Tortilla vs Bread: The Debate over Beloved Mealtime Staples

By Mike Terry
Posted In : MAP, Bakery, clean label, MAP Packaging, Tortillas

It is tortilla vs. bread for sandwich supremacy and tortillas are winning. Consumers are leaving loaves on shelves and opting for choices with better, bolder flavors, more taste, and healthier ingredients.

But how did tortillas rise to such fame to challenge King Bread as the new member of the tabletop triumvirate alongside milk and eggs? The journey hasn’t been easy, and tortillas have had help from the COVID-19 pandemic and innovative packaging technology.

Popularity through Product Diversity

The term “better than sliced bread” exists for a reason. Since man first ground flour, bread has sat comfortably as a main staple at many tables worldwide.

But with today’s culture focused on healthy, low-carb lifestyles, tortillas aim to wear the crown, employing a richer diversification of products as their strategy. In almost every consideration for food consumption – ingredients, health, nutrition, consistency, flavor, value – tortillas are taking the top spot and not looking back.

According to the “Global Tortilla Market – Forecasts from 2020 to 2025” report, tortilla purchases grew by approximately 5 percent to $41.21 billion in 2020, up from $38.73 in 2019. 48 percent of that market share was retail, as reported by the Tortilla Industry Association.

The fresh bread segment of fresh bread and rolls? According to Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) Chicago, for the 52 weeks ending April 18, 2021, the fresh bread and rolls category grew 6.1 percent to $15.0 billion in sales. Private label saw a loss for the year, down 8.6 percent to $1.7 billion.

But why such a dramatic shift in trends, taste, and preference? What are tortillas showing us that sliced bread is slower to deliver? A side-by-side comparison in the tortilla vs. bread battle quickly highlights tortillas’ unfair advantages over their leavened counterparts, with both health-conscious Gen Z and Millennial consumers helping to fuel the trend.

Health & Diet-Friendly Options

The “better-for-you” movement is one of the number one drivers of consumer behavior. Younger consumers are eating healthier. They take more time to examine ingredients for their intrinsic nutritional value.

As a result, they often choose tortillas that offer organic, whole-grain, diet-friendly ingredients that bread struggles to match on the same scale. Tortillas incorporate alternative ingredients such as premium cassava flour, plant proteins, flax seeds, ground Tigernut, sweet potato, zucchini, and cauliflower. Consumers often perceive the simplest formulations and shortest ingredient lists as conveying the most health benefits and they’re not wrong.

The result? In just a few short years, tortillas have started winning the tortilla vs. bread contest, transforming snacks and mealtimes from hearty and filling to high-fiber, low-carb, and low-calorie. They now fit every diet from Keto to Caveman (Paleo) with ease.

Clean Label Ingredients

Producers seeking to be an integral part of today’s health trend need to limit preservatives and ingredients. Unfortunately, this can be bad news for them. They have a limited number of available options to maintain dough viscosity, stabilize crumb cell structure, provide freeze/thaw stability, and reduce water mobility.

While freezing can help extend shelf life, it is not always feasible or desirable. Inhibiting mold growth and preserving tortillas for extended travel times often requires specially formulated enzymes – all of which show up in the ingredients list. The list of common preservatives in sliced bread can be as long as they are difficult to pronounce.

Alternatively, tortillas are produced to contain the least amount of ingredients possible or no preservatives and rely on more advanced food science and packaging techniques for preservation. Terms like “gluten-free” and “non-GMO” are no longer buzzwords but consumer mandates that producers must incorporate.

Tortilla producers are adapting and adhering to the shortest list of organic ingredients with the simplest formulations without sacrificing quality or shelf life. Their new processes reinforce the idea that tortillas are healthier than bread and give them advantages through natural, nutritionally fortified products.

Food Transportation

Consumers value tortillas as “transporters of food.” Unlike slices of bread which stack ingredients together, tortillas’ flexible “rollability” allows for more inventive applications. From street tacos and classic LatinX entrees to creative desserts, tortillas offer unmatched value as vehicles for countless recipes, especially with more people cooking at home due to the pandemic. In the multi-cultural world of food fusion recipes, tortillas are quickly earning the recognition and adoption they deserve as versatile pantry staples with strong global ties.

Unique Flavors

While sliced bread does have a claim to many unique flavors and ingredients within the bakery sector, the full scope of what producers can accomplish in terms of advanced packaging and clean label ingredients remains limited. In contrast, tortillas can offer nearly endless combinations of bold flavors, healthier ingredients, and even colors. As a result, these combinations are entering the mainstream market at an accelerated pace.

Flavor and product innovations in the tortilla space have skyrocketed over the last two years. Even the “extreme” flavors like Taco Bell’s Reaper Ranch (Carolina Reaper pepper flavor) tortillas quickly disappeared from shelves. Why? Mainly the natural malic and fumaric acids found in tortillas help intensify new and existing flavors. These ingredients create a higher demand for producers and a memorable tasting experience for consumers.

Tortilla vs. Bread: Balancing Innovation, Product Consistency, and Longer Shelf Life

Producers that want to take advantage of such demand face the challenge of creating a nearly perfect tortilla using cost-effective processes. Consumers expect tortillas to be flexible, roll up easily without cracking or ripping, and have a consistent, round/oval, even shape. Of course, the ingredients will dictate the texture, but the ideal tortilla is elastic but not rubbery and slightly moist without being tacky.

The goal is to produce tortillas with perfect consistency, nutritional value, unique flavors, and optimal shelf life. The quality of the product and the efficiency of a producer’s operations can hinge on how well they balance these factors with process interactions.

Packaging equipment plays a pivotal role in meeting these challenges. As a producer, implementing processes to streamline production while improving product quality is a must.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) is a proven method that harmonizes product preservation and freshness with efficient, scalable production. MAP adds a mixture of nitrogen and CO2 to the interior of the package to remove and replace oxygen. By integrating MAP, tortillas maintain an optimal consistency due to lack of oxidation, better resist mold and microbial growth, and achieve an extended shelf life of up to 200 days (compared to just seven for your average loaf of sliced bread).

Packaging Processes That Integrate MAP

There are two processes for modern tortilla packaging that deliver the MAP compatibility, protection, preservation, presentation, and full automation producers need: thermoforming and flow wrapping.Tortillas in Flow Wrapping

Unlike sliced bread’s use of low-density polyethylene plastic (LDPE) bags with a twist tie or clip, MAP from thermoforming and flow wrapping offers several valuable features for better preservation and shelf life. For example, packaging elements such as zippers, adhesive tape, or tearable notches can be added automatically on the same system. These features can result in improved throughput and savings for both production and labor.

The tortilla packaging process is different for thermoforming and flow wrapping. Each warrants careful consideration for cost, efficiency, plant space, workforce, and materials. However, the result is the same: air-tight, flexible packaging for even the most sensitive clean-label tortillas with optimized shelf life.

Realizing Tortillas’ Full Potential

Consumer perception of tortillas as a healthier alternative to sliced bread shows no sign of slowing down during the tortilla vs. bread debate. More and more consumers are choosing to replace bread with bolder, “better-for-you” tortillas as a meal and snack time staple. With enhanced versatility, cleaner ingredients, and more advanced packaging options, producers are meeting that demand and gaining a competitive edge.

Whether targeted to retail or food service, modern innovative packaging technology combined with MAP can help you create tortilla-based menu ideas that appeal to younger consumers and families alike.

Your investment in the “tortilla transformation” won’t just satisfy the growing customer demand. It will help you deliver on commercial goals concerning innovation, quality, sustainability, and Return on Investment (ROI) for a better bottom line.

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