There was a time, not so long ago, when nutritional boundaries were more clear-cut. “Indulgent foods weren’t healthy,” says Mel Festejo, COO, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ. “They either had a surfeit of nutrients that triggered health issues, or they contained ingredients whose names raised anxiety.”

Yet consumers ate them anyway, seeing as how they satisfied humankind’s most fundamental cravings. Within the last couple decades, however, nutrition’s forward march—not to mention social media’s influence—combined to promote better health through informed food choices, Festejo continues. And consumers began viewing their guilty indulgences with warier eyes.

But “delicious” exerts a pull that’s hard to resist, so consumers faced a quandary: how to do right by their health while still enjoying the “gustatory and sometimes emotional experiences that make them want to indulge in the first place,” Festejo says.

Luckily, the food industry—and snack and bakery in particular—felt their pain, responding with products that strike what Festejo calls “the delicate balance of ‘healthy indulgence,’ rather than forcing a choice of one at the expense of the other.”

Though it’s a tricky balance to strike, we’re getting better at this “better-for-you” snack and bakery balance every year.

 

Better all the time

At heart, better-for-you is about moderation: “I may not technically be good for you,” it says, “but I’m a lot more healthful than I could be.” And that’s a handy quality for a food to have as consumers demand more of everything.

But a better-for-you balance is particularly handy in snacks, given that they’ve gone from being sometime-treats to today’s take on the meal.

“People are moving away from three square meals and embracing snacks to stay fueled and full throughout the day,” says Becky Rademacher, product manager, International Dehydrated Foods (IDF), Springfield, MO. The upshot: “Consumers expect snacks to provide the nutrition they need and attributes that align with their dietary and lifestyle goals,” she says.

That’s opened up opportunities to create healthy snacks for different occasions, notes Jennifer Stephens, vice president of marketing, Fiberstar, Inc., River Falls, WI. Take the nutrition bar, which “to this day continues to be an on-the-go favorite,” she says. She also highlights better-for-you snacking innovations like seaweed- and seed-studded crackers, and gluten-free snacks that go beyond rice and sorghum flours to include sweet potato, broccoli, and cauliflower bases.

Bakery, however, has had a bumpier better-for-you ride. Once the staff of life, bread—as well as its muffin, biscuit, cookie, and pastry brethren—found itself banished from low-carb kitchens. “But now,” Stephens says, “times have changed, and breads and other baked items have evolved into vehicles for nutrition that we can enjoy in moderation.”

 

Getting a handle on it

Anne Marie Halfmann, senior manager, category marketing, Dawn Foods, Jackson, MI, sees better-for-you as important to the snack and bakery categories “because many consumers still want to treat themselves, but without the guilt, or the sacrifice of nutritional values, such as gluten-free or vegan, that are meaningful to them,” she says.

And though that’s elementary in concept, checking all those boxes in formulation is more challenging, requiring that developers get a working handle on what “better-for-you” means in a snack or bakery product.

With no standard definition for the term, consumers wield considerable power in deciding which characteristics qualify, notes Brad Schwan, senior director, marketing, ADM, Chicago. “Some consumers prefer organic and non-GMO products, while others are satisfied with recognizable and nutritious ingredients such as whole grains,” he notes. “In any case, modern consumers take a highly individualized approach to purchase decisions and ultimately look for products that offer excellent taste and texture, in addition to better-for-you positioning.”

Wouter Stomph, head of North America ingredient development and innovation, Olam Cocoa, Willowbrook, IL, notes that better-for-you means “different things to different people, especially now with so many diets and health trends rising in popularity—from Paleo to keto and vegan.”

But while Stomph and his team have seen customers draw their better-for-you boundaries all over the board, “the most-common themes remain the simplest,” he says. “The vast majority want short ingredient labels with contents that consumers understand, and fewer artificial, processed or ‘sinful’ ingredients.”

 

Steady diets

Halfmann believes that better-for-you “should also be comprehensive, rather than focused only on foods and nutrition. It’s beneficial to tie in fitness, mental health and rest, too.” And to the extent that “lifestyle diets” dominate wellness culture, perhaps better-for-you already does.

“Lifestyle choice continues to grow in importance,” says Tracy Snider, marketing director, human nutrition and health, Balchem, Maryland Heights, MO. “Specialty diets that offer holistic health benefits influence purchase decisions, and many feel that we’ll see these diets trending not only in 2020, but well into next year.”

Snider is bullish on flexitarian and plant-based diets, which stop short of “the restrictive nature of true veganism.” And she notes that the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on plant-based proteins, fruits, nuts, and olive oil, resembles plant-based eating, but without as much buzz.

