Desserts and Confections

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

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.

By T. Hasegawa

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.

Chocolate pieces in a stack with chocolate sauce and an orange slice
Colorful Macarons
Multi-color confections
Soft and hard candies

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.

One of the world’s top flavor manufacturers is on a mission to reinvigorate the dips and sauces category with bold, high-quality flavors developed through advanced technology. California-based T. Hasegawa USA recently introduced several new technologies aimed at improving the flavor and taste experience of dips, sauces, dressings, marinades, condiments and more. Many of these technologies focus not only on producing a complex flavor profile, but also delivering the ultimate taste experience, including kokumi (Japanese for “Rich Taste”), which gives dips and sauces a full-bodied mouthfeel.

According to recent Mintel research, 37% of consumers enjoy desserts that offer a twist on the familiar
According to recent Mintel research, 46% of consumers like desserts that remind them of childhood, such as Birthday Cake and S’mores.
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.

2 women enjoying ice cream

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.

EmulsiTRACT Logo

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.

Boostract Logo

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.

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 development to the next level of flavor can explore the possibilities by contacting T. Hasegawa USA by calling (866) 965-0502.

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