These days, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Today’s sweet bakery treats like cakes, pies, cheesecakes, and cookies often combine the best of multiple worlds, bridging apparent gaps between indulgence, better-for-you and specialized dietary choices, clean label, sound functionality, and globally minded sustainability. And savvy bakers can often accomplish these daring feats of skill and artistry without compromising overall quality—even during a pandemic.
In the current COVID-19 era, freshly baked goods in the retail in-store bakery can hold particular appeal. “With limited access to restaurants, consumers are drawn to packaged fresh bakery versus center-store, extended-shelf-life baked goods,” suggests Michael Mendes, CEO, Just Desserts, San Francisco.
Just Desserts has historically featured the inclusion of premium natural ingredients, such as whole eggs, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, natural vanilla, and real chocolate, says Mendes. “In the COVID era, with limited access to retail bakery options and restaurants, consumers are yearning to replicate this satisfaction and indulgence.” Just Desserts recently developed a new rich and chewy brownie, new mini Bundt products, and a line of celebration-themed products.
Mendes has also seen an uptick in demand for products suited to specialty diets. “We have experienced dramatic growth of our vegan platform, where we have identified ingredients such as oat milk as uniquely complementing the natural vanilla, premium chocolate, and unique blend of flours, while eliminating allergens such as soy, tree nuts, peanuts, eggs, and dairy.” Just Desserts has expanded its line of vegan cupcakes and recently introduced a new vegan snickerdoodle bite.
“We have also worked with our retail partners to develop some new ‘deep value offers’ with a revised pack size that allows consumers to buy our brownie and other bite items for a $5 everyday price,” says Mendes.
For many, the pandemic afforded them time to explore sourdough. “The COVID-19 quarantine fast-tracked the already-rising sourdough trend,” says Bill Hanes, vice president, marketing and strategy, Lesaffre, Milwaukee, WI. “With more time on their hands to pick up new hobbies, many consumers have begun experimenting with sourdough breads. As preference for the unique flavor of sourdough grows, so will the types of applications that use it. Sourdough desserts, like cakes and pies with sourdough crusts, are gaining traction.”
Hanes notes that sourdough fits into the ongoing better-for-you trend perfectly, as it has a superior nutritional profile and higher digestibility than other baked goods. “Our Livendo sours are designed to help bakers create sourdough products that stand out,” he says. “These easy-to-use solutions can be incorporated directly into flour and result in easier-to-shape doughs for greater efficiency in production.”
The pandemic has catalyzed higher retail demand—but often with associated challenges. “High demand and a reduction in production staff has caused many of these producers to look for alternative options for producing and packaging,” says Martin Riis, director of sales and marketing, Apex Motion Control, Surrey, British Columbia. “At Apex Motion Control, we answer a few of these issues immediately with our user-friendly and safe cobot, the Baker-Bot. The Baker-Bot is capable of conveyor pick-and-place, tray loading and unloading onto conveyors, palletizing, decorating, dough loading, filling and depositing, sauce spraying, and so on. The great thing is that it safely works on the production line between your staff without guarding—if you can use a tablet or cell phone, you can operate the Baker-Bot.” He notes the Baker-Bot usually gets the dull, dangerous, dirty, and repetitive jobs.
“Customers are looking for smaller, single-serve desserts like cupcakes, petit fours, pastries, and cookies,” says Peggy Liu, copywriter, Unifiller, part of the Linxis Group, Delta, British Columbia. She notes single portions make for excellent grab-and-go, “treat yourself” options. “Bar cakes are also popular, as they’re perfectly suited for small social gatherings.”
Unifiller has had many new developments over the past year designed to streamline dessert production, says Liu. “For decorating single-serve desserts, our RP depositor has been used to finish mini cupcakes bites with buttercream frosting and sprinkles, at 15-plus across. By the same account, our Pro and Multistation depositors have been used, with a custom cupcake head, to finish eight cupcakes at a time, while our robotic module can finish six, eight, or 12 cupcakes, in shell packaging. Our injection and enrobing equipment easily injects, enrobes, and drizzles snack cakes. Other mini-desserts like petit fours can be easily enrobed with a heated liquid chocolate using Unifiller’s enrober. All our decorating equipment is designed to do this with accuracy and efficiency to ensure product quality and streamline production.”
