to look at getting the most from their food in terms of nutrition as they focus more on the ‘food as medicine’ credo. Interest in this concept among consumers has gone up by 21 percent in the last year.”

For tortillas, this means that they are going to look for products that offer specific nutritional benefits, such as high fiber or added vitamins and minerals, Sundaresan notes. “This could lead to greater incorporation of ingredients that cater to these needs, including those like nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, probiotic/prebiotic powders, and so on. This has the potential to elevate tortillas to a functional food.”