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Have your cake and eat it, too – How innovations in flavor science and technology are serving-up healthier desserts and confections
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Have your cake and eat it, too – How innovations in flavor science and technology are serving-up healthier desserts and confections

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While desserts and confections still deliver familiarity and comfort, flavor technology is enabling permissible indulgence as this traditional category evolves to meet healthier consumer lifestyles.

The desserts category is rapidly changing. While consumers have long turned to indulgent foods as a source of comfort and enjoyment, desserts and confections​ are evolving in the post-pandemic era to reflect shifting consumer preferences, including a heightened awareness of health and wellness.

It comes as no surprise that consumption of desserts and confections spiked sharply during the earliest stages of the pandemic. Whether it’s chocolate candy, ice cream or baked goods – nearly every category of desserts and confections saw a significant bump in sales in 2020 as U.S. consumers sheltered in place and sought comfort and stress-relief in the feel-good familiarity of sweet treats. Interestingly, data shows that sales of these traditional desserts began declining in 2021 as the pandemic threat began to wane and dessert sales have continued this decline through 2022.

Over the past few years, consumers have grown more aware of how a balanced diet is a critical part of their health and well-being. In the desserts category, this often means smaller portion sizes, as a healthier way to enjoy traditional favorites, or it means seeking out exciting new ingredients and flavors that deliver an indulgent experience with minimal calories and fat. Despite increased mindfulness of their health and new economic challenges, consumers still seek indulgence and sweet treats, but their approach to these foods is rapidly changing.

Tapping into the power of nostalgia

Unlike any other food category, desserts and confections are often seen as a luxury. These are celebratory foods that engage sensorial pleasure and usually offer a community experience. There is an expectation among consumers that desserts will satisfy a craving, elevate a group gathering, provide comfort or deliver us from boredom. The rich flavor of desserts and confections tap into a sense of fun and community, and can even remind us of childhood.

In fact, nostalgia plays an important role in dessert flavors because it provides a sense of comfort, playfulness and fun – all key aspects of the category. Flavors that evoke positive memories are a powerful tool for brands in the dessert and confections category. According to recent Mintel research, 37% of consumers enjoy desserts that offer a twist on the familiar, while 46% of consumers like desserts that remind them of childhood, such as Birthday Cake and S’mores. Well-established brands have an even stronger position to leverage the power of nostalgic dessert flavors because of the importance of familiarity. A recent Mintel study showed that 38% of consumers prefer familiar mainstream brands when seeking a new flavor.

Better-for-you…and your taste buds

While consumers are more health-conscious, people still want to enjoy desserts, and this momentum toward healthier lifestyles is driving innovation in better-for-you (BFY) flavors throughout dessert and confectionary categories. Recent Mintel data shows that 29% of all consumers are willing to try a new dessert or candy if it offers BFY attributes, even if it has an undesirable texture, such as less creamy ice cream with lower fat content.

This shift toward BFY desserts is even more pronounced among younger consumers, who are  generally more attuned to health and wellness trends and more open to new foods that deliver BFY attributes. Millennials and Gen Z consumers are also more likely than other age groups to be influenced by flavors and ingredients seen on social media, providing a clear opportunity for food brands to connect with these consumers by touting the health benefits of desserts and confections.

A major change in recent years is the shift toward plant-based diets, which is impacting the dessert category as animal-sourced ingredients such as butter, eggs, milk and cream are replaced by plant-based alternatives. While these ingredients were initially introduced as a healthier option, the rising cost of dairy products and general economic pressure is encouraging the use of plant-based foods as a healthy, ethical and eco-friendly alternative.

The dessert category is even beginning to explore holistic wellness through functional ingredients, ranging from probiotics and vitamins to adaptogens and botanical substances that support sleep and gut health while reducing stress, improving mental clarity, immune health and more. While these functional ingredients are usually introduced to consumers in beverages, they are becoming increasingly prominent in BFY desserts ranging from baked goods to pudding, candy, frozen treats and others.  

Serving-up healthier desserts with flavor technology

Faced with evolving demands in desserts and confections, both food brands and restaurant operators are challenged with producing crave-worthy indulgent treats that still appeal to a wide range of consumers, while delivering on changing perceptions around health, economic uncertainty and more. The key to balancing these two disparate challenges is flavor technology​.

California-based T. Hasegawa USA​, the U.S. subsidiary of global top 10 flavor & fragrance company T. Hasegawa Co. Ltd. in Japan, is at the forefront of dessert flavor development. With decades of research & development crafting applications​ for some of the world’s top food and beverage brands, T. Hasegawa’s advanced technology and experienced flavorists have redefined the role of desserts and confections.

