H ere’s the idea. Launch a new premium speciality flour, maybe a gluten-free mix made with the ancient grain amaranth, milled under a full moon to the sound of harpsichord. Make a fat margin. Invest in your business. Never look back.

Here’s the reality. Launch a new premium speciality flour, perhaps something with added health benefits, although with the recent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rulings on nutrition and health claims, you cannot afford to prove it and label it as such. Sell it for the same price as your standard flour mix, as part of an ongoing battle to maintain the sales volumes your company needs to survive and to stop your customers straying to alternative suppliers.

In the current economic climate, suppliers report that speciality flours are not a silver bullet to guarantee profitability. But that said, the market is booming as suppliers develop new healthy or functional speciality flours and mixes to give their customers a point of difference in a competitive marketplace.

National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) director Alex Waugh summarises: "Every business it does not matter what sector it is in wants to find cost-effective products that are not just commodities, and the milling and flour sector is doing that as much as anyone else. Flour is not something that can be cut out, so sales remain steady. But adjusting the flour can give you something different in your range. It is more about maintaining your business in the competitive sales environment than increasing margins."

Indeed, the last few years have seen an explosion in seeded mixes, flours from non-wheat grains, lower salt, sugar, higher fibre, best of both and gluten-free recipes, to name just some areas of innovation. James Smith, sales director of food ingredients company Edme says his company develops bespoke mixes, which allows them to offer something different to customers. Buying in blends can be quite cost-effective for customers, as bakers or millers would have to keep high levels of stock to make their own, he says.

He says: "Health is a key driver of new product development. We offer a variety of seeded blends. We have done quite a few oat-based blends recently. Oats have been popular, as they offer high levels of beta glucan, which helps the immune system and lowers bad cholesterol. We think barley flour will be the next big thing, as barley offers even higher levels of beta glucan than oats do."

The company has also looked at gluten-free blends recently, as sales in that sector continue to grow. Edme is already in the early stages of developing allergy-friendly mixes, Smith says.

However, with health, the focus is on what he terms "soft" changes, such as developing reduced salt or sugar blends or added-fibre options. He comments: "Although we supply all the major bakeries, as well as the craft baking sector, we are a small company and it is difficult for us to go down the health claims route with our products."

Expensive approval process

It is now very expensive for suppliers to go through the process of getting health claims approved, as EFSA works on the framework for the new EC Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims. EFSA has been very exacting in setting out the process of evaluation a product needs to go through to ensure that any claims made on food labelling and advertising regarding nutrition and health are meaningful and accurate. Smith says: "It has to be our customers who substantiate claims. We supply the product. The work being done by EFSA has certainly changed our thinking on products with health claims and put a dampener on new product development."

The company is exploring areas of new product development, such as Continental and ethnic mixes, he says. And it is looking at mixes for pies, for example, or for par-baked or bake-off products aimed at the convenience food market. But Smith also reports that there is no great margin enhancement for the supplier in offering added-value products, such as speciality flour mixes. "There is a always huge churn of new products and the focus is on keeping volumes up and trying to get the orders coming in with overall bread sales in decline. We have to look at where the future lies and constantly tailor products to meet customers’ emerging needs."

Oxfordshire based miller FWP Matthews, meanwhile, reports that speciality flours can be a difficult sell, even if the customer wants "something different". The miller recently launched a Nutri-Gold flour, a strong white flour that has aleurone added, the single layer of large cells found under the bran coat. FWP Matthews also offers a version made with French flour for baguettes, Nutri-Or.

FWP Matthews marketing manager Angela Francis explains it is the first time the aleurone has been extracted from the bran anywhere in Europe. This type of flour is only available in the US, apart from through FWP Matthews. The blend is different from a "best of both" flour, as it is properly white rather than using finely ground bran which gives a brown hue to the dough, Francis says. And the ingredient aleurone is rich in protein, as well as containing about 20% of the vitamin B1, 30% of the vitamin B2 and 50% of the niacin of the grain.

But Francis says that take-up has been slow so far among the craft and artisan bakers that her company serves, partly as the flours have a price premium, due to the expense of the process of extracting aleurone from the bran. Nutri-Gold is about 20% more expensive than the company’s standard flour. She says: "You have to market the product quite carefully to get the message across to customers. Really this product would probably be better-suited to the supermarket, aimed at mothers looking for sandwich options for children, rather than in the craft channel."

She says that although craft bakery customers always ask what new flours the company can offer, in fact standard white flour is the best-seller, followed by Cotswold Crunch and Cotswold Eight Grain. "People come to us with very vague ideas, but they tend to stick with what they know; there is a risk in changing your flours, even if you want to invigorate your range. It is a tricky one. We do offer flours such as gluten-free, but we buy those in."

Meanwhile, trade body the American Peanut Council says savvy bakers should look at peanut flour as the next big thing in speciality flours. It offers manufacturers a cost-effective way to formulate high-protein foods that are healthy and gluten-free. Louise McKerchar, European marketing director, comments, "Health-conscious consumers are more aware than ever of protein’s benefits, which include weight management and satiety. However, protein-fortified products often suffer from taste and textural issues. Peanut flour can help manufacturers overcome each one of these challenges, thanks to its textural properties, versatility and healthy, flavoursome profile."

Also reflecting current health trends, functional ingredients company National Starch Food Innovation offers a range of gluten-free ingredients, including a ’fibre rich’ Hi-maize wholegrain, derived from maize and available as a fine or course flour. It says that there are an estimated 500,000-plus people who are gluten-intolerant in the UK.

Those following a gluten-free diet run the risk of not taking in enough fibre, a nutrient normally provided by food made with gluten-rich cereals, such as wheat, rye and barley. National Starch’s Hi-Maize flour has three times more fibre than other allergen-free flours available on the market, it says.

In fact, the Hi-Maize ingredient has been one of only a small number of products to have a health claim approved by EFSA, which recently issued a positive opinion substantiating the benefits of consuming resistant starch from high amylose maize (Hi-maize) in relation to healthy blood sugar levels. Hi-Maize can be used in a variety of bakery applications, including muffins, wafers, waffles, and pizza bases, National Starch says.

And European bread improvers specialist Gb Plange is adding a splash of colour with its new functional mix. It is about to introduce Energie Solpan golden yellow Bread Mix during Bakers’ Fair Autumn (Bolton Arena, 2 October 2011). The "sunshine" mix contains pieces of corn and is enriched with vitamin D. Marie Parnell, general manager at Gb Plange, says: "It’s really important that craft bakers can profit from the popularity of speciality breads and the fast-growing, functional foods market. Solpan ticks all the boxes when it comes to delivering distinctive taste, flavour and health benefits, which will add value to any bakery offering." It’s a simple marketing message delivered in an eye-catching fashion: yellow bread = sunshine = source of well-recognised vitamin D. Given the difficulties described by suppliers in getting health messages across to consumers, the high churn of new flour mixes and the fact the main thing any retailer appears to want is a speciality product which stands out, this could be a winning new product.

Think back to the example set by quirky "tiger bread", the white bread with a cracked "tiger effect" paste top, launched by Asda in 2006. Kantar Worldpanel figures show it is still the UK’s best-selling bake-off line and that Tesco’s 800g tiger loaf was the number one selling bake-off in-store bakery line overall in the UK by value and also by volume in 2010.

Tigers, sunshine. Perhaps one day someone will come up with a marketable idea involving harpsichords and moonlight.