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During the past two years, artery-clogging trans fats have quickly earned a reputation as a dietary bugaboo, inspiring food manufacturers, restaurants and bakeries to reformulate recipes and change their frying oils. In some cases, with some foods, these changes have been expensive or problematic, but the consensus now seems to be that removing partially hydrogenated fats can make many fried foods

During the past two years, artery-clogging trans fats have quickly earned a reputation as a dietary bugaboo, inspiring food manufacturers, restaurants and bakeries to reformulate recipes and change their frying oils.

In some cases, with some foods, these changes have been expensive or problematic, but the consensus now seems to be that removing partially hydrogenated fats can make many fried foods and baked goods significantly healthier without a sacrifice in flavor.

Amid these shifts, some forward-thinking bakery operators are looking at other ways to make their fresh foods more natural — particularly by removing artificial ingredients and reverting to simpler, more traditional from-scratch recipes.

“We view clean labels as a big deal,” said Steve Beaird, bakery director for St. Paul, Minn.-based Kowalski's Markets.

The 10-store chain has removed trans fats from “pretty much everything” made fresh by the company, he added, and whenever possible, Kowalski's baked goods are preservative-free and made with all-natural ingredients.

Noting that the very rapid mainstream growth of organics has led to a situation where an increasing volume of supply is sourced from overseas, and some core consumers have begun to express concern about diluted standards, Beaird explained that “it's our feeling, as a company, that all-natural foods is where everything settles down eventually, more so than organics. The niche we're trying to focus on is locally produced foods and cleaner products.”

Other experts agreed that a growing number of consumers are paying closer attention to labels, and opting for products with simpler ingredient lists, even when those products are snacks or sweets. These shoppers are likely to have similar expectations for foods prepared in the store.

“The trend is to read labels and figure out if a product is good for you,” said John Kirkpatrick, a Salem, Ore.-based bakery consultant. “Part of that trend is to look for products with more whole grains, products with all-natural, unprocessed sugars, natural shortenings and unbleached flours. They're looking for healthier products without preservatives or additives.”

Kirkpatrick emphasized, however, that while these shoppers might shun the sugar-rush sweetness of a Krispy Kreme doughnut or a packaged snack cake, and may instead be more interested in a pie or tart made with no added sugars, or a product sweetened with raw sugar, cane syrup or molasses, retailers shouldn't misinterpret the trend as a shift in demand toward sugar-free baked goods.

“Today, people who are concerned about health may not mind having bakery products less often, but when they do have them, they want to be sure that the ones they do have are great-tasting and high-quality,” he said.

Demand for fresh-baked foods geared toward specific dietary concerns, such as sugar-free, fat-free, gluten-free and low-sodium items, isn't likely to grow beyond the consumer base that requires these foods for health reasons.

“Take sugar-free,” said Carl Richardson, CR & Associates, Rochester, Mich. “Diabetics and people with health issues need a source for these products.”

That would seem to be a large group. More than 20 million Americans, or 7% of the U.S. population, have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Similarly, about 2 million Americans have Celiac disease, requiring them to adhere to a gluten-free diet, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Supermarket bakeries can generate loyalty from a small group of shoppers by offering a selection of products from these niches, Richardson said.

Many natural food stores have been successful with fresh-baked gluten-free products. Notably, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Markets operates a gluten-free commissary near Raleigh, N.C., that provides its stores in the Eastern U.S. with products including cakes, cookies, muffins, breads, pizza crusts and pies.

Yet creating and tweaking these specialty recipes, as well as budgeting the display space needed to attract the ongoing attention of shoppers with special dietary needs, is a difficult proposition for most supermarket bakeries, Richardson noted.

“It's an issue of quality or shelf life,” he said. “You can either put less of these niche products out, which is bad for merchandising, or you put more out and have products going stale.”

Beaird noted that the costs associated with developing niche items had made them a low priority at Kowalski's. “From an economic standpoint, we're not a big enough player to do all of the research needed to make a large selection of gluten-free or sugar-free products,” he said.

Richardson agreed, noting that “fat-free, sugar-free, low-sodium — all of those issues are part of the lineup, but they're never going to be mainstream in bakeries. When customers are treating themselves, they're looking for a quality sweet good — high-fat and lots of sugar.”

Artisanal breads are one particularly hot fresh-baked category where health concerns seem perfectly matched with all-natural-ingredient trends. Here, shoppers can explore an ever-growing variety of unfamiliar flavors with the knowledge that richer-tasting products are typically the result of minimal ingredient processing and high whole-grain content.

“We have a really wide range of products that we make from scratch every day with no preservatives in them,” said Sharon Wullenweber, bakery manager and buyer for Jungle Jim's, Fairfield, Ohio.

Noting that her department had received fewer than five health-related questions during the past year — even regarding such topics as trans fats — Wullenweber said that the fresh, from-scratch aspect seemed to be more crucial to the appeal of the breads than any specific concerns about health.

Yet these qualities overlap for many label-reading shoppers, who seem to prefer products that are made with simple lists of ingredients. Whole-grain products and unbleached flour continue to grow in popularity, as the consumer packaged goods industry continues to tout their health benefits.

“I wouldn't be surprised if [better-for-you breads] became 50% of the category,” said Ed Weller, founder and president of The Weller Co., a Tucson, Ariz.-based consulting firm.

When it comes to bread, palates have been shifting in this direction for years, he noted.

“You can acquire a taste for different breads,” said Weller. “Taste is really in the eye of the beholder when it comes to bread. Taste is not in the eye of the beholder when it comes to chocolate cake.”