During the COVID-19 era, “essential” goods and services rose to the forefront of our global consciousness. And few products are as essential as our daily bread. Fresh bread is the largest and most-important category in baking, and strong innovation around a select group of product variables will continue to fuel growth.


Market data

For the 52 weeks ending April 18, 2021, per IRI, Chicago, the fresh bread and rolls category grew 6.1 percent to $15.0 billion in sales—the strongest category performance in years.

Every company within the top 10 in fresh bread saw growth, with the segment growing 3.6 percent to $9.9 billion. Only private label saw a loss for the year, down 8.6 percent to $1.7 billion. Companies with particularly strong growth included:

  • United States Bakery/Franz, up 12.8 percent to $189.5 million
  • H&S Bakery, up 10.0 percent to $128.9 million
  • Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, up 15.1 percent to $121.3 million

Bagels had an outstanding year, up 20.0 percent to $1.2 billion. Grupo Bimbo and its iconic Thomas’ brand lead the way, up 21.0 percent to $799.8 million. Papa Pita, which has a strong emphasis on organic bread products, is rising fast in bagels, up 21.7 percent to $9.8 million. Aunt Millie’s also had a standout year, growing its bagel business to $5.2 million.

The English muffins category brought more good news for the year, up 10.8 percent to $824.9 million. Food for Life Baking was a highlight in the category, up 15.1 percent to $19.1 million. H&S Bakery saw great traction for its English muffins, growing that segment to $4.4 million in sales.


Looking back

Sara Lee® Bread, Thomas’®, Entenmann’s®, Arnold®, Brownberry®, and Oroweat®, along with Bimbo Bakeries USA’s (BBU) 20 others, are found in the pantries of 80 percent of American homes, says Lorraine Hale, vice president, bread, BBU, Horsham, PA. “With people spending more time at home, demand for consumer products soared last year, especially for the fresh breads category.”

The vast majority of Americans have weathered shifts to their daily routines. “COVID-19 changed how we eat,” says Nicole Rees, product director, AB Mauri North America, St. Louis. “With the shutdown of many daily food choices—including morning coffee stops, lunch runs with friends, and spontaneous dinners out on the town, among others—consumers have explored ways to be responsible for planning ahead by stocking up, yet are still finding ways to enjoy food.”

Over the past couple of years, supermarket selections have received new levels of scrutiny. “As grocers and larger stores have grown their businesses, consumers poured over the offerings that they once might have overlooked,” says Rees. “If some shoppers had minimized baked goods selection before the pandemic, they have since put that strategy on hold in the search for new ways to satisfy both themselves and their families.”

Rees suggests nostalgia for classic items has emerged, with beloved cookies, crackers, and bagels of yesteryear trending forward. “Meanwhile, new bakery launches during COVID-19 have attracted the interest of consumers on the hunt for new, unique choices.” This includes artisan sourdough and health-forward, carb-conscious bread products.

“At AB Mauri, we recently rolled out a high-protein and high-fiber bread mix—Burgen Complete Protein—that allowed us the opportunity to capitalize on the growing trends of plant protein, enhanced fiber, and other healthful and functional nutritional considerations.”

More shoppers are drawn to artisan-style breads, says Hans Besems, product group leader, AMF Bakery Systems, AMF Tromp, Richmond, VA. “Consumers are seeking products with a more-artisan, hand-crafted appearance. Fully integrated AMF lines deliver a finer grain structure for authentic-style artisan bread.”

AMF’s ADDFlex and BreadFlex Dividers are efficient with very low maintenance and can produce high volumes of premium bread, says Bruce Campbell, product group leader, AMF Flex. “Bakers are always looking to reduce the head count on high-volume production lines, and COVID has only accelerated this investment in automation. AMF has integrated checkweighers that have a closed feedback loop to adjust the Flex metering pumps on each lane for perfect scaling with no operation intervention required.”

“Consumers are seeking greater product variation and healthier products, so we have noticed demand for multi-grain type loaves,” says Besems. “This style of bread is seeded, topped, or enrobed with all kinds of seeds (poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, etc.) or oats.” He notes AMF offers enrobers, strewers, and applicators for bread make-up systems to strew by waterfall or targeted application to a specific spot on the product. “Also, product appearance continues to rise in importance. Unique designs can be created with all kinds of decoration cuts via a Decojet Water Splitter by AMF Tromp. This unit is situated in-line with robotic, automated processes for simply added product value.”

