The Evolution of the Bread Aisle

Posted April 19, 2018 by Alison Conklin

Before becoming an agency guy, I was an aspiring journalist armed with a pencil, notebook and a briefcase full of ambition. My writing chops were mediocre at best, but I made up for it with my curiosity, ability to take critique very well and position under an immensely talented editor and mentor.

My beat was the wholesale baking industry. The year was 1999. I was a month out of college, significantly overweight and moving from a blue-collar steel town of 36,000 to the big city of Chicago. I knew nothing about food other than I liked it cheap and fast. I knew even less about the baking industry. However, I fell in love quickly and remain fully betrothed today.

I love the baking industry and the products it produces. Especially bread. Flour, water, salt and yeast. So few ingredients, such a complex process.

Through my seven years at the magazine, I was fortunate to have a front row seat to the evolution of the retail bread aisle. In the span of my tenure at the magazine, I saw shelf space shift from predominantly white breads and buns to whole grain breads and rolls.

It may not seem like a significant shift, but it truly was monumental. It was the complete reformulation of a category to better-for-you products that tasted amazing. The loaves were wider, wrapped twice in plastic and contained whole grains, nuts, seeds and other functional ingredients designed to make consumers a bit healthier.

There were new challenges, from the supply of whole grain flours to the shelf life of whole grain breads. I was able to cover it all, digging deep into both the ingredient science behind enzymes and the technical science of stress-free automated bread lines.

One of my fondest memories from that time was convincing my publisher to run a cover of a woman stepping on a loaf of white bread while the whole wheat bread next to it stood proud and intact. It was a great cover and I wish I still had a copy of it.

Why Consumers Purchase Bread
Although I no longer report on the bread industry, I still follow it closely and took great interest in a recent consumer preference survey conducted by Comax Flavors. The study looked at U.S. consumers’ attitudes towards bread and contained some good and bad news for the industry.

Let’s start with the good news…

    • Whole wheat is the number one flavor of sliced bread, followed my multigrain and honey wheat. This is confirmation that the move to whole grain breads was more than a trend, it was a paradigm shift in the marketplace that continues today. Even in the muffin category, whole wheat came out on top over cinnamon and blueberry!
    • Gen X (born 1965-1976), Gen Y (1977-1995) and Gen Z (1996 and later) led all demographics in favoring whole wheat sliced bread. People born from 1925 to 1964 favored whole wheat the least.

These stats are great news for the bread industry and consumers. Whole wheat products are better for consumers and can drive a higher price point for bakers. Win-win.

As for the bad news…

  • Ingredients came fifth when consumers were asked the determining factors of purchasing bread. Taste, price, flavor and freshness all beat out “ingredients,” which is a bit of a setback to the clean label movement. All-natural, healthful ingredients are key to the continuing evolution and success of the bread industry, and it’s a tad disheartening to see that consumers aren’t really paying attention to the ingredient listing.
  • The main reason why consumers don’t buy bread? Carbs. Haven’t we moved beyond this? On the positive side, when I was writing for the magazine I assumed this number would have been upwards of 50%. So we have progress, but the industry still has quite a bit of work to do educating consumers.

Some good news and some bad news can be expected for a category as mature as the bread industry. I’ll continue to report on what’s going on in this fascinating industry and continue to eat the wonderful products it produces.


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