Over the last year, healthy breads such as whole grain have experienced the fastest growth within the bread sector. The same period has also been marked by the widespread cleaning up of ingredients labels. This all amounts to great news for the shelf-life of the people eating the breads, but not so great for the bread itself.

Dwindling shelf-life is just one of the challenges faced by manufacturers and retailers alike in this health-driven marketplace. Speciality bread has shown steady growth and now holds 15% of the total bread market, worth £300m, and is growing by 11% year-on-year, according to TNS Superpanel data for the year ending 20 April 2008. With that comes a demand for greater NPD on speciality products - especially those using wholegrain flours and mixes.

So where do you turn to differentiate your products among a glut of healthy bread launches? One solution that product developers can explore is the use of heat-treated wholegrain flours. Heat-treated flours are nothing new, but they are increasingly finding favour in the development of wholegrain products because of the benefits they bring to shelf-life, processability and batch consistency. The bonus is that they’re also clean-label.

French company Westhove, part of Limagrain’s food ingredient division, reckons its heat-treated flours can be used for anything from wholegrain wheat to speciality grains, such as spelt - a flour that’s finding favour with some less-sensitive coeliacs and wheat intolerance sufferers - to drive NPD.

"The process pretty much stabilises the fat content in the grain, reducing the level of microbiological flora and enzymatic activity in the whole grain," explains Paul Anderson, business development manager for Champagne Foods, which supplies the flours in the UK. "The thermal treatment does not change the fibre content or levels of vitamins and fatty acids - it just lasts for longer. The main problem with unprocessed whole grains lies in their organoleptic qualities, stability and processability. Our process enables these problems to be overcome."

As such, the business has developed a range of heat-treated functional flours and mixes that, it says, offer a number of functional benefits to products. Through the parent company Westhove has exclusive access to specific varieties of different cereals; combined with the Farigel process this enables the development of cereal ingredients with unique functionalities, claims Anderson.

"The product range is huge and growing all the time," he says. "The process is applied to a variety of cereal grains - wheat, maize, rice, barley, rye and oat." All of these are available in wholegrain flours. Also available are brans from wheat and maize, and pea fibre. "All of these are natural food ingredients with clean ingredient declarations, and because of the heat treatment they have low microbial counts and oxidative stability," he adds.

The flours lend themselves to untapped markets for wholegrain cakes and biscuits, because the increased water absorption facilitates sheeting, he believes. Meanwhile, the functionality of heat-treated flours means they can help improve softness and reduce fat in cakes and muffins, thus helping to reduce the cost of the end-product.

Westhove’s breadmaking research has shown that fat content in sandwich bread formulations can be reduced by 50-75% without modifying the characteristics of the dough (firmness, machinability) or the finished product (volume, colour, crumb structure) while retaining the same ingredient declaration.

"The important part of the fat reduction is the specific varieties of wheat and maize used, which are exclusive to Limagrain," says Anderson. "This gives unique rheological properties, allowing a reduction in fat in bread, brioches and milk rolls, for example. These ingredients are opening the way to a whole new world of products."

Dedicated to innovation

Similarly, Holgran, a part of the Hovis Division of Premier Foods, has stepped up its NPD in the arena of health bread mixes. In 2005, Holgran developed a new strategy that saw it switch focus from being purely a manufacturer of seeds and cereals to being a business dedicated to innovation. The firm now works on solutions for a range of food manufacturers, including those within the Premier Foods Group.

Part of this shift in focus involved analysing consumer research and trends and converting it into practical ideas that can be applied to bakery products. Taking consumer insights from a variety of sources - the team is said to enjoy reading women’s magazines as much as formal scientific research - they ended up with a range of healthier bread products, which it is now marketing under the Healthwize brand.

Launched as a range of bread concentrates at the Baking Industry Exhibition in April this year, Holgran commercial director Alan Marson says the brief was to enable bakers to produce healthier breads with specific health benefits.

"We know that consumers are increasingly aware of health issues but they also demand a pleasurable eating experience," he says. "Consumers require convenience and products that capture the imagination, but retailers need to add value and deliver a point of difference. The Healthwize range is skewed towards female and older consumers, who care about weight management and the health of the family."

Each concentrate focuses on a current trend in eating patterns. Among them is Oats for You, which uses the cholesterol-lowering properties of concentrated oat fibre; Holheart, featuring linseed-derived Omega 3; and Natural Balance, which uses the prebiotic inulin. Developed over a six-month period, the range has been trialled at Holgran’s development plant in Lichfield. But despite the nutritional and practical bakery brains behind the products, initial efforts proved that making a successful healthy bread isn’t just about bunging in some whole grain. "Having had the initial idea, our team of bakers and nutritionists set to work on devising recipes for great-tasting bread that is good for consumers," says Marson. "This is not an easy task. But by using high-quality and unique ingredients, the team tested and re-tested these recipes on consumers and colleagues to perfect them. Around 250 people saw the range or tasted the bread pre-launch."

The key to success in this marketplace, then, is to find the right functionality of flour or mix, couple it with a well-drilled consumer profile and deliver it in a baker-friendly format. "As well as consumers, we have also listened to high street bakers," says Marson. "They are looking for products which provide flexibility, while adding value to their own breads."


=== How does heat treatment work? ===

One system - The Farigel Process - applies a controlled degree of heat treatment to the flour, producing a number of effects:

l Flexible level of gelatinisation of the starch to alter the rheological properties of the flour

l Stabilisation of any natural fat contained in the flour to prolong shelf-life (no rancidity)

l Dramatic reduction in microbial contamination

l Enzymes are inactivated - improving the stability.


=== Sharing ideas for better breads ===

Following consumer mega-trends, such as the move towards higher-fibre, lower-fat products shouldn’t be a case of NPD teams working in isolation, but should involve the whole supply chain sharing information, says HGCA’s market development director, Alastair Dickie. The HGCA was involved in a supply chain partnership that helped bring about the Holgran project, which led to the launch of its Healthwize mixes.

Between 2004 and 2007, HGCA and the Food Chain Centre ran the Cereals Industry Forum (CIF), a project designed to improve the competitiveness of the UK cereals industry. One of the key themes was the need for better innovation and new product development.

The CIF revealed that while some companies at the customer-facing end of the supply chain were clearly very good at innovation, many others felt it was not a priority for them.

As part of its Supply Chain Partnership, a follow-on project was designed to share the findings from CIF, showing examples of best practice.

The HGCA has been keen to emphasise that innovation is everybody’s responsibility and helps the whole chain tap into key market trends. "Ultimately the consumer only sees the added-value product on the shelf, but everyone in the chain can benefit from this kind of innovation," says Dickie.