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SUPERMARKET BAKERY OPERATORS are acting more and more like nutritionists and dietitians. Once a category of pure indulgence where only taste and appearance mattered, the bakery has begun to respond to health concerns, and retailers across the country are remixing their recipes to include more good-for-you ingredients and less fats. There are now numerous examples of products with no trans fats, breads

SUPERMARKET BAKERY OPERATORS are acting more and more like nutritionists and dietitians.

Once a category of pure indulgence where only taste and appearance mattered, the bakery has begun to respond to health concerns, and retailers across the country are remixing their recipes to include more good-for-you ingredients and less fats. There are now numerous examples of products with no trans fats, breads with additional whole grains and items prepared with cholesterol-fighting omega-3 oils.

The push to begin replacing artificial ingredients with natural ones has retailers reviewing every aspect of their ISB operation, from sourcing to signage. Today, when a retailer proclaims it has a clean bakery, it's referring not only to sanitation practices, but product profiles as well.

Donna Eggers, spokeswoman for Albertsons' Boise, Idaho division, said the chain is currently reevaluating its entire bakery operation, with the intention of introducing healthier products.

“We do not currently have any bakery items that would be classified as healthy, but we do have plans to develop products that would meet our customers' interest in this growing category.”

Finding suitable ingredient replacements has been a challenge at Kowalski's Markets, a nine-store chain based in St. Paul, Minn. But the retailer has set a goal to become a trans fat-free bakery, according to Russ Tourville, bakery director.

“We have had to do a lot of work and beat on a lot of [suppliers'] doors to get them to do this for us,” said Tourville. One new ingredient being used is a trans fat-free margarine.

Kowalski's has been able to introduce a trans fat-free donut, and the store informs its customers with a sign in the donut case that they have been fried in a trans fat-free shortening. But focusing on trans fat is just the beginning for the retailer, Tourville said. “Eventually our goal is to become more natural, and to get away from the use of artificial flavors and artificial ingredients.”

Already, Kowalski's has incorporated more high-fiber, heart-healthy whole-grain flour as opposed to bleached white flour, he explained.

Finding suitable replacements for donut frying oil and cake icing are two of the biggest formula challenges, according to numerous retailers. Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn., used a trans fat-free shortening to convert its cookie recipes last summer, according to Kim Kockler, the company's on-staff registered dietitian. The retailer also now offers trans fat-free donuts.

“However, the icings are not trans fat-free, so it is difficult to place any signage around the case,” she noted.

On Jan. 1 of this year, the chain introduced a whole-grain bread enhanced with omega-3 oil. The bread, priced slightly higher than other loaves, comes in a specially printed bag that informs consumers how much omega-3s each loaf contains, as well as the amount of whole grains per slice.

“It is the first step towards building an entire new line of healthier whole-grain breads,” noted Kockler.

Seattle's Central Market is making “a lot” of adjustments in its ISB, said Kurt Strap, bakery/food service director.

“We feel what we are doing is going to have a lot of impact in the future,” said Strap. Changes will run through all product lines, from the introduction of energy breads, to the removal of trans fats, to offering more healthful, cleaner products overall, he said.

“We are looking at every recipe that we do — how can we make it better and healthier?” Strap said. “So many things have gone to using inexpensive fillers. We are going the opposite way. When we look at new vendors, we look at the ingredients so much closer.”

For one, Central Market is in the process of taking the trans fats out of its cookies. Its next area of focus is cake frosting. “We haven't found a flavorful product yet,” he continued.

“In the bakery area, we have done a few things because it is the right thing to do. But we haven't made a big splash about it,” said Strap. “We do it to take care of our customer. It is kind of an expectation they have of us.”

Top Pot Doughnuts, a Seattle-based donut maker that operates three retail shops and sells to several wholesale accounts, including Starbucks, made headlines when it introduced a trans fat-free donut in November 2006.

A company spokeswoman said it was a difficult and lengthy process to find a suitable frying oil replacement. “We spent months researching ingredients, new formulations and alternative production methods,” she said.

There were four months of blind taste tests comparing old and new donuts.

“The objective was to make as smooth a transition as possible, where one could not taste any difference between trans fat and trans fat-free,” she said.

