There can be no doubt that the modern consumer is the most demanding yet, putting ever more pressure on manufacturers to deliver foods that taste better than ever, but at the same time wanting increasingly complex and effective health benefits. As an

everyday food, bread has come increasingly under the critical eye of consumers who, wanting to have their cake and eat it, expect the humble daily slice to be more than just nourishing and wholesome but also to actively improve their health and wellbeing.

The industry has responded well, with most bakeries now making breads with added benefits, such as reduced salt, lower fat, and higher fibre. As a result, bread continues to secure its position as a much-loved everyday food.

But complicating matters further in recent years has been the ‘anti-carbohydrate’ trend driven by the global Atkins dieting phenomenon. Although now widely discredited, the Atkins ‘no carb’ philosophy has put the focus firmly on bread and its role within a healthy diet, particularly as an aid to weight loss. This scrutiny is set to continue, with the growth of the low-Glycaemic Index (GI) diet, a more balanced ‘lifestyle’ eating regime, which aims to regulate the intake of foods – such as white bread – that raise blood sugar levels.

For Northern Irish bakery Irwin’s, these challenges have been at the core of its growth strategy for many years, with ‘wellbeing’ and ‘functional’ bread development an ongoing objective, which is helping to grow its profits.

“Consumers are opting more and more to use food itself to supplement their health – rather than popping pills – and this has been well-tested across the dairy sector, particularly in the area of probiotics,” says Brian Irwin, Irwin’s executive chairman.

“In many ways, the overwhelming consumer reception to functional dairy products has provided a valuable learning base for the wider food industry, revealing a market for more everyday ‘smart’ foods. Early on, we saw bread as a natural vehicle for functional properties because of its frequent consumption and we set our objective as helping average families and individuals to enjoy a healthier diet by introdu-cing enhanced health benefits into normal bread products. This ethos has set the course for much of our product innovation in recent years and is one of the core driving forces of our business.”

One of the company’s biggest successes to date was the launch, in October 2005, of the UK and Ireland’s very first low-GI white bread – Irwin’s Low GI White. With a low-GI rating of 39, which is lower than any white bread on the market and many wholemeals also, Low GI White looks like an ordinary white pan bread. And that is how the product is being positioned.

“Early on, we saw that low-GI would increasingly become a touchstone for many consumers and, consequently, that it had the potential to present a significant challenge to the white bread category, which typically has higher GI ratings,” continues Irwin. “We decided to treat this as an opportunity and set about developing a white bread that could deliver low-GI benefits. But we wanted this to be a ‘normal’ bread – not a ‘specialist’ one – so that it would be accessible to all consumers, even children.”

In 2003, Irwin’s technical team, headed by Drew Davidson, took on the task. This proved complex due to the balance needed between the combination of fibres and resistant starches in order to gain the optimal intestinal digestion rate – which would ultimately set its low-GI status. Issues included solving the processing problem caused by excessive water absorbency as well as producing the bread within the cost requirement.

The end result is a white pan bread, that looks and tastes like white bread, yet has all the GI benefits of wholemeal. However, in a marketing move, Irwin’s delayed launching the Low GI White, which in 2003 was too far ahead of its time, with consumer understanding of the low-GI concept not sufficiently up to speed.

“2003 would not have been the optimum time to launch this product,” explains Davidson. “GI was still too new for the wider market to understand fully, which would have impeded its adoption to the extent necessary for it to be a competitive success. However, since early 2005, the concept has been widely promoted through the media, with the result that it has pushed through into the retail sector, particularly within Tesco, which carried out a major product packaging and marketing drive last year. As a result, public awareness has increased greatly.

“We launched our bread last year to the Northern Irish market and it has been terrifically well received. Early marketing analysis shows that it is being bought by ordinary families as an everyday bread as well as very health-focused low-GI consumers. In addition, because it is proven to be reliable in maintaining steady blood sugar levels, we have also set up effective links with local diabetic associations, which are endorsing it for their members.”

Irwin’s focus is now on growing the range. In May 2006, it launched Low GI White rolls, which are gaining listings. Further low-GI products are planned and the aim will be to target the wider British market.