“As the industry evolves to reflect broadening consumer preferences, food and beverage brands rely on flavor technology to keep delivering great-tasting products, and desserts are no exception,” explained T. Hasegawa’s VP of research & development, Jim Yang. “Many of our newest innovations are aimed at providing clean-label, natural ways to maintain the robust flavor that consumers expect in foods – despite reducing or eliminating fat, sugar, dairy products or other ingredients to meet shifting consumer demands.”  

Many desserts and confections are dairy based, which provides a rich enjoyable creamy flavor profile. But as the consumers demand healthier formulations such as low-fat, low-calorie or  plant-based dairy alternatives, the industry is responding with technology aimed at naturally replicating the richness that whole milk or cream provides, without the use of dairy products or costly edible oils.

Recently, T. Hasegawa introduced an all-natural, plant-based EMULSITRACTTM​ milk colloid emulsion to the North American market. This advanced fat mimetic technology provides an effective solution for food and beverage brands that need to simulate the creaminess and rich mouthfeel of traditional whole milk in a wide range of products, including frozen desserts.

Emulsitract marks the latest in T. Hasegawa’s growing line of proprietary technologies aimed at providing a rich, full-bodied taste experience with improved mouthfeel. Last year, the company introduced BOOSTRACTTM​ to the North American market, which adds or enhances the effect of kokumi (or “rich taste” in Japanese) in foods and beverages. Both of T. Hasegawa’s new technologies improve mouthfeel, but Boostract is a flavor modifier that uses Maillard Reaction, while Emulsitract is an emulsifying agent that adds fatty acids to provide a creamy flavor profile.

Expanding the category through international flavors

According to Mintel research, younger Millennial and Gen Z consumers show a strong interest in unusual and international dessert and confection flavors that veer from the traditional chocolate​, vanilla​ and mainstream fruits​ that have dominated the category for decades. Diverse, unusual flavors and ingredients from Asian and Latin cuisines, such as Red Bean, Lychee, Tamarind, Tres Leches and Churro are being increasingly introduced alongside traditional flavors as a secondary ingredient in desserts.

Fruit flavors are the ideal pathway to innovation in BFY desserts and confections. Consumers already associate fruits like berries, bananas, apples and citrus with desserts, and the natural sweetness in most fruit allows for an indulgent treat without relying on added sugar and sweeteners. Younger consumers are increasingly interested in exotic international varieties such as passion fruit, lychee, dragon fruit, marionberry and tamarind, which provide a rich sweet flavor for a range of sorbets, ice creams, baked goods and confections.

Over the past year, Latin cuisine has played a growing role in new dessert products, as brands leverage key savory flavors like chilies, chipotle, cayenne and cinnamon in frozen desserts and gourmet chocolates.  Other dessert flavors such as tres leches – a sweet creamy dairy-based flavor used in Latin cuisine is rapidly becoming mainstream, with over half of consumers under 40 in a Mintel survey showing interest in trial. Asian-inspired flavors such as mochi, red bean and ube are becoming familiar to U.S. consumers and are a versatile ingredient in brownies, cakes, cookies and other baked desserts. Often, these ingredients are first introduced to consumers in foodservice applications before becoming mainstream in grocery products.

​The key to introducing these new flavors is keeping these desserts approachable,” explained Jeanene Martinez, director of applications at T. Hasegawa. “Pairing exotic, unconventional ingredients with well-established dessert flavors is an effective way to encourage new trial while still tapping into the nostalgia and comfort that consumers expect in desserts and confections. At T. Hasegawa we specialize in flavor applications that encourage exploration without sacrificing either creativity, or familiarity.”

The sweet future of desserts and confections

Regardless of changing consumer tastes and priorities, desserts and confections will always represent comfort and fun. It’s a category that simultaneously relies on familiarity while continually seeking out new flavors and ingredients that engage consumers. As we progress further from the pandemic, it’s likely that health will continue to be a focus for product development across all categories – including desserts and confections. 

“It’s an exciting time to be formulating in this category, because traditional flavors are being challenged by younger consumers with a much broader definition of desserts and confections,” added Martinez. “The industry is relying on flavor technology to drive product innovation and that’s giving us the opportunity to get creative, which we love to do.”

Food and beverage brands who are looking to take their dessert and confection​ product to the next level of flavor can explore the possibilities by contacting T. Hasegawa USA at​ or by calling (866) 965-0502.

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