For larger desserts, Unifiller’s Automated Sheet Cake Icing and Bordering Line quickly assembles and decorates sheet cakes with minimal staff, says Liu. “The line can be adapted to decorate either single- or double-layer cakes.” It features a unique servo mid-fill icing module, cake stacker, and top and side icing system. It lets bakeries mid-fill and base-ice up to 10 cakes a minute. “Customers who have purchased this system have seen ROI within six months through a reduction in staff and decreased cake assembly time.”
American consumers continue to demand more of their baked goods. “Consumers are looking for more functionality in their dessert and snack choices,” says Ashley Dawkins, vice president, marketing, Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle, West Palm Beach, FL. “We’re snacking more than ever before—especially with a larger portion of the population now working from home during the pandemic. Consumers are seeking out products that satisfy their sweet tooth, but without the guilt afterward.”
Keto continues to remain at the top of the list, says Dawkins. “Consumers overall are looking to reduce sugar in their daily consumption, making the dessert/sweet snacking arena a perfect target for new keto-friendly items.” Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle recently launched two new limited-edition Summer Blondies, in Key Lime and Coconut, as well as Brownie Brittle KETO and Brownie Brittle PROTEIN in June. “Our KETO and PROTEIN SKUs were initially launched exclusively for e-commerce, but with the increasing interest from retailers, we plan on launching in a few traditional retailers later this year,” she says.
“We continue to see growth in zero-sugar, gluten-free, and vegan dessert offerings,” says Kevin Joseph, chief marketing officer, THINSTERS, Montclair, NJ. “THINSTERS has seen growth particularly in our citrus flavors, like our Meyer Lemon and Key Lime Pie.”
It’s important to look at macro trends in adjacent product categories. “If you’re a cookie maker, be cognizant of cookies, but also cakes, ice creams, and confections. When you see a new trend in an adjacent category, it will likely impact your category, as well,” says Joseph, noting that oat milk is a popular ingredient trend that can translate well across categories.
“In our new Oat Milk THINSTERS, our first ingredient is oat milk,” says Joseph. “We make our own proprietary oat milk in house, and that ingredient acts as a natural sweetener, so we don’t have to add a lot of sugar.” The new Oat Milk THINSTERS are gluten-free, low in sugar, non-GMO, and vegan.
“Better-for-you and clean-label products have been on the rise for some time,” says Elizabeth Ortiz, marketing specialist, Boston Baking, Hyde Park, MA. “We have seen that the impact of COVID-19 has strengthened this trend as people try to remain as healthy as possible. Consumers still want to indulge, but remain cautious with what they put in their bodies. When looking at the ingredient statement, consumers want to see short and simple ingredients—and are especially drawn to high-fiber, high-protein, low-sugar products, among other nutritional claims.” She also notes that consumers have gravitated toward reduced pack sizes with the dramatic reduction in large gatherings.
“Reduced sugar and specialty diet trends, like plant-based, high-protein and keto, are coming to all sectors of the baking industry,” says Jeff Nelson, vice president, western sales, Brolite Products, Bartlett, IL. “At the same time, the classic sugary baked good still is very popular in many markets. A challenge for the baker can be to create that same sugary dessert, but then have the product be lower in calories or have no allergens or be clean-label.” He notes better-for-you, single-serving treats, such as high-protein cookies, also have grown popular. “These give the consumer the opportunity to ‘grab and go’ without feeling guilt.”
Bakers can replace refined white flours with whole wheat or other whole-grain flours without sacrificing flavor, notes Nelson. “Transitioning to organic or non-GMO ingredients will differentiate a product, as well. It depends on the baker and what works on their equipment, with their processing procedures and their labeling requirements.” He notes Brolite works with its customers to design blend that specifically meet a baker’s needs.
“I believe that a strategic and less-intimidating approach to introduce desserts in a better-for-you platform is to highlight the addition of ingredients to a favorite recipe, rather than the elimination of ingredients,” says Jenna Kolanda, corporate chef, The Hershey Co., Hershey, PA. “This initial step will keep those loyal dessert consumers’ attention, and can then lead to them accepting more-gradual changes. Instead of reducing sugar right off the bat, try to emphasize the addition of whole grains. Oats are one of my favorite additions to a cookie and a great way to add more whole grains to a recipe.”
Bougie Bakes, Los Angeles, is a specialty bakery focused on gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy-free products. The bakery launched with four core cookie flavors: Chocolate Chunk, Double Chocolate, Sugar-Free Sugar, and Peanut Butter. Seasonal and limited-edition options have included Pumpkin Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Mint, Lemon Raspberry, Rainbow Sprinkle, and—most recently—Matcha Strawberry cookies. Brownies and blondies, among other baked goods, are also available.
