Better-for-You Treats That Taste Great Too? We’ll Show You How
Better-for-You Treats That Taste Great Too? We’ll Show You How
When Americans decide to eat a treat, one thing matters above all others: how it tastes. That’s because people primarily eat treats to satisfy cravings (49%) and to indulge (49%). Indeed, Datassential’s Dessert Keynote Report found that no other motivator even comes close.
Although consumers don’t expect the treats they eat to be calorie-free—or to go toe-to-toe nutritionally with vegetables—they still have high expectations. Recently, 45% of Americans said they care more about the healthfulness of their food choices compared with 10 years ago, according to the 2022 International Food Information Council (IFIC)’s Food and Health Survey.
“Nearly all consumers connect what they eat to their overall health,” says Marie Molde, a registered dietitian and account executive for client solutions at Datassential. “What that means for operators is a chance to create better-for-you options everywhere on the menu—even desserts.”
Those options might include a treat with wholesome ingredients, one that makes creative use of a trending ingredient like turmeric or elderberry or one that latches onto the growing interest in vegan or gluten-free foods. “A successful food road map includes ingredients that are flavorful, sustainable, ethical, increasingly functional or plant-forward,” says Chef Mike Buononato, a menu developer for Mars Foodservices.
Here’s how to put those trends into action.
Free-From and Plant-Forward
One way people are upping their nutrition game these days is by eating more plant-based food. According to Datassential, more than half (57%) of consumers are trying to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and about one-third (32%) plan to boost their intake of plant-based meat substitutes and dairy alternatives.
But that doesn’t mean Americans are solely eating vegan or vegetarian. Instead, people are making plant-forward choices because they consider these foods healthier. When asked to compare two hypothetical food products with the same nutrition facts label, 45% of IFIC survey respondents said the one that’s “plant-based” would be healthier.
In fact, the fastest-growing claims on menus of the past several years are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free, Molde says. Vegan desserts alone have grown sixfold on menus in the last 10 years, Datassential research shows.
This doesn’t mean operators need to address every one of these trends, Buononato says. But Molde believes the “free-from” and plant-forward trends are likely here to stay—and that it pays to experiment. (Dairy Queen did just that with one of its menu staples by launching a Vegan Dilly Bar made with vegan coconut cream and covered in nondairy chocolate, for example.)
Although many menu items are already naturally gluten-free, vegan or dairy-free—or feature fresh ingredients like fruit and herbs—Molde says it’s good to take the extra step to call it out on product descriptions and marketing materials so that consumers seeking such attributes don’t have to work so hard to find treats that meet their needs.
Clean Label and Functional Ingredients
Unlike decades ago, a treat doesn’t have to be low-fat, low-sugar or low-calorie for consumers to feel permission to indulge. “People are less concerned with macronutrients and calories, understanding that not all calories are equal, and that fat doesn’t need to be demonized like it once was,” Molde explains.
The focus today is more on functional nutrition—namely, “looking to food and beverages to do something for us.” Molde says, whether it’s boosting our moods, benefiting our gut health or improving our sleep.
When a consumer is looking for a better-for-you treat option, the presence of ingredients like turmeric that have added health benefits “can make a treat feel more like a permissible indulgence,” Molde says. She points to tart cherries as an example, noting that 70% of consumers would feel better about purchasing an indulgent food if it contained the ingredient.
Interest in functional foods isn’t new, but since the start of the pandemic, one-third of Americans have been consuming functional food and beverages daily, according to Kalsec, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based producer of natural food and beverage extracts. That presents a chance to call out the health benefits of individual ingredients like stress-relieving lavender or good-for-the-gut (and gluten-free) oats.
Raw honey, elderberry, ginseng and goji are all trending sweet-leaning functional ingredients on menus, according to Datassential.
Fruit as a pie topping or mix-in for ice cream or dessert beverages is also quite popular, says Monica Auslander Moreno, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami. Look no further than Baskin Robbins’ Mangonada frozen drink, for example, which capitalizes on these trends with its mango base and dash of savory chamoy, a Mexican condiment typically made from sour fruit, chilies and lime juice.
Many consumers also are seeking out clean label foods—those with simpler, less processed and more understandable ingredients.
Answering that call, Mars Foodservices announced that DOVE® Dark Chocolate is and “made from five simple ingredients: chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, milkfat and natural flavor,” Buononato says, making it the perfect functional ingredient for operators menuing new, better-for-you treats.
Go Small for Big Results
What’s in a treat isn’t all that matters. The size of that treat also can determine whether a consumer buys it. Although some people are still wowed by a slice of cake the size of a dinner plate, research from Datassential’s Desserts Keynote report shows 4 out of 5 (82%) of consumers are interested in mini desserts, which is significantly more than consumer interest in jumbo desserts (57%). In addition, “bite-sized” is now a top 10 menu description, experiencing 30% growth over the last four years according to Datassential’s SNAP! “Desserts” January 2020.
At the same time, 80% of consumers agree that healthy eating is about balance rather than cutting out certain foods. In those cases, a smaller size treat allows them to satisfy a craving without overdoing it.
Other ways to grab consumers' interest include experimenting with top-trending functional ingredients, returning to simple ingredients like butter and cocoa, and leaving room for a “twist” that sets you apart from other eateries, Buononato says. When in doubt, lean on fruit and chocolate.
“The key is to let the consumer know what’s in it, what makes it special and, most of all, why they should try it right now,” Buononato says.
Mars Health & Wellness Pledge
Mars Wrigley is evolving with today’s consumer. Research from Datassential shows that 46% of Americans want to reduce their sugar consumption and 1 in 3 are cutting back on portion sizes.
So, as of September 2021, Mars required branded menu items to include one size at all customer locations that complied with our new global policy:
- Baked goods: Equal to or less than than 50 grams of added sugar and equal to or less than 250 calories.
- Ice cream: Equal to or less than 50 grams added sugar.
Together, we are helping customers enjoy choice—and enjoy more.
Get inspiration for on-trend, better-for-you desserts—such as Banana Split Mini Shakes and PB&J Bars—in our recipe library.