Glancing at the data, it would be easy to think that the tortilla and flatbread bubble has burst, thanks to inflation, but take a closer look. Center store wraps and flatbreads show a category experiencing a 2.8% decrease in dollar sales and a whopping 11.5% drop in unit sales, according to Circana data for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 31, 2023. Melissa Altobelli, senior vice president, client insights, dairy and bakery vertical, Circana, explained that it’s all about focusing on the right place. 

“Circana’s center store definition of ‘wraps and flatbreads’ excludes tortillas,” she said. “Circana places ‘tortillas and taco kits’ together within the ethnic aisle with Mexican foods. Tortillas and taco kits are actually the bulk of the segment, when evaluating tortilla, wrap, flatbread, pita and naan as a segment, and are growing 2% in units.”

When Altobelli factors tortillas in, the entire segment shows 1% growth in unit sales. 

Gaze outside the center store aisles, and the picture for tortillas and flatbreads gets even brighter. Tortillas/wraps/flatbreads in the perimeter dollar sales are up 4.8% with a negligible decrease in unit sales of 0.5%. 

Much of this growth is driven by rising consumer acceptance of these products as alternatives to bread, buns and rolls. Tortillas and flatbreads also benefit from their healthy halo and new product innovation for better-for-you (BFY) varieties. 

When compared to other bakery staple categories, tortillas are performing better in the center of the store, despite the performance of its related flatbreads in this section. Compared to tortillas and taco kits’ 2% growth in center store unit sales, center store bread is down 3% in unit sales and buns and rolls dropped 2%. Higher prices are keeping these categories afloat with 5.2% and 8.3% increase in dollar sales, respectively, for these categories. Much of tortillas’ and flatbreads’ popularity as alternatives for breads, buns and rolls can be attributed to their nutritional profile. 

“Consumers continue to shift toward healthier eating, and flatbread tends to have a higher nutritional value than some standard breads,” said Karen Toufayan, vice president, marketing, Toufayan Bakeries, Ridgefield, NJ. “Tortillas and wraps can drastically reduce the carbohydrates in a sandwich, making them an easy swap and so convenient. When you combine healthy and easy into a ready-to-eat food, you can see a trajectory for growth.”  

As Toufayan noted, tortillas and flatbreads may have initially benefitted from a health halo, but the convenience and versatility of these products has only increased their popularity. Consumers have become more educated on new ways to incorporate products from these categories into their meals and snacks. Tortillas, wraps and pitas have even lent themselves to the trends of portability and convenience as consumers regain mobility in the aftermath of the pandemic, and they are faced with price pressures.

“There is continued opportunity to tout the multi-functionality of tortillas as a budget-saving technique,” Altobelli said. “Using social media to show consumers the multitude of usage occasions — breakfast tortillas, flatbread as pizza crust, air fried chips, etc. — and recipe suggestions.”

A major driver for the success of the tortilla category is the growing Hispanic population in the United States. The Pew Research Center reported that the Hispanic population grew 26% from 2010 to 2022 in the United States. With a diversifying US population, cuisines from around the world become more normalized, starting with the United States’ neighbor to the south. 

“Surveys show that Mexican cuisine is one of America’s favorites, so using tortillas and wraps at home to amplify a meal or to wrap up a healthy alternative the next day is becoming a weekly staple added to the shopping list,” Toufayan said. “When you add in the globally inspired recipe opportunities and ready-to-eat capability of flatbreads, global cuisine interest is a driving factor for the category.”

Much of this inspiration is coming from the foodservice sector, and while many consumers are cutting back on eating out, they are still bringing home the ideas and flavors of their favorite restaurants.  

“International aisles at grocery stores are not only where immigrants find the foods that remind them of home, but they are a normal part of the shopping experience for many consumers who like to find new flavors,” said Jose Carillo, head of marketing, Tia Lupita Foods, Tiburon, Calif. “These global cuisines are influencing tortilla sales. Today it is OK to turn anything into a taco. Just search online for fusion taco recipes and you’ll find Korean-, Thai-, Indian-inspired recipes.”