As one of the ancient world’s most traditional products, flatbreads offer consumers a lineage of which few other products can compare.

Considered one of the oldest foods in the world, the storied breads radiate an aura of distinctiveness and authenticity yet remain accessible across demographics and dayparts with its handheld and convenient profile. Traditionally baked by direct heat from a tandoor or clay oven, flatbreads continue to be both a vehicle for accompaniment and a product that’s good enough to eat alone.

These simple formulations, representative of a range of lands and cultures, include tortilla, naan, lavash, pita, focaccia and fry bread. Pillowy soft and possessing a gentle chewiness, flatbread is a versatile product offering a range of applications from pizza and sandwiches to salads and sides as well as an accessible application for inclusions.

“Consumers have a back-to-basics mindset, focusing on simple ingredients and fewer processed foods when it comes to premium or specialty products in the deli, bakery or across the entire store,” said Beth Gordon, online marketing and sales manager, Atoria’s Family Bakery, Gilroy, Calif. “They read nutrition labels, ingredient lists and brand stories to inform their purchase decisions.”

Third generation Atoria’s Family Bakery uses a recipe Atoria brought from her home in the Assyrian villages near Mesopotamia. When Grandmother Atoria was unable to find real, authentic flatbreads in America, she started making her own. Continuing the tradition of making real bread with simple ingredients, the bread remains on-trend today more than 30 years later.

Often used as a replacement for buns and other thicker breads, its Whole Grain & Flax Lavash is one of the company’s original and most popular flatbreads. Sold in full and mini sizes, the products are attractive to consumers looking for heart health, blood sugar control and weight management options, according to Gordon. The new Cauliflower & Coconut Mini Lavash was created specifically to provide a lower-carb, lower-calorie option for health-focused shoppers.

Toufayan, Ridgefield, N.J., began introducing the then-unknown pocketed pita bread to deli, supermarket and health food store buyers in New Jersey after founder Harry Toufayan, an American Baking Hall of Fame inductee, immigrated to America from Egypt in the 1960s. After introducing pita bread, naan was the company’s first ethnic flatbread. Today, the company offers a range of flatbreads including pita with a multigrain version that’s naturally vegan, Lavash-Plus, a flatbread with 6g of protein, tandoori, tortillas, wraps and a Mediterranean-style flatbread with 8g of protein.

Wider reach

Decades later, bakeries still have the pleasure of introducing flatbreads to new audiences. Byblos Bakery, Calgary, Alb., works with local schools to demonstrate the different ways of eating pita. The “For Pita’s Sake” program teaches eating habits consistent with Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. Through the programming, which works in conjunction with school health curriculum, schoolchildren learn how to use pita bread to create a quick meal or snack.

What’s old is becoming new with Toronto-based startup FGF, which is taking flatbreads to a new level. Calling itself “a technology company that bakes,” FGF is looking to reinvent the way great food is made with a product-first, customer-centric mentality. The company produces Stonefire brand authentic naans, pizza crusts and flatbreads and Santosh brand tandoor baked vegetarian and vegan authentic naan and roti, a round flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent.

Stonefire is a three-time winner of the No. 1 most trusted artisan flatbread brand in America by Brand Spark International (2019, 2020, 2021). Hand-stretched before being baked in the company’s patented tandoor tunnel oven, Stonefire’s newest introductions include garlic mini naan and everything naan dippers, bite-sized naan for dips and spreads. The company also produces artisan thin and regular pizza crust and artisan flatbread and naan crisps.

On the move

The popularity of the category shows no signs of stagnation as it gracefully walks the line between innovation and authenticity, making flatbreads a go-to-choice for foodservice, commercial and instore. That why it’s hard to believe that a little over a decade ago, naan was largely unknown among consumers. Today, naan ranks No. 1, offering consumers a “feeling like they are eating something unique and different,” according to SSI International.

These days, consumers are discovering the flatbread options once found only in the center aisle are now migrating to the instore bakery, the freezer case and in self-standing areas of the deli. According to Tastewise, Tel Aviv, Israel, the yearly growth rate of flatbread sandwich consumption is 42.7% and the global flatbread market is estimated to reach $62.8 billion by 2026 with a CAGR of 6.2%, according to Allied Market Research.

The category, which successfully weathered the impact of COVID, saw a 4.2% increase from 2020 and an 18% increase from 2019 in July sales in the perimeter bakery, according to IRI Integrated Fresh, a Chicago-based market research firm. Strong sales were buoyed by the versatility of the category and an increase in meals made from home.

