Healthy Tortillas: A How-to Guide for Production and Packaging

By Mike Terry
Posted In : thermoforming, MAP, flow wrapping, Bakery, flow wrap, clean label, MAP Packaging, Tortillas

Consumers are endlessly hunting for healthier tortillas in today’s marketplace. As freshness, nutrition, and a shorter ingredients list become “must-haves” with Gen Z and Millennials, the drive to know what is in the tortillas is taking center stage.

This focused buyer behavior also has producers reimagining the ways their tortillas are processed, packaged, and marketed to a younger generation of health-conscious consumers. Most appreciate the “better for you” movement and have taken innovative steps to meet this customer demand.

Ingredients lists are getting shorter and more recognizable. Artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors are disappearing, replaced by more natural additives. Producers are upgrading their packaging with modern materials and working with advanced food science to accommodate improved appearance, taste, consistency, and shelf life.

Healthy Tortillas in Retail

It comes as no surprise that retail is experiencing some of the highest adoption rates of healthier tortillas. Consumers have become more aware of food characteristics when getting creative in their kitchens and now opt for flavors and ingredients that fit their lifestyles. Organic, low-carb, clean label products are more visible as niche offerings and provide the unique attributes discerning consumers want.

For instance, traditional corn and flour tortillas still dominate the market. However, consumers with specific dietary or lifestyle concerns can easily find organic, gluten-free, or vegan options, as well as tortillas that fit keto, Paleo, or even plant-based eating plans. It is commonplace in supermarkets and restaurants now to see tortillas made from a broader range of healthy ingredients such as:

  • Multi- and Alternate Grains
  • Sweet potato
  • Almond flour
  • Bean flour
  • Cassava flour
  • Chickpeas
  • Chia seeds
  • Quinoa
  • And more

This increasing variety offers fresh, exciting flavor experiences and health benefits and increases use and availability at any time of day. Consumers no longer have to wait for specific dayparts to make healthy eating choices. Tortillas are showing up as key ingredients for breakfast, lunch, snack time, and dinner entrees.

Healthy Tortillas in Foodservice

The foodservice industry hasn’t slept on the healthier tortilla trend either. Consumers use modern search apps and engines to locate restaurants that meet their dietary and lifestyle demands and favor them almost exclusively with their patronage. This has prompted the foodservice industry to examine the ingredients more closely across all offers, including tortillas, clean up their labels, and produce more accommodating choices for their discerning customers.

This necessity has also jumpstarted imaginations throughout the industry, leading to some of the healthiest, most exciting, and flavorful fusions ever put to menus. Because of the utility, flexibility, and sizing options of today’s healthy tortillas, diners can now enjoy everything from tapas and street-style tacos to breakfast burritos and quesadillas with the healthiest, most transparent ingredients.

Pitas, Naans, and Flatbreads

But these healthier eating trends are not restricted to tortillas alone. The new transformations seen in healthy tortillas are spreading out to other products, including tortillas’ close culinary kin: pitas, naans, and flatbreads.

Producers see opportunities for new formulations and better ingredients in these related products and are taking full advantage. The foodservice industry is experimenting with a variety of interchangeable toppings and fillings (think mini tortilla pizzas in a panini press) and giving consumers a very welcome break from “by the book” recipes.

Through this experimentation, a common theme is emerging among tortillas, naans, pitas, and flatbreads: consumers are turning away from pre-packaged, preservative-laden products both at home and dining out and giving their devotion to options with better health benefits, transparency, and freshly made quality.

Clean Label Tortillas

One of the healthier tortilla trend highlights has been the widespread endorsement and inclusion of “clean label” tortilla products. It is a term that encompasses a convergence of product health, sustainability, and diet-friendly characteristics.

Typically, clean label can mean organic, vegan, or non-GMO verified. It can also mean natural, gluten-free, low-cal and low-carb, or a combination of these elements. Clean label denotes natural, organic products that are free from artificial ingredients. It guarantees no pesticides, chemicals, or toxins and assures products are minimally processed.

While it is a term without an official definition, it carries enormous weight with consumers. According to an International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey of 1054 people, nearly 2 in 3 survey-takers (64 percent) say they try to choose foods made with clean ingredients.

Others, as reported by a survey commissioned by specialty PR agency Ingredient Communications, found as many as 73 percent of consumers are happy to pay a higher retail price for a food or drink product made with ingredients they recognize and trust.

The bottom line is clean label products, including healthy tortillas, are growing faster than almost any traditional products on the market.

Clean Label Ingredients

Much of this exponential growth concerns ingredients. Many consumers define clean label by a short, easily understood ingredients list. They perceive clean label ingredients to be inherently natural, label-friendly, and even feature organic elements.

Young consumers seeking clean label products, especially, will look for labels that are easy to read and understand. They want a majority of their products to be free from artificial or chemical-sounding ingredients and over-complicated processes.

Clean Label Nutrition

Additionally, clean label nutrition information impacts consumers, as they can now quickly tell what is being added to their tortillas. It gives them a clear indication of the nutrients they are consuming based on the serving sizes.

