Trans fats will probably be remembered as one of the major dietary bugaboos of the past decade. A steady stream of scientific research early in the 2000s indicated that partially hydrogenated oils were significantly worse for the human heart and circulatory system than animal fats or vegetable oils, resulted in a flood of new labeling laws and municipal bans in recent years.
But, trans fats may have been just the tip of the iceberg for many shoppers. In dairy departments, many shoppers are still concerned about the use of the artificial hormone rGBH in dairy herds. The ongoing growth of organic and all-natural foods, even through the recession, indicates that many shoppers are still concerned about pesticides being used on their produce, or additives being put in their baked goods to extend shelf life.
In fact, a 2009 survey of U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends by the Food Marketing Institute found that 44% of shoppers look for a “no preservatives” claim on package labels in 2009, up from 39% in 2005. Similarly, 41% of shoppers looked for labels indicating there were no chemical additives in a product, up from 38% in 2005. And, concern about trans fats remains high. Forty-eight percent of shoppers examined trans fat content in their purchases in 2009.
“Overall, there has been a trend toward looking at ingredients and diet,” said Alan Heibert, education information specialist for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis.
“You can go back several decades and people were looking at cholesterol as bad. And, people became more aware about how diet affected health.”
Now, Heibert added, not only are people becoming more aware of chemicals and chemical ingredients in food — such as preservatives and artificial colorings and flavorings — there is also evidence that a growing number of parents are concerned about things like hormone-disrupting plastic compound Bisphenol A, which many researchers believe can leach into foods when some types of plastic containers are microwaved, for example.
Trans fat, he said, could become a non-issue, “because ever since the labeling requirement went into effect, they have virtually disappeared.”
So, what does this mean for supermarket bakery departments. Many bakeries have been able to find suitable substitutes for trans fat-laden cooking oils. But, when shoppers celebrate, they still want brightly colored icing on their cakes, for example. And, most bakeries would prefer to get at least a couple of days of shelf life out of many of their highly perishable treats, which often necessitates some use of preservatives.
The in-house clean labeling efforts at St. Paul, Minn.-based Kowalski's Markets emerged partly from the trans fat issue, noted Bakery Director Steve Beaird.
“People really started looking at labels a lot closer,” he said. “We made it a company directive, that where possible, we weren't putting in artificial colors or flavors, and we were getting all the trans fats out of our products — generally keeping our labels as clean as possible.”
Beaird emphasized that the company's bakeries don't attempt to make claims that they are always all-natural or always organic. Citing natural food chains as an example, he noted that those claims can place significant restrictions on what types of items an in-store bakery can offer. In some items, such as certain chocolate fillings or brightly colored decorations, artificial ingredients are unavoidable.
And, they haven't really advertised or promoted the clean label initiative in their bakery departments. But, Beaird says that Kowalski's customers do notice, and that there is a larger goal at stake with the endeavor.
“We're such a local player in this area, and we're known for promoting local and fresh,” he said. “And, when you have a customer come through your door, and your advertising focuses on local and fresh product, and [that customer] picks up a label in the bakery and sees that the ingredient list is two paragraphs long, it kind of defeats the purpose of your company objective.”
Even though the buzz has died down somewhat in the consumer media, interest in clean labels is growing, noted Tanney Staffenson, advisor to Lamb's Thriftway, Wilsonville, Ore.
“Shoppers do ask questions,” he said. “We do a lot with institutional signage, trying to communicate to the customer what is and what is not in the product to create a point of difference. It's important to get that message communicated effectively. They are paying more attention now than ever before about ingredients for food quality and food safety.”
But however a grocer sources their ingredients for fresh food departments, it's important to give shoppers access to that information, even if it is not required by a store's local municipality, Hiebert said.
He even speculated that a lack of labeling could potentially drive shoppers who suffer from food allergies from bakery departments to prepackaged alternatives, if they are unable to obtain the ingredient information they need.
“We have taken the position here at IDDBA that it make sense to give your customers as much information as possible,” he said. “Just have that stuff available. Even if a product isn't required to have a label, the store is required to have something on file about the product and what is in it.”
And, it's not just the growing prevalence of food allergies. Bakeries can take pride in the ingredients they use with very simple signage, Heibert said.
“It is as simple as saying this is high-quality, all-natural food,” he said. “Signage like that is pretty simple.”
Many leading supermarket bakeries emphasize the ingredients they use in products in order to tell a story and generate excitement about new products in advertisements or newsletters.
For example, Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, recently introduced two new traditional German-style breads. On its website, Dinkelbrot is described as “delicious and wholesome dark bread originating in Germany and is made from spelt instead of wheat. Spelt bread fills you up; it's nutritionally rich in fiber, protein and B-complex vitamins,” while Kraftkorn is described as “a dense and hearty European hearth bread, full of whole grains, sunflower seeds and flavor.”
Highlighting the unique ingredients of a bakery product or just the natural ingredients that are always used by a bakery are simple ways to communicate quality.
“When you can tell customers, ‘We use these high-quality [ingredients], and other bakers don't necessarily have these,” it can help create a point of differentiation, noted Staffenson. “This is all we use, so it's going to be good quality and good consistency every time you buy it.’”
Beaird agreed, noting that Kowalski's bakery departments are primarily trying to offer customers “the cleanest product possible.”