Whether they are yeast-free, low-glycemic, whole-grain or simply nutty, packaged breads mean dough. Sales of frozen and nonfrozen packaged bread in natural products stores exceeded $265 million last year, a 12 percent increase from the previous year, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry. No matter how you slice it, that's a lotta loaves. Here's an overview of what's fresh inside the bag.
The whole (grain) truth
"Whole grains are definitely what's hot in the bakery world," says Doug Radi, vice president of marketing at Boulder, Colo.-based Charter Baking Co., makers of Rudi's Organic and The Baker Organic breads. "Since the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] revised the food pyramid to focus more on whole grains, that's what consumers are looking for."
"The health benefits of whole grains are incredible," says Marilyn Tanner, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Sixty-four percent of Americans are trying to incorporate more whole grains in their diet, according to the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Boston. Whole grains have overshadowed fiber, which used to be what customers looked for first, says nutritionist Shelley Case, R.D. "Fiber's still important, but there are other nutritional components you need to be aware of too."
"Whole grain" means "anything that contains all the bran, germ and endosperm—the edible parts of a grain," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition at the Whole Grains Council. That includes grains that are "cracked" or "flaked"—anything, she says, "as long as they don't leave parts of the grain behind." A product containing "sprouted," or germinated, whole grains means the grains sprouted before or during the baking process, increasing the nutrient content and digestibility of the grain, according to manufacturers.
"One of the problems with the emphasis on whole grains is that some people think that means brown bread," Case says. "But some brown breads have no whole grain; they're simply colored with caramel coloring. Look at the ingredients list."
However, a lot of manufacturers don't bother putting the word "whole" in front of the words "wheat" or "oats" on their ingredients list, Harriman explains, leaving customers wondering about the contents. To make it easier, the council introduced two stamps for manufacturers to display on packaging: the Basic Stamp, which means one serving of the product contains at least 8 grams of whole grain, but also may contain some refined grain; and the 100 Percent Stamp, which indicates one serving contains at least 16 grams of whole grain.
But customers won't be able to find either stamp if they can't locate the loaves in the first place. Many stand confused, pondering the packages on the shelves, wondering why they can't find a wider selection. "People don't know where to look," says Lynn Gordon, founder of Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery, the country's oldest continuously certified organic bakery. "The natural bread section has really moved to the freezer and refrigerated sections," she says. Because they're baked with fewer preservatives, many of the natural breads have shorter shelf lives and are sold chilled or frozen. "It would be absolutely amazing if retailers put a sign in the [nonfrozen] bread department, telling customers that there's more in the freezer," Gordon says.
"Forget all the advertising and hype and go straight to the label to look at the ingredients to make sure they're not just caramel color and wheat flour," Case says. "Pay attention to where things fall in the list," Tanner adds. "Remember, ingredients are listed from largest to smallest." Unless you bake your own and eat it within a day or two, you're probably going to find a mold-retardant preservative in your bread. "Manufacturers do have to add a preservative," she says.
"Enriched" before an ingredient like flour means "they removed dozens of nutrients, but put five [B vitamins and iron] back in," Harriman says. The government began enriching flour to replace nutrients lost in the processing of white flour, increasing the health of the population during war, when other sources of nutrients were scarce. "Fortified" means manufacturers added something that doesn't naturally occur in a product, Tanner says.
When reading the labels, be sure to note what constitutes a serving size. On some loaves, one serving equals one slice, in others it means two.
Breaking the color barrier
Perhaps the biggest thing to hit American sandwiches since sliced bread is whole-wheat white. "It's an albino variety of wheat, totally equivalent nutritionally to the red wheat we've always eaten in wheat bread," Harriman says. "It's milder in taste, making it perfect for people making the transition from white bread."
Kids, especially, find it appealing. Kids love soft bread, "without a lot of stuff in it," says Radi, who points out that Rudi's Organic Honey Sweet Whole Wheat is the label's biggest seller. For others, finding bread without particular "stuff" is critical. Diabetics seek low-glycemic bread. Others demand yeast-free. Sales of gluten-free packaged breads exceeded $19 million this year, a 12 percent increase over last year, according to SPINS. "It's not just people with celiac disease who are buying gluten-free bread; the autistic community is experimenting with it and there are a lot of people who just feel better off wheat," says Case, author of The Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide (Case Nutrition Consulting, 2006). She says to keep an eye out in the future for breads containing Montina, a tasty new type of gluten-free grain made in Montana from Indian rice grass.
Functions and flavors
For some, bread has a greater function than merely holding the sandwich together. "Functional breads, breads that promote health beyond basic nutrition, are really gaining in popularity," says Gordon, who started French Meadow's functional line when she created Women's Bread after a hysterectomy left her seeking a food-based alternative to hormone replacement therapy. The bread is packed with soy, flax and cranberries. The company also makes Men's Bread, formulated to suit men's nutrient needs. French Meadow's Healthy Hemp bread provides a boost of protein, fiber and omegas. "Hemp is becoming a huge trend," Gordon says. "Our hemp bread is the No. 1 selling hemp food product in the country."
America's taste in bread is growing up. "Our research is pointing to a real artisan trend in bread making and in the ingredients used," Radi says. Charter Baking is refreshing The Baker Organic line this spring with a nationwide rollout of new "lifestyle breads": Green Tea & Goji Berry, Pomegranate & Blueberry, and Yoga (which includes cranberries, pumpkin and poppy seeds). "They're more of a super-premium bread, with more of an upscale palate and flavors," Radi says. "Natural breads, particularly whole-grain breads, are really gaining a special cachet overall," says Harriman, of the Whole Grains Council. "These breads used to be thought of as just for the Birkenstock crowd, and it was OK if they were heavy as a brick and tasted like cardboard. But not anymore."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 92