“Our company was founded with the mission to deliver healthier alternatives to life’s indulgences,” says Meghan Quinn, co-founder and managing partner, Bougie Bakes. She finds consumers are looking for healthier baked goods, including gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, vegan, keto-friendly alternatives.
“Consumers expect more from the companies they’re buying from, and out of the products they’re consuming, and that’s the reason we strive to utilize only ingredients that are purposeful,” says Ryan Quinn, co-founder and managing partner, Bougie Bakes. “Almond flour, collagen, and erythritol are staples in a lot of what we bake.” He notes almond flour is low in carbohydrates, high in healthy fats and fiber, and naturally gluten-free. “Collagen powder has gone mainstream because of its many benefits, including skin health, joint protection, etc., and erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that has zero glycemic impact.”
As consumers pivot toward simple, unprocessed, clean-label foods, many are looking for better-for-you versions of their favorite sweet goods and desserts, says Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, CA. “There is also growing demand for dessert products that align with specialized diet trends, such as keto, vegan, and plant-based diets. It’s important for restaurant chefs and those formulating for foodservice to consider a range of dietary needs when creating desserts, and for manufacturers to be innovative in the indulgent products they offer to health-conscious consumers.”
Gerhard notes that almonds and almond ingredients, which are all-natural and gluten-free, fit well within the trend toward a simpler label and healthy, plant-based ingredients. “They allow for the ‘best of both worlds’ when it comes to indulgent dessert offerings that also complement consumers’ health and wellness goals. At Blue Diamond, we see these trends playing out with our own manufacturing partners, who are formulating with almonds in a variety of bakery and dessert applications, including pastries, cookies, cakes, and more.”
Almonds come in many forms—including sliced, diced, slivered, and split—to add texture to cookies, or as a premium topping for cakes and pies, notes Gerhard. “Almond butter can also be used to create a creamy, smooth filling for bars or brownies, complementing the crunch of sliced or slivered almonds that might be used as an inclusion or topping.”
Almonds are high in six essential nutrients, including protein, fiber, and calcium, says Gerhard. “This, combined with their favorable fat profile, has made almonds a standout choice for formulators looking for a healthy inclusion to elevate their sweet products.” She also notes Blue Diamond Almond Flour is a popular alternative to traditional flour, because it contains the same nutritional properties as whole almonds, is low on the glycemic index and is naturally gluten-free.
Gerhard relates that according to Mintel, 23 percent of U.S. bakery consumers consider high-protein claims important on baked goods, including 25 percent of millennials and 24 percent of Gen X. “High-protein claims can also make indulgent baked goods, such as cookies, more permissible for health-conscious consumers.”
Protein is a hot trend, says David “Guilley” Guilfoyle, senior group manager, bakery, fats and oils, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, New Century, KS. “While many baking companies are looking for ways to make claims like ‘good source of protein’ on their packages, the addition of protein to sweet goods formulations is challenging. Protein absorbs a lot of water and alters the viscosity.” Adding more water to counter this issue ends up diluting the protein content and negatively affecting the ability to make a protein claim. “The key is to target applications that can take larger amounts of protein and still remain very tasty and have excellent texture. Cookies, brownies, and cheesecakes do very well with larger amounts of protein additions, while cakes do not respond well to high amounts of protein addition.”
Protein options include soy and pulses like pea and chickpea. “They each add in their own characteristics. The formulator should be aware that some proteins will affect water absorption and increase viscosity of batters. Some protein isolates resolve this issue and increase the potency of the protein without adding too much extra bulk.” Protein in the form of nuggets and flakes can add interesting textual effects to sweet baked goods, added to the batter or dough or applied topically, with the latter option adding extra protein without affecting batter viscosity, he notes.
Some consumers want to treat themselves, but are more label-conscious for a variety of reasons, including dietary choices, allergies, and more, says Gretchen Hadden, marketing communications manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate North America, Minneapolis. “Food manufacturers are responding to meet these unique consumer needs with vegan, reduced-sugar, and even nutritionally dense desserts, exploring ingredients such as nuts, fruits, and dark chocolate.”
Another major influence is consumer interest in products they perceive as “healthy for me,” with an emphasis on the individual, notes Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager, Cargill. “For many, indulgences like cookies become permissible with smaller portion sizes or better-for-you ingredients.”
