Consumers were starting to focus more on health and wellness even before the pandemic. In the wake of the global coronavirus crisis, will consumers prioritize dietary wellness strategies even more? If so, will bakers need to prepare? Yes and yes, said Jane Dummer, a nutrition expert, registered dietitian and food industry consultant.

“People are focusing more on healthy ingredients such as whole grains,” said Dummer, speaking during the American Bakers Association podcast, Bake to the Future. “I predict this trend will become stronger post-Covid, because people are wanting to make sure they’re eating as wholesome and healthy as possible.”

She said the baking industry, from retail to foodservice, has the opportunity to emphasize nutrient-dense breads, items that promote gut health, and other wellness-focused products — all while maintaining the consumer’s emotional connection to baked goods.

Consumers have displayed seemingly contradictory behavior trends during this crisis period. On the one hand, Dummer noted, they have embraced higher calorie indulgent bakery items, oftentimes in a pandemic-driven home baking mode. Dummer said Instagram was becoming flooded with images of banana bread.

However, consumers are also showing a desire to improve their health in a time of concern about coronavirus. Recent surveys show “people are making better eating choices and working on physical activities,” she observed. The upshot is “a dynamic in which people are reaching for those comfort foods, but also aiming to eat healthier and increase their ability to fight off disease.”

The trends of indulgence and health don’t have to be contradictory, Dummer emphasized. “If the banana bread is being made with whole wheat flour and bananas, those are good attributes,” she said.

The bread category, boosted by surging sales growth during the pandemic, has new opportunities for wellness-based strategies, she said.

“From a dietician’s point of view, we can make bread more nutrient dense and healthier” she said. “That might mean having more whole grains, more seeds, perhaps dried fruit.”

Healthier baked goods provide new potential for nutrition education and messaging. Whole grains are a great source of fiber, Dummer said. Fiber promotes good transit time in the gut. Moreover, soluble fiber in whole grains contains prebiotics, which support the gut and immunity.

“All of these pieces are linked together,” she said. “The recommendation for fiber is 25 to 30 grams a day, which is usually not met by adults in North America. Getting more whole grains will help not only increase your gut transit time, but also increase your gut microbiota.”

Sourdough bread has gained popularity during the pandemic, as consumers focus more on home baking and sourdough starters for making the bread rise. Looking beyond the quarantine period, however, bakers will have other opportunities to promote the nutritional benefits of sourdough bread.

“There’s more and more research coming out around sourdough bread, for the fermentation leading to gut health,” Dummer said. “And while I’m not recommending you down half a loaf of sourdough bread in one day, different breads and baked goods can fit into a dietary pattern. So the growing interest in sourdough bread is perhaps because people realize the beneficial side of the gut health piece.”

The gradual reemergence of society from its pandemic mode will lead to shifts away from quarantine consumption patterns, Dummer said. This will heighten the demand for more convenient food products, as people won’t have as much time to spend on home baking.

That might open the door to offering more mixes as “a pretty easy transition out of this,” as well as healthier packaged goods options, including more single serve items, to support a return to on-the-go lifestyles, she said.

“When people get back to work and they’re back to commuting, and all of that, they’re not going to have time to deal with nine or 10 ingredients,” she said.