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How did tortillas become the new white bread?

Ah, the humble tortilla. It’s been around for thousands of years -- a soft, pliable flat bread that was a cornerstone of the Aztec diet.

And now it’s the fastest-growing segment of the baking industry. Last year, tortilla sales reached $12 billion, dethroning white sandwich bread as America’s No. 1 choice for turning meat, vegetables and/or condiments into finger food.

How did that happen? Simple demographics is part of the reason. The Hispanic population in the U.S. has swelled and so has the interest in Mexican food.

“What we have seen in the industry is a lot of innovation in how tortillas are used and what they are being made out of,” says Jim Kabbani, chief executive officer of the Tortilla Industry Association in Arlington.

To better meet consumer demands for a healthier product, tortilla makers have introduced whole-wheat tortillas and low-carb/high-fiber tortillas. There are also non-GMO, organic and gluten-free tortillas.

Also popular are home-style tortillas that look like your grandmother made them and par-baked tortillas for those who want a more authentic, made-from-scratch experience.

Several grocery store chains have also created mini tortilla factories inside their stores to deliver fresh tortillas to their customers.

A colorful assortment of tortillas offered locally. From left, Whole Wheat flour (LaTapatia), Blue Corn (Vallaria), small flour fajita (Sol de Oro), Red Chile corn (Vallaria), white corn (Vallaria), Cactus corn (Vallaria), yellow corn (Mission), and large flour (LaTapatia). (Fresno Bee/TNS)
A colorful assortment of tortillas offered locally. From left, Whole Wheat flour (LaTapatia), Blue Corn (Vallaria), small flour fajita (Sol de Oro), Red Chile corn (Vallaria), white corn (Vallaria), Cactus corn (Vallaria), yellow corn (Mission), and large flour (LaTapatia). (Fresno Bee/TNS)

“As more and more stores start producing their own tortillas, you are going to see more experimentation reflected in their products,” Kabbani says.

At Vallarta Supermarkets in Fresno, Calif., shoppers can buy corn tortillas flavored with red chili, cactus, jalapeno and blue corn. Every day, workers package the fresh, still-warm tortillas into plastic bags. They are so fresh, you can see the condensation forming on the inside of the bag.

The craving for fresh tortillas is so strong that a company recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for a tortilla maker, called the Flatev. On social media, it’s been called a Keurig for tortillas. Creators of the device say it can bake a tortilla in less than two minutes.

Kabbani says he isn’t surprised at the popularity of tortillas given their simplicity and ease of use.

Nationwide, there are about 450 tortilla makers who are creating products in varying sizes, styles and flavors. You can find kosher tortillas or tortillas made out of lentils. And as the wrap trend grows, tortillas are being made out of pesto garlic, tomato basil and spinach. (Tribune Content Agency)

By Robert Rodriguez

The Fresno Bee
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