Stauffer cites data from HealthFocus International suggesting 71 percent of global consumers wish they had healthier options in indulgent food and beverage categories. “That suggests sweet treats with a clean, healthy, or better-for-you attribute will help consumers justify the splurge,” she says. “In cookies, that might mean adding protein, reducing sugar, or simply downsizing to smaller, bite-sized treats.”
More bakers are looking at sugar reduction as an option for building better-for-you appeal, says Allison Leibovich, senior technical service specialist, bakery, Cargill. “However, any adjustments to sugar content must still deliver on consumer expectations for indulgent taste, texture, and appearance. With those sensory requirements in mind, we’ve found it is possible to achieve modest reductions of 15 to 20 percent in cookies using ingredients like stevia, erythritol, and chicory root fiber, with limited effect on overall product performance.”
Polydextrose can help with reducing sugar, says Guilfoyle. “When polydextrose is paired with sugar alcohols or other high-intensity sweeteners, it provides the perfect balance of bulking agent and sweetness. It functions very much like sugar in sweet goods, but without the sweetness or the calories. It provides low glycemic response with only 1 calorie per gram, plus it also acts as a soluble fiber in the finished product, which promotes prebiotic gut health.”
Convenience also continues to be important, suggests Rosa E. Regalado-Bowers, general manager, Palsgaard Inc., Morris Plains, NJ. “Manufacturers should prioritize ease of use, for example in mixes for home baking, while also meeting demand for indulgence and ‘lean-label.’ These are needs we’ve worked hard to meet with our Emulpals range of powdered whipping cake emulsifiers for premixes, which can be used in anything from Swiss rolls to muffins. They’re completely vegetable-based, free from allergens and trans fats, and label-friendly.”
The ultimate success of a retail cake mix is in the hands of the consumer, notes Regalado-Bowers. “Give them consistently pleasurable preparation and eating experiences, and you’ll build loyalty.”
In most mixes, the key success factor is a high degree of tolerance, says Regalado-Bowers. This is critical due to variations in storage conditions, raw materials—such as the quality of the eggs, and the butter, margarine, or oil added by the consumer—mixing methods, and specific baking conditions. “With Emulpals in the mix, variations like these make less of a difference, delivering the cake quality consumers naturally expect, and freeing them to focus on that final creative touch.”
Consumers also expect their favorite products to be gluten-free, vegan, low-carb, egg-free, organic, low in sugar, low in saturated fat, and low in trans fat. “Our Emulpals range provides functionality in a range of better-for-you categories, including plant-based, high-protein, free-from, and high-fiber,” says Regalado-Bowers. “Furthermore, with Emulpals in the mix, batter can hold high volumes of liquid oil without changing mouthfeel. This can allow a shift from saturated to unsaturated oils, creating new opportunities for better-for-you products.”
Increasingly, there’s another aspect to the idea of a “permissible indulgence,” expanding the idea beyond “better-for-me” to include “better-for-the-planet,” says Jamie Mavec, marketing manager, Cargill. “Shoppers expect companies to provide information and a high degree of honesty about ingredients, including their origin and production processes.” The IFIC 2020 Food & Health Survey found six in 10 U.S. consumers say it’s important that the food products they purchase are produced sustainability, and 43 percent say the same about manufacturer commitments to environmental sustainability.
“That heightened interest is evident even at the ingredient level,” says Mavec. “In Cargill’s 2020 proprietary U.S. FATitudes study, which tracks consumer perceptions and behaviors related to fats and oils in packaged foods, 37 percent said they are more likely to purchase a product with a sustainable claim compared to only 21 percent in 2013.”
Consumer expectations around sustainability are higher than ever, says Regalado-Bowers. “There is therefore a sound business case—as well as the obvious ethical one—for manufacturers to use plant-based ingredients and those produced sustainably, for example in carbon-neutral facilities. This has been a priority for Palsgaard in recent years. In 2010 we set ourselves the goal of completely carbon-neutral production, and we achieved it in 2018.”
Regalado-Bowers anticipates new demand for “fluffy” products, including chiffon cake and cheesecake. “These tap into growing consumer recognition of the importance of texture in baked goods.”
Cotton Blues has seen its reputation grow through the notable cheesecakes served at its restaurant in Hattiesburg, MS. Now those cheesecakes are available at grocery stores throughout the South, and for delivery through e-commerce, notes Shaun Davis, pastry chef. “A product I released which tied nicely with our southern-themed restaurant was the Sweet Potato Cheesecake. Plenty of people make a pumpkin cheesecake, but I find that roasted sweet potatoes lend a much-deeper flavor and creamier texture than pumpkin. I also replaced part of the sugar with locally sourced sweet cane syrup.”