“This is a category that will grow as people continue to work from home and as consumers return to the office and to school,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator, IDDBA, Madison, Wis. “With a focus on alternative grains and gluten-free, flatbreads can have a health halo that is perceived as more healthy than traditional bread.”

While flatbread may not be lower in fat or carbs compared to conventional bread products, consumers feel like they are getting less bread with every bite, and more flavor, according to Vikram Ghosh, technical lead, The Annex by Ardent Mills, Denver.

Versatile marketing

Growing awareness of the role of food and health is finding more consumers looking to incorporate health into their food choices. For this, some are looking to the Mediterranean diet, which draws inspiration from the eating habits of those living in Greece, Italy and Spain. Tastewise found interest in the Mediterranean diet is up 40% YoY.

The Mediterranean diet’s abiding loyalty among consumers can be attributed in part to its focus on the health quality of the foods eaten rather than on the elimination of foods from the diet. Paterson, N.J.-based Kontos offers a range of Mediterranean products including hand-stretched artisan pita, gyro bread, pizza crust, panini, naan, roti and chapati. Eight years ago, Kontos relaunched its Greek Lifestyle bread with 15g of protein and fewer carbs, demonstrating the adaptability of Mediterranean foods to current trends. The company’s new Rustics Collection of tandoori naan is available in traditional, garlic and original.

“Fifty years ago, people didn’t travel as much and with the ability to travel more easily and more inexpensively we get exposure to these foods,” observed Warren Stoll, marketing director, Kontos Foods. “With globalization, we’re exposed to different cultures and different cuisines through the food in the grocery store and in restaurants.”

The bar is high

This means expectations are high. Consumers expect authentic foods and convenience without compromise, according to Lindsey Morgan, head of product marketing, Ardent Mills. Bakers and foodservice providers are finding a way to meet these broad expectations with a product that provides an authentic style, cultural connection and a story.

“Because naan and flatbread are versatile, they’re being incorporated into virtually any diet and lifestyle,” Morgan continued. “A few trends we’re seeing in naan and flatbreads are their use in pizzas, use in perceived healthier recipes and as a carrier to incorporate ancient grains, which are also increasing in popularity.”

A timeless option, flatbreads find traditional use in gyros, falafel and other global-based meals while simultaneously upscaling simple egg and cheese or peanut butter and jelly combinations or grilled panini-style sandwiches of meat, cheese and vegetables. New York-based Vandemoortele offers The Lanterna, a pre-sliced, pre-grilled oval-shaped panini bread that can be heated to bring out the authentic Italian aromas.

The ubiquitous presence of flatbread can also serve as a gateway for trying unfamiliar food(s) in new ways such as a portable chicken korma wrapped in naan or an appetizer of plant-based spreads with naan for dipping. Additionally, flatbread formulations are ripe for innovation with bakers incorporating kale and other veggie inclusions along with a range of whole and ancient grains.

Ardent Mills is seeing the use of flatbread ingredients that include sprouted whole wheat, atta/chakki atta, a whole meal wheat flour originating from the Indian subcontinent, and bread and pizza flours. The company’s portfolio of ancient and heirloom grains and grains with plant-based protein include amaranth, buckwheat, barley millet, quinoa, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, White Sonora wheat and chickpea and lentil pulses.

Migrating dayparts

Grilled, baked, soaked, toasted and as is, the versatility of flatbread shines in every daypart and innovative foodservice and restaurant chefs are constantly looking at new ways to incorporate flatbreads. Perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, flatbread is also capitalizing on dessert with new takes on smores, stuffed French toast, apple turnovers, lavash pastry and dessert nachos.

CraftMark, Indianapolis, offers RTE and toaster flatbreads in square, round and oval shapes. The Toast ‘N Go thaw-and-serve flatbread comes in three varieties: Grains ‘N Berries, French Toast and Apple Cinnamon Raisin for breakfast and snacking occasions.

To make the most of the ongoing flatbread trend Richard recommends perimeter departments work together to cross-merchandise. This could include working with the instore deli to produce sandwich ideas, pizza programs and other prepared food options such as loaded flatbread tacos, sweet and savory breakfast options and flatbread-centric desserts.

Moving forward, Stoll predicted continuing growth in the flatbread category as people 1) become more confident and creative in their culinary skills, 2) need handheld items for convenience and 3) have a desire to recreate meals from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

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