Better-for-You Treats That Taste Great Too? We’ll Show You How

May 12, 2021
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 the runaway reasons people eat a treat in the first place is to satisfy a craving (49%) and to indulge (49%). Indeed, (opens in new tab)Datassential’s 2019 Desserts' Sweet Spot SNAP! 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 broccoli—they still have high expectations. Last year, 54% of Americans said they care more about the healthfulness of their food choices compared to 10 years ago, according to the (opens in new tab)International Food Information Council (IFIC)’s 2020 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 for 2021 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. Among consumers surveyed by IFIC in April 2020, 28% reported they’re getting more protein from plant sources, 24% are eating more plant-based dairy and 17% are eating more plant-based meat alternatives.

But that doesn’t mean Americans are solely eating vegan or vegetarian. Just 12% of plant-based purchasers described themselves as vegetarian, (opens in new tab)according to The Hartman Group’s Food & Technology 2019 report.

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, 43% 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 six-fold 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. (Last year, Dairy Queen did just that with one of its menu staples by launching a (opens in new tab)Vegan Dilly Bar made with vegan coconut cream and covered in non-dairy 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.

Eating less added sugar is still on 3 in 4 consumer’s minds, IFIC found, but most (60%) have cut down on sugar by drinking water instead of sugary beverages. Only 22% said they’ve reduced sugar by eating or drinking sugar-free options.

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 (opens in new tab)turmeric that have added health benefits “can make a treat feel more like a permissible indulgence,” Molde says. She points to (opens in new tab)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, (opens in new tab)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.

(opens in new tab)Tastewise’s 2021 Flavor Innovation Guide, meanwhile, reports that echinacea, nectarine, citrus and peppermint are among the sweet-leaning functional ingredients attracting the most consumer interest in the past year.

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 (opens in new tab)Baskin Robbins’ new 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. In fact, 35% of consumers (opens in new tab)surveyed by Mintel in April 2020 said the healthiest ice cream is the one with the simplest ingredients.

Answering that call, Mars Foodservices announced that DOVE® Dark Chocolate is now clean label 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, (opens in new tab)Research conducted by The NPD Group shows that smaller-sized treats actually sell better. Notably, small sizes accounted for 42.6% of frozen treat purchases in 2019; only 8.9% of purchases were for large treats.

At the same time, (opens in new tab)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. As (opens in new tab)Technomic’s fall 2020 menu development concept survey revealed, two of the year’s highest scoring limited time offer treats —Popeyes’ Strawberry Cheesecake Pie and Redstone American Grill’s Chocolate Whipped Cream Cake with fresh strawberries—leveraged both ingredients.

“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.

From a birthday cake boom to a coffee craze, these are the top treat trends to try on your menu.