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GROCERY: Bread: Go with the grain

Once, commercial aisle bread was almost exclusively of the plain white variety, but no longer. Prompted by the desire among a growing segment of consumers to eat healthfully, and by the sales shifts expected to spring from that desire, supermarkets across the country are now featuring more organic and whole grain/multigrain items in the aisle. Manufacturers have been giving them plenty to work with, as many of the lines tout a range of beneficial nutrients or properties.

The presence of more of these bread varieties in the commercial aisle is paying off. Fresh whole grain bread grew 14.9 percent in sales dollars and 8.1 percent in unit volume for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 3, 2007, according to Nielsen LabelTrends, which tracks product movement in food/drug/mass merchandise stores (excluding Wal-Mart). In the same period, fresh organic bread grew 40.5 percent in sales dollars and 40.3 percent in unit volume; and fresh natural bread grew 38.3 percent in dollars and 30.5 percent in unit volume.

Fresh bread with a comparative fiber claim grew 45.5 percent in dollars and 41 percent in unit volume, the Nielsen data showed. Sales of fresh bread claiming to be a "good source of vitamins" grew 63.7 percent in dollars and 52.8 percent in unit dollars; and fresh gluten-free bread grew 39.5 percent in dollars and 36 percent in unit volume.

By comparison, during the same time period at the same retail channels, overall fresh bread dollar sales increased just 3.5 percent, while unit volume declined 2.2 percent, Nielsen Strategic Planner data showed.

Spreading the word

Despite the strides non-white bread has been making in the commercial bread aisle, some retailers believe a lot more sales potential exists. What stands in the way is lingering misinformation about the differences between bread types and misperceptions among consumers.

"The common misconception is that all bread is good for you, where in reality health benefits are mainly derived from whole wheat and multigrain breads," notes Rob Keane, spokesman for Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop. "White bread, whose main ingredient is unbleached flour, breaks down into sugar in the body."

To help set the record straight, the Ahold banner decided to more actively teach shoppers about the different nutritional values of different types of bread.

"Working with our nutritionist, we ran a campaign at store level supported by a written column in the weekly circular and on-shelf danglers, promoting the benefits of multigrain breads," recounts Keane. "Since our circular is viewed by thousands upon thousands of our customers each week, we felt this was the best way to reach them."

Despite such efforts by retailers, as well as manufacturers and the health community at large to spread the good word, many mainstream consumers are still reluctant to eat whole grain breads. For them, there's an emerging assortment of high-profile products made with whole grains, but featuring the taste, texture, and appearance of white bread.

The latest entry in this continually growing segment is Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Honey made with Whole Grain White Bread, introduced at the end of 2007. The latest extension to Downers Grove, Ill.-based Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth line, it offers a taste of real honey, as well as 10 grams of whole grains per two-slice serving (20 percent of the recommended servings of whole grain per day).

Sara Lee says that its Soft & Smooth made with Whole Grain White Bread variety is the top-selling bread in the United States. Tim Zimmer, v.p., Sara Lee U.S. Bakery, notes that the line, which was introduced in 2005, "blew our expectations away," quickly blossoming into a $250 million to $300 million sub-brand with 50 percent growth. The company also offers a range of traditional whole grain breads.

Sara Lee has been backing up the Soft & Smooth line with plenty of educational promotion spanning print, Internet, and TV advertising. The campaign includes educating consumers on the nutritional importance of whole grains, as well as how to look for them in products, via the company's Web site.

Of course, Sara Lee isn't the only company to combine family-friendly taste and texture with the better-for-you nutritional profile of whole grains. St. Louis-based Interstate Bakeries Corp. (IBC), the maker of iconic Wonder Bread, put out Wonder 100% Whole Grain for White Bread Fans, Wonder Made With Whole Grain White, and Wonder Kids in January 2006.

"Notably, it wasn't until Wonder Made With Whole Grain White hit the market nationally that the white bread category reversed its decline, and dollar sales began to trend up," notes IBC c.m.o. Rich Seban.

Additionally, the company has since rolled out Wonder Made With Whole Grain Wheat and Wonder Made With Whole Grain Honey Wheat, the first national introduction of wheat breads under the Wonder brand, and a number of nutritionally enhanced bun products offering a good source of whole grain.

"Whole grains are important and are not going away," says Seban. "As a result the 'made with' whole grain segment is likely to continue to grow. Organic sales and, to a lesser degree, natural products, have increased very significantly over the last few years, and it's easy to see those trends continuing as well."

Still, Seban adds, "[T]he demise of white bread has been greatly exaggerated. There's still a tremendous market for white bread -- it's one of the largest segments of the bread category -- and Wonder leads the way by a significant margin as the No. 1 branded white bread in the United States."

The natural alternative

Whole grains have grown popular enough, however, that today more consumers are growing to prefer their undisguised taste and texture in bread.

