Whole grains are the hottest trend in sliced bread, with whole wheat edging out soft white bread in total sales for the first time.
Flooded with messages about heart health, fiber intake and the need for omega-3s, more consumers are looking for bread that can taste good and deliver nutrients.
That's why shopping for sliced bread is increasingly about one of two things: what's affordable, and what seems healthiest. And the breads in the middle of the market seem to be getting squeezed.
The best-performing breads are promoting credentials like "whole grain" and "natural," sometimes asking consumers to pay more for those loaves. And it seems to be working. Breads with "natural" in the name, or grains visible through the packaging, are among the best performing at grocery stores. Among them: Nature's Own, Nature's Pride and Arnold.
It's part of a major turning of the tide. Packaged wheat bread recently surpassed white bread in dollar sales, according to Nielsen Co. For the 52 weeks ended July 10, wheat bread sales increased 0.6 percent to $2.6 billion, while white bread sales declined 7 percent to $2.5 billion. White bread is still ahead in volume, but the margin is shrinking. Americans bought 1.5 billion packages of white bread in the last year, a 3 percent decrease, and 1.3 billion packages of wheat bread, a 5 percent increase.
The environment has been hard on midprice players. Among them, Downers Grove, Ill.-based Sara Lee, which has put its $2.2 billion bread business up for sale, people familiar with the matter say. The company declined to comment on the possibility of a sale.
Sara Lee-brand bread sales are down 10 percent over the last 52 weeks to $359 million, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market-research firm. IRI figures do not include Wal-Mart.
Many other brands also are slipping, including Bimbo's Oroweat, down 10 percent to $301 million, Hostess' Wonder bread, down 5 percent to $220 million, and Bimbo's Stroehmann, down 6 percent to $116 million.
Sliced-bread sales as a whole fell 3 percent, to $6.5 billion, over the same period.
Sara Lee had been the second- highest grossing bread brand at grocery stores, behind Campbell's Soup Co.'s Pepperidge Farm, until it was surpassed in 2009 by Nature's Own, a whole-wheat bread owned by Thomasville, Ga.-based Flower Foods. Nature's Own sales are up 3 percent over the past year to $416 million.
Sharon Glass, group vice president of health and wellness at Catalina Marketing, said many consumers are trying whole-grain products, especially with more variety on shelves and less association with dry, dense breads of the past. She said some people will need coupons to get them to try a whole-grain bread, but once they find something they like, it will become a habit.
Samantha Dulles, a stay-at-home mom in Downers Grove, said since she found a whole-grain bread that her whole family enjoyed -- Pepperidge Farm's Farmhouse Soft Oatmeal bread -- she has never bought anything else.
"It's great if it's on sale, but I don't really worry about that," she said.
Dulles first started buying the brand about two years ago after examining nutritional claims and other information on just about every whole-grain loaf in the bread aisle.
Still, white bread isn't dead.
Angela Saliani of Rogers Park, mom to Christopher, 5, and Cassandra, 10 months, feeds her family Sara Lee's white wheat bread. She buys wheat bread for herself, but partner Kirk O'Keeffe prefers sandwiches made with white bread. But it's important to her that the family eat bread with some nutritional value.
Saliani said she isn't brand-loyal in most cases, and she looks online for coupons before shopping to save money. Yet if O'Keeffe is going to the grocery store, Saliani said she reminds him "don't get the 99-cent bread, spend the $3 on the Sara Lee whole-grain white if you're going to get white."
Some consumers want healthier breads but are focused on price.
Kendra Frost, a first-time, single mother who owns a small business, said she's working hard to keep grocery expenses down while also eating healthily.
"I like the whole grain, but I usually try and go with the least expensive whole grain," Frost said. And since labels have gotten confusing, "I look for the thick pieces that you can see the grains on the top of the bread."
Consumer shifts to premium breads and value pricing has sliced into sales at some bread-makers.
J. Bohn Popp, vice president of marketing for Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Aunt Millie's Bakeries, acknowledged the recent difficulties. Aunt Millie's, the namesake brand, which includes everything from whole-grain to cranberry-apple swirl bread and even bagels, has experienced a 10 percent sales decline in the last year, as measured by IRI. But Popp said sales of Aunt Millie's brand has improved in the past 13 weeks.
The company also makes private-label bread for major grocery chains, including Meijer and Wal-Mart.
In the last decade, several major changes have occurred in the industry, Popp said, including the popularity of low-carb diets until about 2005, and the era of bakery consolidation that began in 2004. And consumers now want whole-grain bread at low prices.
The company does about 20 percent of its business in whole-wheat breads, compared with about 1.5 percent nine years ago.
"That's what the market is demanding," Popp said. The whole-grain craze has, after all, raised the bar on what consumers are willing to pay for bread.
And while he said the industry is bracing itself for sales declines as baby boomers cut back on bread consumption, there's a light at the end of the tunnel: their grandchildren.
"Millennials are going to have kids," Popp said. "Families with kids, that's where your consumption goes up."