In her book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, the anthropologist author Kate Fox talks of the "white bread" British, with our culture of reserve. "We are the most repressed and inhibited people on earth," she argues.

That book was written back in 2004, so have things moved on since then? Have Brits abandoned the white bread for something a little more daring? Well, sales of ethnic ’world’ foods continue to rise: they were up 3.3% to £1,367m in 2010 (Key Note). And within that market, foreign breads such as tortillas, bagels and naan play an important role. Yet caution remains the watchword with the shopping public.

Tortilla-style wraps are the fastest-growing sector in "sandwich alternative breads", with overall sales up 16.9% to £80.2m (Nielsen 52 w/e 2 October 2010).

Sarah Hughes, brand manager for bakery at Discovery Foods, says that total Discovery sales were even stronger than that, up 38.5% year-on-year to £6.7m (Nielsen MAT to 19 March 2011). But that’s not because consumers have embraced first-generation tortilla wraps perhaps stuffed with beans and salsa, hoisin duck or some other exotic filling, she says. No, it is because shoppers have been persuaded that wraps are a healthy option and that it is fine to put "safe" filling options, such as cheese and tomato, in a wrap. No-one is going to sneer.

Hughes says: "The biggest priority for customers seems to be that wraps are a healthy option. It is an ongoing education process, showing shoppers how user-friendly wraps can be and getting across the idea that fillings don’t need to be fancy. People are fussy and they want familiar fillings tuna, ham, cheese and chicken are the most popular."

New product development in wraps mimics the tried-and-tested path taken with mainstream breads, she adds. "Multiseed is our best-performing line in terms of growth, although plain sells most volume. Wholemeal is in third place. We would look to do more variants in the future. We have been sampling 50-50 white plus wraps which have had a very positive response from consumers."

Penetration is also up by 5.8% for Discovery wraps year-on-year, Hughes adds, compared to 3.9% the previous year (Kantar Worldpanel to 20 March). Hughes sees lots of additional opportunities for growth among females and mums buying for kids in particular.

It is the same story at fellow Mexican foods supplier Mission Foods. It reports that tortilla sales are growing at around 25% a year, and that it has seen sustained growth for the last two years plus.

However, there is still only about 30% household penetration on tortillas. The longer-established naan bread is at around two thirds penetration now, a level which Mission hopes tortillas will achieve, given their versatility and the fact that they are perceived as being a healthier option than conventional sliced bread.

Wraps go mainstream

Testament to the potential of the market is probably seen in the fact that mainstream plant baker Warburtons launched its version of wraps in February albeit a fairly denatured version of the original product. Warburtons’ Square-ish Wraps and Sandwich Thins were launched to appeal to a younger consumer profile. Warburtons suggests a number of ways they can be used, including as a pizza base or folded with melted cheese as part of a snack.

Another ’ethnic’ bread slowly being adopted into the mainstream is the bagel. These are now bought by 20.1% of UK households and the bagel market is worth £46.7m in the UK (up 7.2%), according to AC Nielsen figures for January 1 to 19 March, 2011.

New York Bakery Co bagels are the biggest-selling brand and are bought by 14.4% of UK households again still a relatively low level of penetration. But the signs are positive, New York Bakery bagels are bought 3.7 times a year, an increase of 10% year-on-year, says the company.

Again, growth is coming through mirroring the mainstream breads market. New York Bakery Co relaunched its bagels in January 2011. A wholemeal bagel was introduced, which is high in fibre and low in fat. Over 230,000 packs of the wholemeal bagel were sold in the 12 weeks following launch, a spokeswoman says.

On the naan bread front, supplier Honeytop commands around 70% of the UK naan bread market. Honeytop says it is responding to changing consumer demographics for example by developing new product and pack sizes to satisfy single-person and family households. And Honeytop recently developed a folded flatbread for Asda aimed at the sandwich market.

Indian influence

Meanwhile, figures from Kantar Worldpanel suggest that Indian breads, such as chapati, are also starting to make inroads in the UK retail scene. These are currently available through upmarket retailers, such as online operation Ocado. Sales of chapati are up 12% to £4m for the year to 20 March, 2011.

A Key Note report on Bread and Bakery Products, published in March 2011, suggests: "Speciality breads are growing in popularity, but only really in urban areas that have a diverse, multicultural population, as this is where the majority of the target market resides. Such types of ethnic breads tend to expand into the larger, non-ethnic population after being on the market for a period of time, thanks to a widening interest in more exotic tastes among the general public."

Key Note predicts that new product development is likely to become a key part of the speciality breads sector, particularly as the immigrant population grows. It adds: "Bread manufacturers are likely to respond quickly to this growing demand, due to the fact that volume sales in other sectors of the market are likely to start to stagnate in the coming years." And as a race described by Napoleon as "a nation of shopkeepers", what better incentive to try something new?

Sector performance

n 2010, the "other breads" subsector accounted for the highest proportion of the speciality breads segment, according to Key Note. It recorded household expenditure of £580m last year up 13.5% year-on-year. This subsector includes most types of ethnic and continental breads.


Ethnic’ breads now available in the UK include:
l Bagels
l Flatbreads including the chapati from the Indian subcontinent, the pitta bread derived from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and the Mexican tortilla
l Naan
l Cholla a braided Jewish loaf
l Rye breads Scandinavian and German breads made from rye flour, often with added wheat flour to produce a lighter loaf. Also Polish black/brown breads

Spend on ethnic breads (£’000s)

52 w/e 21 Mar 1052 w/e 20 Mar 11
Chapatis 3,5864,013
Flat breads+platters 11,28514,669
Naan bread80,22280,439
Tortilla wraps67,93480,279
Source: Kantar Worldpanel

Total ethnic food sales UK

(£m/RSP) % change yoy
20081,237.0 +4.6
20091,284.2 +11.2
20101,367.4 +3.3
Source Key Note, Ethnic Foods, January 2011