"The changing dynamic continues to be a shift from white breads to higher-retail all-natural, whole wheat, and multigrain breads," notes Stop & Shop's Keane.

This trend is reflected in the success Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods has had with a new lineup of all-natural premium specialty whole grain and multigrain breads.

Although the Nature's Own line was only introduced in 2007, the company has been offering whole grain varieties "for decades," notes Flowers Foods v.p. of marketing Janice Anderson, adding that one of the pioneering manufacturer's first products back in 1977 was a 100 percent whole wheat soft variety loaf that's "still a top seller for us."

Further, Flowers Foods "may have been the first wholesale baker to clearly print on the front of its packaging the number of whole grain grams in each slice of bread," an innovation Anderson says was adopted "to help consumers make educated choices in the bread aisle."

The concept of offering a choice carries over into the company's attitude toward the bread aisle.

"We have positioned Nature's Own as the healthy alternative across all bread aisle sections. Nature's Own offers everything from lower-calorie and lower-carb breads to breads that are sugar-free, high in fiber, and high in whole grains. There are Nature's Own breads with organic flour, and one with omega-3. These types of bread options with new or enhanced health benefits are only going to increase."

Even with an wide variety of traditional whole grain and multigrain breads, though, since 1991 Flowers Foods has also offered Whitewheat bread, which "offers the nutritional benefits of wheat bread but is not a whole grain bread," says Anderson. The product is aimed at consumers who "don't like the stronger taste and texture of whole wheat bread -- but...still [want] the nutritional benefits."

Next up for Flowers Foods is the April 2008 introduction of a new line of breakfast breads under the Nature's Own line, including a honey wheat bagel and a honey wheat English muffin.

"Like all Nature's Own products, our new breakfast items will contain no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors -- which will be a first for the breakfast aisle," says Anderson. "We're also boosting their nutritional goodness by making them good sources of vitamins A, C, D, and E and calcium."

Yet another choice for health-conscious shoppers is to forsake the commercial bread aisle altogether, and head for the frozen section.

"More and more 'healthy chooser' consumers are going to the freezer section seeking [our] breads because they're actually fresher, containing no preservatives of any kind, or sweeteners," says Chris Steinmetz, managing director at Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery, which produces such hearty organic products as Healthy Hemp and Men's Bread, as well as a new line of Bake & Serve Organic Dinner Rolls.

As for moving the items beyond the freezer, "we are still in the early stages," admits Steinmetz. "Long-term, being able to merchandise the products at ambient temperature, the same as conventional products, will be key as the space in frozen and refrigerated sets continues to become more expensive and sought after by multiple categories."

The consensus is that more whole grain and better-for-you items offering specific health benefits will arrive in the commercial bread aisle, but Flowers Foods' Anderson offers an important caveat.

"No matter what trends are the hottest in the years ahead, there is one thing we never forget, and that is people buy bread that tastes good," says Anderson. "No matter how good for you a product may be, if it doesn't deliver on taste, people won't come back for seconds."


Buyers Alert: Baked goods

Whole grains aren't just catching on in breads, but in muffins, scones, and other baked goods, too. Also popular are items featuring all-natural and organic ingredients. Despite such nods to better nutrition, however, indulgence remains an important factor in shopper satisfaction for these categories.

Embrace, a sweets company, LLC

The Original Organic Whole Wheat Scones: Billed as the first of their kind, The Original Organic Whole Wheat Scones from Cincinnati-based Embrace, a sweets company, LLC feature 200 fewer calories and 20 fewer grams of sugar than the typical scone. The item is available as a ready-to-eat product or an easy-to-bake mix. Varieties include plain scones and those with assorted preserves.

Suggested retail prices: $2.49 per four-ounce scone, $6.49 per 24-ounce bagged mix

Available: Scones, July 2006 (reintroduced August 2007); mix, December 2007

For more information:

Flowers Foods

Blue Bird 100-Calorie Snacks: The snack brand from Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods now offers portion-controlled servings of three mini creme-filled chocolate or golden cupcakes with chocolate icing or three mini blueberry muffins that equal 100 calories. The indulgent but better-for-you treats are additionally free of trans fats.

Suggested retail price: $2.89 per 7.75-ounce box of six three-packs

Available: November 2007

For more information:

Greyston Bakery

Do-Goodie Brownies: Not only are Do-Goodie brownies made with real Belgian chocolate and other all-natural ingredients, but they actually make the world a better place: All profits from the sale of the line go directly to the Greyston Foundation, established by Yonkers, N.Y.-based Greyston Bakery to provide jobs, child care, health care, and housing for the needy. The line's flavors consist of Chocolate Fudge, Espresso Bean, Walnut Fudge, and Brown Sugar Blondie.

Suggested retail price: $2.49 per three-ounce brownie

Available: December 2007

For more information:

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