Low GI White is just the tip of the iceberg for Irwin’s as it keeps its eye on the wider healthy breads market; its aim is to grow its functional food portfolio. Another first was the launch, in 2000, of its folic acid-enhanced breads range, developed in direct response to Northern Ireland’s comparatively high incidence of neural tube defects (such as spina bifida). Irwin’s is still the only Northern Irish bakery to offer folic acid-enhanced breads. Now the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has started a UK-wide consultation into mandatory folic acid fortification of bread.

“Folic acid is most beneficial when consumed pre- and during pregnancy. As a foodstuff that women are eating every day, bread is perfect for helping them to prepare for pregnancy without altering their diet,” Davidson explains. “We’ve developed a full range of folic-enhanced breads, including Standard White pans and rolls, to make it as easy as possible for local women to introduce more folic acid into their diet.”

The work done in this area is also helping to inform Irwin’s next target area – again influenced by specific local health concerns. “Folic acid deficiency is also thought to lead to elevated blood homocystene levels, which are a marker for heart disease,” says Davidson. “We’ve just completed a study with the University of Ulster to investigate the effect of folic supplements on male homocystene levels, with a view to carrying this through into product development. Given that Northern Ireland has a significantly high incidence of heart disease, this is a core product development target for us.

“Childhood obesity is another target area and we’re looking at ways to help tackle this growing concern by producing healthier products for kids,” continues Davidson. “Already, all our breads are 100% free from trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats, which was a very important move. We’re adding extra nutrients, such as calcium, fibre and Omega 3 to children’s products – pancakes, muffins and rolls. We’re also making these products in smaller child-sized portions, which is important for weight control.”

Irwin explains that the aim is to capture more of the healthy bread market and, specifically, the functional breads category. “There is still important growth potential for functional breads as consumers become much more conscious of the added health benefits available through regular food and Irwin’s takes its capabilities even further by creating breads to address specific national health concerns,” he says.

“However, we are mindful of the need to ensure the ‘accessibility’ of the breads, developing functional and fortified versions of regular bread that still deliver on the key consumer criteria of taste, texture and appearance. We’re positioning functional breads as everyday products for everyday consumers. However, although we will continue innovating, we cannot market these products any faster than the rate of public awareness and this is our next challenge.”

Irwin’s Bakery at a glance

Location: Portadown, Northern Ireland

Founded: 1912 by the grandfather of the current managing directors, brothers Niall and Brian Irwin

Ownership: Brian and Niall Irwin

Company turnover: £24.5m per annum

Key personnel: Brian Irwin, executive chairman; Niall Irwin, technical director;

John Hopkins, sales and marketing director; Drew Davidson, product development manager; Michael Murphy, business development controller; Bill Brown, finance director

Number of staff: 450

Geographical coverage: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Italy and the USA

Products: Irwin’s bakes a full portfolio of pan bread, batch bread, rolls, wheaten bread, hot plate lines and scones, as well as Rankin Selection Irish Specialty Breads

Retail/ Wholesale split: 66% retail, 34% wholesale/ foodservice and other

Key customers (for branded and own label products): Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Dunnes, Superquinn, Brake Brothers, Cuisine de France, Delice de France, BHS, Littlewoods, Supervalu, Centra, Spar, Vivo, Mace, Costcutter, Co-op and Foodforce Ireland

A potted history

Irwin’s bakery has been part of Northern Irish family life since 1912. Established in Portadown as a grocery retailer by the grandfather of the existing joint directors, Irwin’s has grown steadily to become the only locally-owned plant bakery now remaining in Northern Ireland, successfully competing with the major UK producers established there.

Irwin’s installed its first automated bread plant in 1978, acquiring local bakeries McCaldins and McCanns in the 1990s and moving to its 100,000sq ft bakery in 1994, where it operates five different plants, manufacturing pan bread, batch bread, rolls, wheaten bread, hot plate lines and scones 24 hours a day, 363 days a year. In 2005, Irwin’s undertook a repackaging exercise as part of a £100,000 investment in its successful pan bread range and this year has introduced six new products into its Rankin Selection, rolls and pan bread ranges.

The bakery now produces a wide range of Northern Ireland brands including the top-selling batch bread, Nutty Krust, and a functional bread portfolio, including Low GI White. Irwin’s has also cracked the highly competitive UK market with its contemporary Rankin Selection breads. Produced in association with celebrity chef, Paul Rankin, the authentic Irish bread range has generated sales in excess of £11m in the past five years, with goods exported to the UK market now accounting for 40% of the company’s turnover.