Flatbreads: from Tortillas to Parathas

Flatbread is eaten widely throughout the world and is believed to date back as long as 6,000 years, with its origins in ancient Egypt. Today, it is regularly consumed by more than 1.5 billion of the world’s population and represents a staple bakery product in regions such as Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, China, India and parts of Latin America. 

By Jonathan Thomas

Flatbread has traditionally been regarded as unleavened bread made without yeast. Its principal ingredients are flour, water and salt, although many are made from a range of grains, examples of which include corn, rye, millet, barley, oats, rice and buckwheat. During the manufacturing process, the ingredients are mixed and kneaded to form a dough, which is then rolled out and cooked, usually in a brick oven. Flatbreads can be baked at various temperatures and times. In parts of the world such as Europe, the market has witnessed greater innovation in recent years, with new refrigeration technologies and modern baking concepts introduced into the sector to help improve product quality. 

Although flatbreads vary in thickness, they are typically less than two inches high. Each has its own flavor depending upon how it is cooked, while texture can vary – some, for example, are crisp and crunchy, whereas others have a softer and spongier feel. Many are eaten with various toppings, as well as with dips, sauces and spreads. Although some varieties have been linked with high levels of calories, salt and saturated fats, flatbreads do offer a range of health benefits. Many are rich in proteins, carbohydrates, antioxidants and various vitamins and minerals (e.g. magnesium, selenium and manganese).

According to recent data from IMARC Group, the global flatbread market was worth more than USD43bn in 2022. Global market value is forecast to reach almost USD62bn by 2028, with annual growth averaging almost 7% during the intervening period. Much of this growth is expected to be driven by greater consumer recognition of the health benefits offered by flatbreads, together with their versatility and suitability for many of the convenient food solutions demanded by the world’s population. 

Street Foods

Interest in flatbreads amongst European consumers has been boosted by the growth of the street foods market. Cuisines such as Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean (which make heavy use of many leading flatbread types) occupy a strong position within the market for street foods, which is commonly associated with regions such as Asia, Latin America and Africa. However, it should be noted that competition for consumer interest amongst the various ethnic dishes remains extremely strong. 

In global terms, what might generally be termed street food is eaten by around 2.5 billion people every day, or almost a third of the world’s population. Across much of Europe, market expansion came to an abrupt halt in 2020 when the pandemic struck and many foodservice outlets were closed during lockdown periods. However, more recent data suggests that the sector has staged a recovery, despite the uncertain economic climate. In the UK, for example, Lumina Intelligence expects the market for street food to reach GBP1.66bn by 2024, having made up much of the ground lost during the 2020-2021 period. 

Street food carries significant appeal to consumers, especially those within the younger age groups – in the UK, for example, it is estimated that 47% of millennials have eaten street food. Much of its appeal is attributed to the following factors:

  • Affordability/cost – it is usually cheaper than eating in a restaurant;
  • Variety – the sector encompasses a range of different ethnic cuisines;
  • Fresh – it is usually prepared on the premises;
  • Convenient – it can be found almost anywhere;
  • Authentic – it is usually based upon dishes specific to countries and/or regions;
  • Social media – the food is suitable for sharing images with friends on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.

The market appears well positioned to benefit from the return to workplaces (at least on a semi-permanent basis) of many employees in the post-pandemic world. This has seen orders for food at lunchtime rising for delivery firms such as Just Eat. In the UK, demand for the company’s lunchtime services increased by more than 120% during 2022 compared with the previous year. According to Just Eat, providing work in the workplace is a popular tool for demonstrating to employees the benefits of returning to the office. The middle of the week is when companies such as Just Eat tend to be busiest, with Thursday and Wednesday accounting for 26% and 24% of weekly orders respectively. This drops to 14% for Monday and just 12% for Friday.

Tortillas & Wraps

The tortilla represents one of the world’s most popular varieties of flatbreads. A traditional tortilla is a soft, thin and flat unleavened bread made from wheat or corn flours. Corn is considered a healthier ingredient than wheat, given that it has a lower fat and carbohydrate content, as well as more fiber and vitamins. Corn-based tortillas are also more suitable for people following a gluten-free diet. Tortillas are commonly associated with Mexican cuisine, where they are used in the preparation of dishes such as tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. Mexico represents the world’s largest producer, with an annual output of more than 2 million tonnes. 

In parts of the world such as Europe, tortillas have increasingly come to be seen as a potential replacement for traditional white sandwich bread. This has led to growing demand for food wraps, which are now a popular snack or lunchtime option. Tortillas represent a suitable carrier for a range of ingredients, examples of which include meat, fish and vegetables. Furthermore, many of the wraps positioned in Western European markets such as the UK draw their inspiration from other ethnic cuisines such as Mediterranean and Indian/Asian. 

According to Future Market Insight, the global market for tortillas was worth USD26.3bn in 2022, with current growth around 6% per annum. Much of this growth can be attributed to the growing popularity of Mexican cuisine, together with the inroads that tortillas have made into the world’s sandwiches market. The rising profile of Mexican cuisine can be illustrated by its growing presence within the European foodservice industry. One example from the UK is Tortilla, a fast-casual brand that served 6.5 million main meals during 2022. The company continues to expand, operating 65 outlets at present and having recently opened its first restaurant in Northern Ireland. 

Innovation has also been taking place within the retail market for Mexican foods in the UK. In May 2023, Mission Foods launched new branded XL Wraps, which are promoted as the perfect choice for meals such as burritos. The tortillas are 30cm in diameter, which compares with an average of 25cm for branded equivalents and 20cm for those in the own-label sector. The previous autumn, General Mills introduced a new ‘Fajita Friday’ promotional campaign for its Old El Paso brand, which featured personalized messaging. 

Indian Flatbreads

India is home to numerous varieties of flatbread, which have a range of different applications. Naan bread is one of the most widely known, which is made from wheat flour, traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven and has a distinctive teardrop shape. Besides India, it also features strongly in the cuisines of other southern Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of the most popular forms of naan bread besides plain varieties include garlic, keema (which features a filling of minced lamb or mutton), paneer (which contains cheese), peshwari (which features a filling of nuts and raisins or sultanas) and butter naan, which is smeared with butter or ghee prior to serving. As further evidence of its popularity, naan was one of the most popular choices of breads for amateur bakers in the UK during lockdown periods. 

You can read the rest of this article in the July-August issue of European Baker & Biscuit, which you can access by clicking here

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