COVID-19 brought renewed consumer attention to healthier food, notes Remi Reguero, technical and business development director, Benexia, Santiago, Chile. He identifies the following trends in fresh bread:

  • People looking for cleaner labels
  • People looking for fiber for immunity (gut and brain health), and better overall nutrition
  • Specialty diets like keto and low-carb are bringing significant innovation to the category
  • Transparency and sustainability help with brand appeal

During the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers went from eating one or two meals a day at home to three or more, which meant more product was needed, says Hale. “Supply chains were tested, but overall, this industry showed it has one of the more flexible and resilient supply chains. Our supply chain includes a network of direct store distribution sales operators. Every day, over 11,000 associates and business partners are working in the market to service consumers. During the pandemic, we experienced very few interruptions in supply and successfully increased production to meet demand. Consumers and customers counted on us to make sure shelves were stocked with their favorite brands and products.”

“In the first half of the year, our brands shifted focus to meeting heavy demand brought on by the pandemic,” says Lee. “As they continue to meet that demand, several brands were able to introduce new products later in the year, to expand on their traditional offerings.”

Bays® English Muffins recently innovated in both packaging and flavor, says Lee. “Recently, to the delight of consumers, the brand launched a resealable package, and added Brioche Style English muffins to its product line. This French-inspired English muffin brings a rich, buttery flavor to the traditional English muffin.”

BBU also brought innovations to its bread lineup. “Sara Lee was one of our busier brands, introducing two new products this past year,” says Hale. “In the fall, Sara Lee Artesano™ introduced its Artesano Potato Bakery Bread, which is crafted with the same thick slices and soft texture our customers expect, but with an added hint of sea salt, a touch of butter, and the flavor of potato bread. This past January, Sara Lee introduced Delightful® White Made with Whole Grain Bread to its product line. This new variety of bread is high in fiber with 90 calories per two-slice serving size—the perfect bread for the calorie-conscious consumer.”

Arnold, Brownberry, and Oroweat also launched two new products last fall. “First, the brands introduced a new Country Style Butter Bread, baked with Land O’Lakes® Butter, bringing together two classic brands,” says Hale. “The bread is free from artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors, and is made with real, simple ingredients, such as whole milk and sea salt.”

Kids saw new products from BBU, too. “Arnold, Brownberry, and Oroweat Organic Breads launched their new Kids Organic White made with Whole Wheat Bread featuring Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse,” says Hale. “This USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, and plant-based bread is a good source of vitamins A, D, and E, and is baked with organic whole grains as the first ingredient.”

BBU brand The Rustik Oven® also recently announced the nationwide expansion of its signature bread line, which is made with simple, real ingredients and is available in three varieties: Sourdough, Artisan White, and Hearty Grains & Seeds, says Hale. Bread from The Rustik Oven is Non-GMO Project Verified and made without any artificial colors or flavors.

“It is not only a trend of the past year, but we perceive a huge trend to ‘back to the roots’ artisan bread,” says Richard Breeswine, president and CEO, Koenig Bakery Systems, Ashland, VA. “Our customers are telling us more and more that they want to reduce yeast and work more with sourdough and natural ingredients.” Also, more bakeries are starting to work with ancient grains, which give the bread great natural flavor, he says.


Looking forward

Over the coming year, Besems expects to see an increase in health-related trends, including gluten-free, high-fiber, low-calorie, sourdough, clean label, and reduced sugar. “Also prevalent is the use of vegetables in products.” He notes a rising trend of using vegetables in the dough base, including for the bread market.

For specialty make-up, AMF offers the BreadFlex Direct Deposit Divider for gluten-free or rye bread production, says Besems. “AMF’s team of bakers and food technologists develop new product solutions alongside their baking customers at the AMF Innovation Center. The team learns from market feedback and engineers custom solutions or improvements to the technology to produce the perfect batch of products suited to each customer’s product specifications. AMF develops recipes, together with baking customers, to make the processes run more efficiently with less waste for all levels of production. The AMF Innovation Center provides an environment for customers to test, develop, demonstrate, and train on AMF equipment as they develop new artisan or specialty baked products.”

The higher-quality breads appearing in restaurants increases customer desire for similar quality in retail products, says Breeswine. “We think that bakers are considering demands of millennials and upcoming generations.” These consumers tend to have higher incomes—and higher quality expectations for artisan breads.

“Consumers tend to return to real food and seek transparency through authenticity,” says Breeswine. “We recommend bakeries focus on organic ingredients, free-from preservatives, gentle processing, non-GMO, no artificial ingredients, etc.” He notes these demands post a significant challenge—but also a big opportunity for bakeries.

“Each year, clean eating and clean label mean something slightly different to consumers,” says Rees. “The shift toward natural preservation is powerful right now, as well as the emphasis on sustainability and the environment. Ingredient manufacturers must continue to be transparent about supply, production methods, and their environmental impact, while packaging suppliers must work toward compostable solutions and recycling considerations. On the other hand, bakers must continue to minimize waste, both via process and quality.”