Clean Label’s Influence on Buyer Behavior

The important thing to understand is that a clean label designation influences brand perception and drives buyer behavior.

Clean label has moved beyond a trend and has become an expectation. According to Innova, 91 percent of US consumers believe food and beverage products with recognizable ingredients are healthier.

This means sustainability, dietary restrictions, ingredient lists, and health concerns will drive a greater push for transparency going forward. “Free-from” claims will carry significantly more weight, and packagers must be ready to make the switch.

While clean label does not have an official FDA or USDA policy, it is considered fresher, safer, and healthier for consumers. Brands that stick to the promises on their labels will win customers.

Keeping Pace with The Healthy Tortilla Trend

Consumer demand for healthy tortillas, naans, and flatbreads presents many challenges for modern producers:

  • Systems and processes must provide ideal tortilla texture, appearance, and flexibility
  • There can be no product retrogradation (staling), stickiness, or crumbling
  • Packaging must support microbial and mold inhibition
  • Tortillas must include natural clean label ingredients, replacing major, minor, micro-ingredients, and additives with natural ones.

Successfully executing this process can include several steps that require an investment of both time and money to optimize production and results:

  • Removing artificial colors, flavors, chemical preservatives, and synthetically produced ingredients
  • Limiting “water activity” in your product
  • Ensuring adoption from your customer, as it will deviate from the standard
  • Testing and retesting functionality of newer ingredients
  • Developing modern packaging to ensure freshness

The question then becomes, “Is it possible to update production to accommodate healthier products without becoming cost-prohibitive?”

Yes. Not only is it possible, but providing healthier, clean label tortillas, naans, or flatbreads on a large commercial scale is undoubtedly the future in the bakery sector and food industry. It is what consumers want, and an investment in the innovation pipeline is the next logical step.

How can I produce healthy tortillas cost-effectively?

As a producer, you are tasked with prioritizing health and clean label adherence for your tortillas. However, tortilla bakeries are historically low margin. Often, you must maintain high production and throughput speeds without passing the costs onto your consumers.

Balancing investment in new, automated equipment with product quality and natural ingredients is a delicate process. As a result, as a modern tortilla maker, you can and should turn to advanced food science and packaging innovations to make production work for today’s consumers.

Replace Emulsifiers & Enzymes

Synthetic emulsifiers and enzymes help to give tortillas more flexibility, rollability (without cracking), and anti-stick properties. They enhance the overall eating experience and allow tortillas to better withstand production, packaging, and transport without adverse effects.

However, to be considered healthy and clean label, they must be replaced by more naturally occurring ingredients, such as guar gum, pectin, and lipases with oil. While the initial investment in natural ingredients may cost more, these replacements produce a substitution effect (natural enzymes for emulsifiers). These savings can reduce costs and overall food waste over time.

Integrate Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)

Packaging solutions such as wicketed, low-density polyethylene plastic (LDPE) bags are not viable for healthier, clean label tortillas. They do not provide the preservation, resealability, or shelf life required to inhibit bacteria growth, reduce food waste, or ensure an optimal consumer experience.

Integrating MAP into existing thermoformer machine or flow wrap packaging equipment provides several cost-effective advantages over traditional packaging methods and allows you to scale your operations according to developing health trends in many ways:

  • By minimizing or replacing the oxygen inside the package interior with a mixture of nitrogen and CO2, MAP prevents oxygenation and preserves clean label product quality
  • MAP facilitates optimal shelf life (up to 200 days)
  • MAP accommodates reclosable features such as zippers, adhesive tape, tearable notches automatically on the same system using different recyclable films
  • MAP fully integrates with robotic automation systems in primary packaging, secondary packaging, and palletizing stages, further reducing labor costs and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Limit Water Activity with MAP

One of the most unique and important advantages of MAP is thermal control. With MAP, you can introduce thermal measures, like freezing and thawing, onto your products. These processes help to reduce “water activity” – the measured amount of water available for chemical reactions like microbial growth – and better preserve your healthy tortillas over the consumer lifecycle.

(IE. The current Aw for tortillas should remain below .86 to prevent bacterial growth such as Botulinum and Salmonella)

Update Package Labeling with MAP

Consumers shop with their eyes. If they see badges such as “certified organic,” “non-GMO,” “gluten-free,” or “low-carb,” they’ll be more inclined to inspect, trust, and purchase that product as part of their weekly buying habits. MAP allows for better printed graphics, nutritional information, and official badges onto case-ready product packaging.

Embracing The Tortilla Health Halo

Health is a focal point now for consumers across the food industry. No matter what the product, they will get the most from their food in terms of nutritional value and protect and extoll their choices under the “halo of health” they think it deserves.

For tortillas, this pivot means they will be looking for products that offer these types of healthy, specific, clean label benefits and bypassing brands that do not. Consumers want products that support dietary and lifestyle choices and provide better sustainability as they incorporate them into their daily meals.

As a producer, if you recognize and embrace this change with investments in product and packaging innovations, you will be in a far better place to seamlessly adapt to these industry trends. These efforts will help you earn the coveted title of clean label producer and attract a new generation of customers using the varied clean label options they crave.

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