Steve D'Agostino, director of store operations for the 23-store D'Agostino chain, based in Larchmont, N.Y., said he and his staff sample every item before they'll put it on the shelf. So when it comes to introducing more healthful bakery items, they must taste good as well. D'Agostino pointed out sugar-free baked goods as one troublesome category.

“A lot of it is terrible, some of it is good,” he said. Furthermore, he advised ISB operators to pay attention to what is meant by “sugar-free” vs. “no sugar added.”

A selection of D'Agostino's bakery offerings comes via New York City's famed Zaro's Bakery, which proudly declares it uses only natural ingredients in its baked goods.

“We are an all-natural bakery. We use no preservatives, all unbleached flour,” said Demetra Sirica, a Zaro's saleswoman. “There are no artificial sweeteners or preservatives. We don't use trans fats. We are a clean bakery operation.” Zaro's, she noted, also supplies a number of Whole Foods stores.

Because there has been so much attention paid recently to bakery ingredients, Zaro's has created a formal product catalog for the first time in its 75-year history. The cover clearly states “that we are an all-clean bakery, nothing artificial and no preservatives,” said Sirica. In the past, the company simply had casual product-buying sheets. “I thought [the catalog] was necessary.”

Zaro's consumers generally have been munching more on healthier types of items, such as dried fruit and fig bars, than the triple-fudge bars, she added. “I've noticed that trend particularly among younger people.”

Robert Beckerman, a retail veteran and ISB consultant, said the overriding concern today is how retailer bakers plan to address all the issues now in front of them. He urges ISBs to put together a marketing strategy. The next step is to share that strategy with employees. Ultimately, the message needs to be communicated to consumers in a “user-friendly and listener-friendly way.”

With any kind of change, there is always a fear that sales will suffer. But Beckerman said this concern can be turned into a marketing value if the message is correct.

The customer “is not going to be shortchanged. These new products are good products, because they are healthier than before,” he said.

But even some of the best retailers are sending out mixed messages to customers. North Carolina-based Fresh Market tells consumers via a dated website message that its “sourdough breads, loaf breads, artisan breads and most of our pound cakes are trans fat-free. We are working toward building our trans fat-free product line and hope to have many of our products reformulated by the end of 2005.”

Yet in January 2007, a bakery worker in a North Carolina Fresh Market store couldn't confirm that any of its products were trans fat-free, and in a newly opened Pennsylvania store, there were no signs displaying health-oriented messages.

That doesn't mean stores aren't trying, though. Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets has begun adding labels on its store-brand bakery cookies indicating they possess “Zero Grams of Trans Fat,” while its cinnamon buns have “3 Grams of Trans Fat.” H.E. Butt's Central Market, a division of the San Antonio, Texas-based chain, has just introduced educational brochures for customers on a variety of topics, including gluten-free and sugar-free baked products. And California-based Trader Joe's offers a wide array of all-natural specialty breads that are clearly labeled as sodium-free, gluten-free or organic, depending on the variety.

Byerly's, a 22-store chain based in Edina, Minn., a forerunner in the healthful baking movement, has had a nearly trans fat-free bakery for almost a year now. It even has a trans fat-free cake icing, noted Paul Supplee, category manager for the bakery.

“A lot of it was going back to what we did years before. We use a lot more butter and a lot more canola oil and olive oil,” said Supplee. He is still searching for a satisfactory frying oil.

“I'm looking for something that will have a good taste and keep the crisp texture that people love with donuts,” he said.

The independent retailer has also reintroduced its sandwich breads with an all-natural line. “We took all of the preservatives out and anything that couldn't be classified as natural.” At two loaves for $4, sales have been strong.

Changes are continuing. The next big step is the removal of high-fructose corn syrup from recipes.

“We are now converting back to traditional sweeteners — other syrups and cane sugar,” said Supplee. “I am trying to keep ahead of demand.”

Good Advice

  • Besides health, shoppers look for “authenticity.” Ditch artificial ingredients like corn syrup.
  • Switch to whole-grain flours wherever possible.
  • Consumers' awareness of trans fats is growing. Strongly consider alternatives.
  • Reformulations deserve special signage; be sure to promote them to consumers who otherwise would consider the ISB off-limits.
TAGS: Bakery