Let them eat cake: Better-for-you claims on sweet treats such as baked goods and confections are an added value that may be too good to resist

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 24, Issue 10

Advances in food technology have made the idea of healthy indulgences possible.

The old cliché of wanting to have your cake and eat it too is alive and well. People love their sweets, but they are growing out of love with sugar. Or they want that delicious pastry to do more than satisfy their sweet tooth. Luckily, advances in food technology have made healthy indulgences possible.

According to Innova Market Insights, over half of consumers globally indicate that the reason they buy a sweet treat such as confections, or baked goods such as cookies, is simply because they taste good. The number two reason is to treat oneself; however, 10% of consumers globally say they buy a sweet treat because it is healthy. But what does “healthy” mean?

“Looking specifically at the health claims, ‘gluten free’ is the top health claim [globally] within the sweet treats category, followed by ‘sugar free’ and ‘high/source of fiber,’” says Lu Ann Williams, co-founder and global insights director at Innova Market Insights. “[Globally], the ‘low/no/reduced carb’ claim is the fastest growing health claim within the sweet treats category, with an average annual growth of +39%. Within the U.S., ‘gluten free’ is also the top claim; however, it is followed by ‘high fructose corn syrup free’ and ‘high/source of protein.’ The ‘low/no/reduced carb’ claim in the U.S. is also the fastest growing health claim within the sweet treats category.”

There is definitely an active desire to make these guilty pleasures less guilty. On the other hand, compromising flavor is not really an option.

“Sugar reduction is an important concern, but taste is always paramount,” explains Amy Targan, president of Malt Products Corp. (Saddle Brook, NJ), a manufacturer of malted barley extract, oat extract, and other natural, nutritious sweeteners. Ingredient suppliers such as Malt Products Corp. provide potential solutions for product formulators looking to reduce or replace sugar in their products.

“Reducing sugar in a product by incorporating sugar alternatives, such as sugar alcohols, can be very problematic for flavor, as these substances tend to have unpleasant aftertastes. The sugar profiles in Malt Products’ extracts can mask this aftertaste and therefore make sugar alternatives a viable ingredient,” says Targan. “Customers are also becoming more aware of the various types of natural sugars and their healthful attributes. Maltose, for example, which is present in malt extract, provides better energy for muscles than glucose or fructose. Customers may learn to appreciate different sugar profiles and thereby be less concerned about ‘sugar content’ expressed as a single number.”

Besides claims like “sugar free” or “reduced sugar,” savvy consumers may be looking for specific alternative sweeteners that they believe to be superior from a health standpoint.

The desire for products with “high protein” claims also demonstrates that consumers want more out of a sweet treat than a sugar high, and manufacturers are taking notice. “Malt Products’ oat and malt extracts contain naturally occurring plant proteins. This distinguishes these ingredients from cane sugar and artificial sweeteners. An inclusion rate of 15% malt extract raises the protein level of the finished product by about 1%,” says Targan. “Our customers who are interested in protein content, such as makers of energy bars, certainly take advantage of this added protein to maximize their label claims.”

The health innovation doesn’t have to stop there. One potential area that may add value in this space is mood and stress support. During the pandemic, many people have been turning to botanical ingredients to ease their stress and positively impact their mood. This has a certain synergy with sweet treats because they offer comfort to the consumer as well. “Whereas mood-related claims [globally] are only applied in a small number of sweet treat products, most of these claims are targeting ‘happiness,’” says Williams. “The subcategory ‘sweet biscuits/cookies’ is where most of these mood claims are applied.”

Many ingredient suppliers of herbs such as ashwagandha are actively developing and offering solutions that allow product formulators to incorporate these herbal ingredients into foods. For example, Kerry Group (Beloit, WI), which recently acquired Natreon Inc. (New Brunswick, NJ), maker of Sensoril ashwagandha, is actively pursuing the functional food and beverages space, leveraging its capabilities in taste and texture to help clients create optimal products.

And, of course, it always comes back to indulgence. The taste and flavor company Virginia Dare (Brooklyn, NY) notes the powerful trend of nostalgic flavors and the emotional attachment consumers have to certain sweet flavor profiles like funnel cake or mint chocolate cookies. So, what are we waiting for?