Healthy desserts? Eating the gluten-free cake, too
Samantha Biljan
May 8, 2019

Over half of consumers have eaten dessert in the past day, despite intensified focus on healthy options like plant-based and functional foods, according to Datassential’s Dessert Keynote Report. But what if they don’t have to make a trade-off at all? Now brands are finding inventive ways to help satisfy consumers’ cravings for sweets and incorporating healthful adds. At the same time, the treats and flavors of yesteryear have seen a substantial rise, health callouts be damned. With all this to consider, where are we headed when it comes to "having our cake?" We’re diving into some insights from Datassential’s latest Keynote Report to find out.

Free-from and good for you

Limited-service restaurants are meeting the sweet demands of customers with dietary restrictions and ethical concerns alike. Over the past four years, coconut milk, vegan, dairy free, gluten free and vegetarian have seen triple digit growth on LSR dessert menus. When thinking about pie or cobbler, health-minded consumers deliberate most keenly on the crust and whether or not it is gluten-free. In particular, “free-from” descriptors skew strongly toward millennials. To illustrate the magnetism of the levelled-up-healthy trend, many turn to brands like Halo Top. The ice cream company markets itself as a “lifestyle” brand, and offers the sweet treat enriched with protein and maintains a low-calorie count using zero-calorie sweetener Stevia, along with cane sugar and sugar alcohol. While healthy ice cream may have seemed like an oxymoron in the past, Halo Top is proving that the two terms can go hand-in-hand. In fact, Halo Top became the best-selling ice cream pint at grocery stores in the US in June 2017 (beating out Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs). The company isn’t slowing down, now offering vegan and dairy-free options in trend-forward nostalgic flavors like birthday cake and oatmeal cookie. Ice cream newcomer Peekaboo gives health-minded customers an indulgent way to pack in some organic “veggies in every bite.” The brand keeps its item flavors classic (but with an added nutritional twist) with offerings like mint chip with (peekaboo!) spinach.

Cookies & classics

If the meteoric rise of Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar, with its famed birthday cake and cereal milkshakes, tells us anything, it’s that while plant-based and functional food are having their (fairly big) moment, there’s another macro trend to help bring yin to that yang: nostalgia, revamped. A whopping 52% of consumers crave classic desserts with a twist (think s’mores, birthday cake, banana splits, etc.). Even more operators (62%) are interested in this trend, and for good reason — familiar ingredients, like graham crackers and marshmallows, aren’t hard to source, but it’s creativity that changes the game. S’mores-inspired desserts alone have recorded a nearly fourfold increase in menu penetration. Another takeaway in a similar wheelhouse relies on the heavy lifting of familiar cookies as ingredients: desserts with cookie crumbs and crumbles have risen on menus 33% in the past decade. H&M Meats and Catering, based in Nampa, Idaho, features its gourmet s’mores bar with uniquely flavored handmade marshmallows by Fireside Mallow Co., its cookies and cream mallow flavor serving up two trends in one.

Gen Z goes global

While ice cream is by far the most loved frozen dessert item at 90%, inter-generationally, there are some distinct differences. Gen Z enjoys its frozen desserts with some global flair such as shaved ice, mochi, and Thai rolled ice cream. For a generation known to be more visually inclined and experiential in its dining habits, Thai rolled ice cream, with its real-time customization hits the mark. Legend Tasty House, located in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown, serves up Instagram-worthy creations until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights — perfect, as the prime time the youngest generation enjoys its frozen treats is during late-night snacking (42% of Gen Z consumes these items then). The generation also has a particularly high affinity for shaved ice, at 34%. Japanese kakigori is creamy and light, with a texture that comes from a finely-shaved, single block of ice. With its global influence, limitless customization (drizzle flavorings on top or blend syrups right in), and its shareability, kakigori hits the generation’s sweet spot.

Dessert for everyone

Strolling down your local grocery store aisle, you might be hard pressed not to find at least one item claiming itself to be a little kinder to your body than the rest. What’s taking shape now are items that push the envelope a little further by bringing functional benefits. Still, our capacity to enjoy the good old days through the classic flavors and textures of our favorite cookies in unique formats doesn’t have to be pushed aside by the gluten-frees of the world. Meanwhile, Gen Z is moved by the experience of it all (though the more global, the better). Certainly, as the numbers can attest, dessert has enough room to grow for everyone.

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Samantha Biljan is an analyst at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry.

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