Davis notes that he has been seeing more savory-sweet recipes, such as salted caramel or smoky aspects added to traditional sweets.
“From the start of Cotton Blues Cheesecakes, I have always used fresh ingredients to produce a high-quality dessert,” says Davis. “I use fresh fruits and citrus that are in season in my region, and I never take shortcuts like reconstituted lemon juice or frozen zest. No matter how much time or money you may save, it never tastes the same in my opinion.”
Small bites and shareable desserts hold appeal, says Kolanda. “Sharable desserts are a great way for inquisitive eaters to try new flavor trends without fully committing to a large portion.” She notes floral essences, global spices, and tangy citrus ingredients are on her radar.
“There are many places that offer a fan-favorite chocolate brownie, but adding cold brew and toffee pieces to the mix for a toffee coffee brownie can elevate the bar and have consumers wondering what they’ve been missing,” says Kolanda.
Co-branded treats can also instantly attract customer attention. “Hershey continues to team up with foodservice operators to run LTOs and add permanent menu offerings,” says Kolanda. One example from this past year is the chocolate brownie made with Reese’s Mini Pieces at 7-Eleven.
Desserts are a moment of indulgence, so taste remains the top priority, says Hadden. “Given that emphasis, flavor innovation is on the forefront. From cookies to cakes, bakers, and pastry chefs alike are having fun with new flavors and unexpected combinations.”
Hadden notes mashups that transform two dessert into one are providing unexpected twists, sometimes in the form of limited-time offers, to drive greater engagement with dessert.
“Decadent flavors play a key role in creating an indulgent experience, but for desserts to truly stand out, they must deliver an experience that engages all the senses,” says Hadden. She notes that Cargill’s Gerkens Duchess cocoa powder has a rich, chocolaty aroma and taste, as well as a warm, decadent brown color, to help baked goods create lasting sensory impressions in premium bakery applications such as cookies, cakes, and brownies.
“Creating the right texture also elevates the sensory experience,” says Mavec. “In bakery items, fat is not only important for its structuring function, but it also contributes to mouthfeel, flakiness, smoothness, and other textures.” She notes that Cargill’s PalmAgility bakery shortenings have a smooth and creamy texture that aids in consistent incorporation of ingredients, potentially improving overall final product quality.
Cargill’s 2020 U.S. FATitudes study also found nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of consumers report avoiding certain fats or oils, like saturated and trans fats, says Mavec. “Our Clear Valley All Purpose Shortening, a blend of high-oleic canola and hydrogenated cottonseed oils, is a good option for bakers interested in lowering the saturated fat content of their products.” She notes the shortening contains 23 percent saturated fat versus about 50 percent for standard palm-based shortenings, and still delivers on critical sensory attributes needed to create an indulgent baked treat.
Product quality is of utmost importance in the dessert space, given consumers’ high expectations for sensory appeal, says Leibovich. “Foundational ingredients like starches play outsized roles in maintaining product quality over an extended shelf life, especially items that must withstand multiple freeze/thaw cycles. Starches do a great job of holding water, helping baked treats maintain texture and retain their tender, moist bite. In icings and frostings, starches control moisture and provide a creamy texture.” Non-GMO options like Cargill’s label-friendly SimPure functional native starches can also serve as a point of differentiation, helping manufacturers craft treats made with familiar—yet highly functional—ingredients, she says.
“In today’s competitive marketplace, it’s no longer enough to create a decadent dessert,” says Mavec. “Increasingly, it’s the compelling story that captivates consumers and differentiates one product from another. Authentic, unique, and interesting stories are resonating with consumers, especially those built around responsible sourcing, sustainability, and traceability.”
Mavec notes that Cargill has been developing supply chains that can deliver on demands for transparency and sustainability, creating prototypes to illustrate the possibilities. “For example, in the cookie space, we created a ‘Sustainable Cookie Concept,’ which demonstrates how brands can bring ideas around transparency and sustainability to life, yet still deliver on indulgence.” The cookie concept is made with RSPO-certified Mass-Balance palm oil, responsibly sourced chocolate chips, sustainably produced stevia, traceable pea protein, and quinoa and pastry flours that implement stewardship practices from field to bakery.
It’s just a cookie—but it’s also so much more. And that suits today’s demanding consumers just fine.