Consumers seek to reward their taste buds but without the guilt when opting for dessert.Consumers seek to reward their taste buds but without the guilt when opting for dessert.

Today’s consumers are taking a more thoughtful and measured approach to desserts than they have in the past.

While desserts loaded with sugar and calories are still popular, many consumers are opting instead for desserts which offer a rewarding taste profile without the excess indulgence. They are gravitating toward smaller portions, shared items and desserts that are formulated in ways that meet their definition of being better-for-you, with fresh, local ingredients and minimally processed additives.

These are the attributes of the “new dessert” — a treat that meets the needs of today’s thoughtful diners by addressing concerns about ingredient sourcing and nutrition.

“Consumers know more about food now than they ever knew before,” says Christine Couvelier, founder of consulting firm Culinary Concierge. “They are aware of calories, and they are aware of sugar content. Even if they don’t have the data, they are aware when something looks like it is going to be a little more overboard than they want to have.”

While research indicates that consumers have relaxed their attitudes about fat consumption, added sugar remains one of the ingredients that many still seek to avoid. Nearly a quarter — 22 percent — of Americans say they are taking steps to reduce their sugar intake, according to Nielsen research. In addition, more than half — 56 percent — say they are willing to pay more for food and beverages that don’t contain undesirable ingredients.

Dessert of the Future

The phenomenon of the “new dessert” is not a passing fad but is instead a lasting change in the way desserts will be regarded in the future, says Couvelier. Just as more and more restaurants have added gluten-free and dairy-free options for their customers, they will also increasingly provide desserts that respond to consumers’ other concerns about health, she says.

“I think you are going to expect to see healthier dessert options,” says Couvelier. “They could be smaller portions, or they could be made with healthier ingredients, but you are going to expect to see them as a choice.”

Baked desserts made with ancient grains are one better-for-you alternative that is increasingly showing up on menus, according to some observers, and Couvelier notes that using descriptors such as “artisan-made” also helps convey attributes that appeal to today’s consumers. Similarly, desserts featuring citrus flavors or savory ingredients can also convey a more healthful alternative for consumers seeking to satisfy their sweet tooth without overdoing it.

Following are some examples of the “new dessert” evolution:

No Sugar Added

Some restaurants have embraced desserts that tout “no sugar added” to appeal to consumers’ concerns about sugar intake.

Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery, for example, introduced no-sugar-added pies in 1992 after numerous requests from customers, especially those suffering from diabetes, says Jim Cottle, manager of food and beverage/research and development at the chain.

“The customer response has been overwhelmingly positive.” he says. “It was very important to us that we remained true to our pie quality when developing these pies, and our guest feedback shows that we did. There is very little difference in flavor profile between our original Apple and Razzleberry pies and the no-sugar added Apple and Razzleberry pies.”

Several restaurants at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, also carry a no-sugar-added dessert option, such as a no-sugar-added carrot cake with cheesecake icing, caramel ice cream and walnuts at the Yachtsman Steakhouse, and a no-sugar-added strawberry shortcake at The Turf Club Bar and Grill.

Mini and Shared Desserts

Starbucks has helped turn mini desserts into an anytime phenomenon with items such as its popular Petite Vanilla Bean Scones, which weigh in at about 120 calories, with 8 grams of sugar, and it appears to be a trend that has legs.

While many restaurant operators have begun offering downsized, single-serving desserts, perhaps a more popular trend is shareable desserts, such as the interactive Zen S’mores at West Hollywood, California-based Sushi Roku.

The do-it-yourself dessert includes crushed graham crackers, green tea and chocolate truffles, marshmallow cream, and a fire for roasting marshmallows.

“Sharing a dessert makes people feel like they are eating much less, so they are more inclined to order it when they are looking to cut back on desserts,” says Justin Leyvas, general manager of Sushi Roku in Pasadena, California.

Citrus in Desserts

Incorporating citrus flavors and ingredients into a dessert is another way to give customers an option which they perceive as being lighter.

“The perception consumers have when they see citrus on the menu is that it’s fresh; it’s light and it’s healthier,” says Couvelier. “If you offer a citrus sauce on a dessert, for example, people might think, ‘OK, I’m not going overboard. I am having something that’s healthy.’”

Citrus is an ingredient commonly used in Asian-influenced desserts, such as the L’orange Cake at Jin Patisserie in Culver City, California, which pastry chef Kristy Choo makes with soft orange sponge cake, blood orange cream, apricot compote and almond crumble.

“We are also seeing many more light-flavored desserts, with things like edible flowers and flavored honey,” says Couvelier.

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The ‘New Dessert’ is Not a Passing Fad