Fermentation continues to grow as a desired method of production for specialty ingredients because of greater sustainability benefits, says Rees. “From enzymes to natural mold inhibitors and premium sugar replacers—such as stevia glycoside reb M—these premium ingredient choices from fermentation help prevent waste and typically create smaller carbon footprints than conventional solutions.”

When planning a fresh bread line, one of the most-important questions to consider is the types of products the bakery is seeking to run on the line, including shapes and weights, says Breeswine. “It is also essential to predict which products are likely be in great demand in the future. Therefore, bakeries can benefit a lot from flexible lines that allow bakeries to produce a wide range of products, now and in the future.”

A multifunctional modular line featuring capabilities for various different products is Koenig’s new Combiline EC roll line in “Easy Clean” design, says Breeswine. It’s a modular line for producing various types of fresh bread products, including buns. It also offers easier cleaning and maintenance, and access to all modules. “The ‘Easy Clean’ concept enables significantly reduced cleaning time and downtimes,” he says. The line can be combined with various dough dividing and rounding machines.

Reguero predicts continued attention to clean label and fiber for improved immunity. “In early 2019, nutritionists all over the world were talking about the ‘fiber gap’ in the modern U.S. diet. This concern did intensify with the pandemic situation, due to the importance of fiber for the microbiome and its positive correlation with human health and immunity response.”

The food ingredients industry has adapted very rapidly to satisfy demands for cleaner, nutritionally improved fresh bread products, says Reguero. “One example is chia, known by consumers all around the world as a clean, sustainable, and natural crop, with exceptional nutritional composition.” However, he notes, chia has historically had rather limited potential uses in snack and bakery applications.

“This is one of the reasons why Benexia® offers a great gluten-free chia powder ingredient that is unique, multifunctional, and highly nutritional and will satisfy consumers’ growing preference for clean labels and sustainability,” says Reguero. “Benexia Xia Powder-435W LM is a defatted, milled, white chia powder, specially manufactured and developed for bakery applications, without additives, processing aid ingredients, solvents, or enzymes. Its unique natural processing technique concentrates its fiber composition, which allows bakers to maximize the functionality naturally found in chia.” He notes the ingredient can partially or completely replace other ingredients like fillers and binders that might not be as label-friendly. It has 56 percent fiber and a blend of both insoluble (45 percent) and soluble (11 percent) fibers—which is a great way for consumers to achieve the recommended dietary balance of 80 percent insoluble and 20 percent soluble fiber, he notes. “Xia Powder-435 LM is also high in omega-3 and has more than 20 percent plant-based protein. It is also rich in the minerals potassium, phosphorus, and calcium found naturally in chia.” The ingredient is low-carb and keto-friendly.

“Consumers will continue to prioritize health in their purchasing decisions, focusing their interest on products made with natural ingredients and whole grains,” suggests John Lee, vice president and general manager, breakfast, BBU. “Younger generations are making health-conscious purchasing decisions and are seeking brands with values that align with their own. These consumers will look for brands that are able to satisfy both their baked goods and nutritional needs.”

When making purchasing decisions, consumers are also looking at a company’s environmental and social impact, notes Lee. “This was heightened particularly in the wake of the food insecurity crisis our country faced during the pandemic. We are proud to have delivered more than 20 million pounds of food to Feeding America agencies across the country last year so that everyone, even those that could not afford to buy our products, can still enjoy them.”

Lee also notes Thomas’ Bagels is proudly partnering for a second year with Operation Warm, a national nonprofit whose mission aims to provide warmth, confidence, and hope to children in need through the gift of brand-new winter coats. A $100,000 donation will result in 5,000 new winter coats for students at five deserving elementary schools in Cincinnati, Dallas, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and Seattle.

“Our companies and brands have robust sustainability programs,” says Lee. “This year, BBU has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency with the 2021 Energy Star Partner of the Year: Sustained Excellence award. The award recognizes our company-wide commitment to energy management strategy and leadership in the baking industry. We have set very aggressive goals for our company, including the use sustainable packaging, and through our TerraCycle partnership, all of our bread and English muffin bags are recyclable.”

Some BBU brands have their own unique sustainability programs, including Arnold, Brownberry, and Oroweat’s Organic Breads, which all take part in the One Percent for the Planet initiative to support environmental causes that align with overall commitments to sustainability, as well as increasing access to, and raising awareness of, organic and locally grown foods, says Hale. “Recently, the brands collaborated through One Percent for the Planet together with SeedMoney, a Maine-based nonprofit that provides grants, crowdfunding opportunities, and training to food garden projects across the country and around the world, to award Spring Planting Grants of $5,000 each to 11 community-grown gardens around the country to help community members prep their gardens for the planting season.”

As we continue to grow anew into our post-pandemic world, often with increased spending flexibility and freedom, savvy fresh bread brands are working to grow right along with us.