Snider also sees the keto diet as having legs in the better-for-you space, especially among consumers “looking to lose weight fast.” And by prioritizing “clean” and “unprocessed” foods, she sees Paleo as also riding the better-for-you bandwagon.

 

Further complications

But conforming to all of these diets merely complicates the already-challenging task of making snacks and baked goods better for you. And experts don’t even consider it the biggest complication.

“The biggest challenge many face when formulating better-for-you snacks and baked goods is maintaining quality while improving the nutritional profile,” says Richard Galloway, consultant, QUALISOY, Chesterfield, MO.

Andrew Hart, North American technical sales manager, encapsulates and inclusions, Balchem, points to the difficulty of “striking the right balance between functionality and desirability.” And baked goods often provide a perfect example of this challenge.

“Fundamentally, all the ingredients are in there for a reason,” says Hart, “whether it’s the sodium- or aluminum-based leavening system to build crumb structure, the high-protein flour for volume, or the fat that improves mouthfeel.”

So when pursuing better-for-you formulation—which Hart says can be as simple as using “pantry” ingredients—the objective must drive the challenge. “How do we deliver protein without drying the texture, for instance, or how do we deliver fiber without inhibiting leavening or finished-product rise?”

And don’t forget the price tag. Galloway notes that formulators “can expect to see slightly higher production costs associated with better-for-you ingredients.” But with consumers claiming they’ll spend 65 percent more on products they perceive as healthful, according to the United Soybean Board’s 26th annual “Food Industry Insights” study, he says, those costs “often even out in the end.”

Ultimately, Hart believes better-for-you success depends on the consumer. “Will the consumer accept a compromise in color vibrancy if it means the use of natural colors, or a slightly shorter shelf life because the product contains additional nutrients? One thing we know for sure is that consumers will not sacrifice the eating experience for better-for-you.”

All of which means that formulators need ingredients that solve multiple problems, providing in-application functionality, delivering nutrition, tasting great, and looking benign on snack and bakery labels.

Can any ingredient do it all? Not all at once. But suppliers are filling the pipelines with options that do their part to make healthy indulgence a reality.

 

Clean sweep

“The most-common request we hear from customers is the desire for clean-label ingredients,” says Brock Lundberg, Ph.D., president of R&D and applications, Fiberstar. Yet baked goods traditionally rely on emulsifiers like mono- and diglycerides, polyglycerol polyricinoleate, ammonium phosphatide, and lecithin, all of which—despite improving bakery’s moisture, texture, shelf life, volume, crust development, and crumb structure, among other functions—“are questionable in regard to their clean-label declaration, sustainability, GMO, and natural status,” he says.

“Natural” emulsifiers like locust bean gum, gum arabic, cellulose gum, and others are viable options—but, Lundberg continues, don’t check all the functionality boxes or meet some consumers’ clean-label scrutiny.

But by using a combination of water and citrus fiber, Lundberg suggests, “chemical emulsifiers such as mono- and diglycerides can be completely replaced while maintaining a baked good’s softness, moistness, and shelf life.”

Shuai Li, Ph.D., principal scientist, Fiberstar, notes that the company’s Citri-Fi citrus fiber is highly hygroscopic and can replace a significant proportion of the egg, oil, or fat in a bakery formulation without sacrificing moisture or perceived freshness—even at low use levels of 0.4 to 1 percent.

Li adds that the ingredient is easy to incorporate into bakery systems, whether via the dry ingredients, water-hydrated solution, oil dispersion, or a plated form. And he notes that it can appear on labels as “citrus fiber,” “dried citrus flour,” or “citrus pulp,” ingredient descriptions that “resonate well in natural and clean-label markets,” he says.

At Dawn Foods, Ashley Amodeo, food technologist, is working with her research and development team to ensure that the natural ingredients they develop for better-for-you snack and bakery formulations lock in the same shelf life and sensory appeal as the synthetic options they replace. And so far, she says, they’re making progress.                            

Among the alternatives they’ve come up with are fibers that can improve viscosity and crumb structure; soy protein isolates, which she describes as “particularly helpful in vegan products”; heat-treated flours that can substitute for bleached flours; and enzymes that improve crumb structure and texture while protecting eating quality over the long term.

In the end, Amodeo believes, attaining suitable shelf life with better-for-you ingredients “will be key not only to consumers, but also to bakers looking to invest in better-for-you products. Improved shelf life will help bakers save money and provide easier product management, while also meeting consumers’ needs.”

