Trends revealed by hundreds of entries in the upcoming National Festival of Breads competition largely back up consumer research conducted on behalf of the Wheat Foods Council that shows consumers are looking for variety, uniqueness and health attributes in their bread products, according to Cindy Falk, a nutrition educator at Kansas Wheat and chair of the National Festival of Breads baking contest.

Falk has served on the executive board of the Denver-based Wheat Foods Council since 1993.

Use of natural coloring agents like fruits and vegetables to create uniquely hued breads was one of most notable trends in this year's contest, she said.

An example of a brightly colored vegetable-based bread in the competition was the beetroot amaretto rolls that won Shauna Havey, of Roy, Utah, her second opportunity to vie for bread champion in Manhattan. Havey used fresh-cooked beets infused with almond for the filling in her sweet bread.

"It's a beautiful roll," Falk enthused.

Another intriguing entry came from RaChelle Hubsmith, of North Logan, Utah, who used purple yams to give her chai ube rosette rolls a lavender color.

Merry Graham of Newhall, Calif., another finalist, added vivid ribbons of color to her Danish wreath with fresh blackberries.

Other ingredients used to add color as well as flavor in this year's entries included carrots, spinach, tart cherries and pecans, and even marinara sauce, Falk said.

One of this year's finalists, Lauren Katz, of Ashburn, Va., paid homage to her family's love of mashed potatoes by creating her own version of loaded baked potato bread.

Other impressive breads with fruit and nut flavors came from Tiffany Aaron, of Quitman, Ark., who won a spot in the finale with her apple cider crisp loaves, and Suzy Neal, of Sautee Nacoochee, Ga., who earned another spot with her peanut butter pretzel rolls.

One trend showing up in Wheat Foods Council-funded research is more interest in global and international flavors, inspired by the popularity of fusion restaurants and ethnic food trucks.

"That fits right in with the entries we had," Falk observed, making special note of blogger Merry Graham's Danish wreath that incorporates "speculaas" spice.

Speculaas spice mix can be ordered online or made at home by combining cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves with anise, coriander, cardamom, citrus zest and a few other spices.

One particularly hot flavor profile right now is South African, Falk said, which features warm spices like curry, turmeric, cinnamon and fennel.

In 2018, the Kansas Wheat Commission compiled a recipe book featuring "bread sculptures for all seasons." At this year's Festival of Breads, samples of all those fun bread shapes will be demonstrated and put on display. Special emphasis will be given to the flag design, which fits the event theme of military appreciation.

During one of several educational workshops, cookbook author Stephanie Petersen — known as "Chef Tess" — will demonstrate how to embellish bread with edible paint roses and other ornamental and shaping techniques.

Creative shaping is a way to make a bread stand out, Falk said. She was particularly taken by how finalist Hubsmith shaped her beetroot amaretto rolls into an attractive rose design.

"That's a new one we hadn't seen before," she said.

Another highlight was the Sicilian star bread, entered by finalist Brenda Watts, of Gaffney, S.C., which incorporates Italian flavors in a large centerpiece-worthy round bread with a star-like pattern.

Contest judges are looking for breads that are creative and eye-appealing as well as tasty, and recipes that are well-written and easy to duplicate, Falk said.

According to Wheat Foods Council-funded research, there's been a surge in demand for European-style artisan bread. Chicagoan Kristin Hoffman's entry — tart cherry, pecan and rosemary boule — offers a great example of that style, Falk said.

"She bakes it in a Dutch oven and dusts it with rice flour, so when it comes out of the oven, it's really crusty like a true artisan loaf," she explained.

In 2013, Kansas Wheat teamed up with the Kansas Soybean Commission to offer special bonus awards to bakers who do the best job of incorporating soy products like soymilk or tofu into their recipes. This year's winners in that category went to Watts' Sicilian star bread and lucky five-spice cloverleaf rolls created by Shauna Havey.

Wheat Foods Council research has also noted consumers' desire for ingredients with a healthy halo.

"Our research shows people are looking for products that are perceived as more natural, as well as breads with shorter ingredient lists and made without preservatives. A real advantage of home baking is that you can select your own ingredients," Falk noted. 

Recipes for the award-winning breads will be posted after the contest concludes on June 8 at NationalFestivalOfBreads.com.