It's a tricky time to be a baker. Gluten-free diet trends, which harken back to the low-carb diets a decade ago, leave bakers with some tough choices. Shelf-life performance — always an issue in baking — is in some ways more challenging than ever, and the need to remove certain oils is also sending tried and true formulas back to the pilot plant.
Yet there are opportunities, as consumers are unlikely to give up bread (or even cinnamon rolls) altogether. Give your bread a pretzel make-over or add a ciabatta roll to your portfolio and suddenly you are cutting edge. And new sweeteners or new enzyme applications can turn a reformulation challenge into a success story.
Stay as sweet as you are
“In some markets we are getting requests to eliminate sugars and fat, usually sugar more than fat,” says Mary Dal Porto, senior director of product development for Horizon Food Group, a San Diego company that is focused on snack cakes.
“For reducing total sugars, we use sucralose and some of the natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit. For healthier-type products, we have used agave and some of the fruit pastes -- for example, fig, raisin or cranberry paste.”
Sweetener options have multiplied almost exponentially in recent years as food manufacturers work to address the obesity problem without breaking the hearts of sweet-happy consumers. High-intensity sweeteners used in combination with base sweeteners including simple sugar can allow for a calories-from-sugar reduction on nutrition panels. And natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit can help keep natural food consumers from putting products back on the shelf.
The Horizon Group has three manufacturing plants: two in Escondido, Calif., and one in Salt Lake City, Utah. The plants in Escondido manufacture frozen bakery products (cakes, muffins, cinnamon and savory rolls, brownies and cookies) and shelf-stable bars and cookies. The Utah facility manufactures snack pies. The company sells through most channels including hotels, schools, quick-serve restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets, and makes both custom and branded products.
Dal Porto says there are four trends having the most influence on the company's product development work: gluten-free, weight management, healthier choices and comfort foods. Yes, she says, clean label comes into play, but the degree to which it matters depends on the customer and the end-user.
While gluten-free is the 800-lb. gorilla of baking, it can be tamed with some effort.
“Well, gluten free isn’t for everyone. However we do have potential customers that are looking for products that do not contain gluten ingredients,” she says. Some are suffering from celiac disease or have other degrees of intolerance to gluten, and those require "certified" gluten-free products – made in a facility without any gluten or with sufficient assurances that there is no cross-contamination.
Others who are avoiding gluten just because they think it's a better dietary choice may be satisfied with simpler assurances that a specific product has no gluten, that wheat flour has been replaced with rice flour or a similar substitute. Of course, it still has to taste good.
“Texture and shelf life seem to be the biggest hurdles to cross when formulating gluten-free products,” Dal Porto says. “You can start with a basic formula you already have in place and then manipulate it until you achieve a great-tasting product.”
Miller Baking's Pretzilla Hot Dog Bun
If you visit a Whole Foods Market to prepare for a spring cookout, you may come across Pretzilla — a line of pretzel breads and rolls manufactured in Milwaukee by a subsidiary of Miller Baking Co.
Brian Miller, president of the family-owned concern that his father bought decades ago from another Miller family, says Pretzilla was born of an effort to build a brand in a commodity-driven business.
“Miller Baking was really sort of a storefront bakery that had outgrown the storefront,” he says. “We saw early on that pretzel rolls were a growing trend, and we ended up building a plant to make them.” Early on being way back in 2007, when Miller Baking's non-branded pretzel rolls developed a foodie fan base that led to a mention in Saveur magazine.
The Pretzilla product line includes burger buns, sausage buns, mini buns, hoagie rolls, pretzel bites and special items like the 3-lb. Party Pretzel. They are certified kosher, vegan, non-GMO and made without high-fructose corn syrup.
Miller says he believes bakers can achieve shelf life and meet nutritional expectations if they look beyond producing only commodity products. “People still want bakery products that offer freshness and fit into a healthy diet,” he says.
For instance, using enzymes in Pretzilla products provides a longer shelf life without the use of ingredients such as calcium propionate and datem (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides). The use of those chemical ingredients can exclude products from the natural and organic channels, but Pretzilla products are available in eight of Whole Foods' 10 regional markets.
As for gluten-free baking, Miller Baking has not entered the fray, although the company has looked at the possibility of outsourcing to a certified facility.
Miller and Horizon's Dal Porto both note that they and other bakers have had to look carefully at oils in recent years, but some of their work was set in motion 10 years ago when the first red flags went up on trans fats.
Specialty bakery products don't necessarily have to come from a specialty bakery. A few years ago Pepperidge Farm Inc., Norwalk, Conn., rolled out a line of Stone Baked Artisan Rolls that includes at least two varieties of ciabatta rolls. Currently, the bakery division of Campbell Soup has put some of its marketing muscle behind a line of Sandwich Flats, and it offers a line of Bake at Home Artisan Crafted Breads.
Miller points out enzymes remain fairly cutting edge stuff that has not yet been widely adopted by bakers. But that could change. Enzyme suppliers have been touting their advantages — soft crumb performance they say can prolong the shelf life of industrially produced bread by up to two weeks — through scientific and trade publications for some time. A handful of companies have products on the market.
From a technical standpoint, food scientists are well versed in what makes bread stale.
Amylopectin, which migrates from starch grains, can crystallize and cause subsequent hardening of baked goods. But enzymes can break down the parts of the amylopectin that crystallize. As a result, short-chain dextrins are able to interact with the remaining coiled structures of the starch and inhibit its crystallization.
With more solutions available, perhaps the bakery segment soon could be easy as pie. Of course there is always a complication around the corner. Just ask Dal Porto. She says the recent changes in school nutrition rules have been a challenge, and the non-GMO issue “seems to be sneaking up on us.”
“We already have a couple of customers that require non-GMO,” she says. “It may not be long before more do, or it becomes law.”