But “clean,” “natural,” and “better-for-you” can still come from a lab, insists Robert Mason, senior food applications scientist, Balchem. “We’ve seen a rise in the use of fermentation and culturing processes to more naturally source functional ingredients like preservatives and flavor modifiers. And technologies like encapsulation, spray-drying, and agglomeration can control the reactions that can happen when incorporating new ingredients into bakery and snacks, allowing manufacturers to maintain established processes.”

Some better-for-you ingredients can even knock out several tasks at once, delivering function and improved nutrition at the same time.

“As companies strive for that balance between indulgence and positive nutrition, it’s important to choose fats and oils that not only offer a better nutritional profile, but also provide the high-performing functionality they depend on,” says Galloway.

Enter domestic high-oleic soybean oil, which has less saturated fat than many conventional oils while delivering three times the sought-after monounsaturated fatty acids, says Galloway. And because of its oxidative stability, it helps extend snack and bakery product shelf life and renders antioxidant additives, often needed to control oxidation, unnecessary.

Cocoa also faces scrutiny. Noting that many snack and bakery manufacturers are still chipping away at sugar and sodium levels, Stomph suggests that strategically chosen cocoa ingredients can help. Olam Cocoa has developed a cocoa powder that delivers “full-flavored chocolate taste without extra sugar,” as well as options like a black cocoa powder with no added sodium and a reduced-fat cocoa powder.

The powders’ intense flavor and ability to mask the mineral off notes of some alternative sweeteners are in high demand in the better-for-you arena, notes Stomph, adding that dark cocoa powders are “packed with minerals like magnesium, potassium, and zinc.” Even better, because the powders come in a range of shades from bright-red to dark-brown and black, they can replace colorants like 4-methylimidazole caramel—listed as a carcinogen in California according to Proposition 65 requirements.

But what about “dutching”? As Stomph explains, “Most dark cocoa powders go through the process of alkalization, or ‘dutching,’ which changes the cocoa nib’s acidity and enhances the finished cocoa’s flavor.” While this enhances sensory appeal and can even avert the need for some additives, “the additional processing runs counter to the clean-label trend,” he says.

Enter deZaan brand’s TrueDark, which Stomph claims is “the first-ever natural, non-alkalized dark cocoa powder.” Appearing on labels simply as “cocoa,” rather than “cocoa powder processed with alkali,” it makes for “simpler, more-straightforward ingredient labels that are far more appealing to consumers,” he says.

Schwan points out that snacks and baked goods are great vehicles for popular whole-food ingredients like ancient grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as well as for plant-based proteins and even microbiome-supporting probiotics, postbiotics, and prebiotic fibers. As a source of the latter, he notes Fibersol dietary fibers “increase the soluble fiber in baked goods without sacrificing taste, aroma, or texture.” The ingredients are easy to work with, requiring little formulation adjustment in bakery and snack applications. And, as prebiotic fibers, they “encourage growth of beneficial bacteria within the gut, which may confer health benefits to consumers.”

On the protein front, Rademacher notes that rising interest in keto and Paleo diets underscores the value of CHiKPRO Chicken Protein Isolate as a protein that “aligns with these consumer demands,” even boasting Certified Paleo credentials. Domestically sourced from all-natural chickens, it avoids all common allergens, which is “unique in the protein space,” she says. And, because it supplies “the same nutrition as eating a piece of chicken, CHiKPRO is a great choice for protein-fortified snacks and baked goods.”

 

What’s old is new again

But not all better-for-you snack and bakery ingredient trends knock it out of the park all on their own. A case in point as far as Festejo’s concerned: Cauliflower pizza crusts, which he considers “an overreach.”

Despite adding fiber and antioxidants to everything from the aforementioned crusts to tortillas, puffed snacks, and pretzels—“cauliflower as an ingredient does not yield a good texture in formulation alone in dehydrated form,” Festejo says. “It needs to be partnered with cassava flour to give such applications the quality they require.”

And as the industry has found ways to repurpose unconventional flours like cassava, it’s created a whole new class of “functionally robust baking ingredients,” says Festejo. “When processors of ‘old’ or traditional ingredients rethink and adapt them to present-day formulation and functionality requirements, they let these new versions perform in bigger ways. This is why ‘the old is new again’—and even better.”                                    

Not to mention better for you. “As long as these types of snacks and baked goods continue to hit shelves successfully,” Festejo says, “consumers will learn that healthy indulgence isn’t an oxymoron, but is actually achievable.”