Though most food and beverage categories have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, few have experienced the roller coaster ride of the indulgence market.
On one hand, consumers have a renewed interest in sweets and snacks, with almost 9 in 10 adults globally saying they’re snacking the same or more often during the pandemic than they were before it, according to a 2020 report on the state of snacking from Mondelēz International Inc. More than half even said snacking has been a “lifeline” for them during this time.
According to a recent desserts and confections report from Mintel, the uncertainty and disruption of 2020 and beyond left consumers turning to familiar and comforting products for emotional support. As a result, sales of chocolate, cookies and cookie dough, prepared cakes and pies, and non-chocolate confections all saw sales increases each year from 2018 to 2021. Another 2021 Mintel report revealed the same was true for salty snacks: Nearly 100% of households already consume these products, and one-third of snackers increased their consumption when at-home eating occasions spiked over the past two years.
But this isn’t the whole story. In addition to increased demand, the indulgence market is also seeing a major transformation as the pandemic slogs on.
According to John Powers, marketing director of snacking and baked goods at ADM, while people are certainly indulging more, they’re also beginning to shift away from purely impulsive decisions to more purposeful ones as they realize their quarantine treating habits are, in the long run, incompatible with healthy eating goals. In fact, data from The Hartman Group showed 6 in 10 consumers are now seeking what they consider to be healthy and nutritious snacks, rather than cutting them from their diets altogether in an effort to recalibrate.
“In the past, the desire to live a healthy lifestyle and enjoy indulgences may have caused internal conflict for consumers,” said Gary Augustine, vice president of marketing at Van Drunen Farms/FutureCeuticals. “Now, it seems like people are indulging more often, but in guilt-free ways. They are looking for claims like less sugar, natural fruit and vegetable ingredients, and nutritional and wellness benefits in their favorite confectionery and snack products. The key to resonating with consumers is to formulate products that are ‘guiltless’ guilty pleasures.”
Brands will find innumerable swaps are available, capable of transforming purely unhealthy snacks and sweets into acceptable indulgences. And, when done right, these swaps will largely find favor. “Consumers are much more likely to try something with a ‘twist’ from a more recognizable source,” assured Mathias Bohn, product portfolio manager at Sensient Flavors & Extracts. This opens the door for beloved snack and confectionery brands to substitute unwanted ingredients for better alternatives, and even boost formulations with functional ingredients.
According to the previously mentioned desserts and confections report from Mintel, consumers are transitioning into their post-pandemic lifestyles (even as variants continue to surge), and many are aspiring to make improvements to their diets. One significant way to cut some of the guilt associated with traditional “guilty pleasures” is to cut sugar—at least partially.
Proprietary ADM Outside Voice research showed that 8 out of 10 U.S. consumers are engaged in sugar reduction and, of those, about 80% find sugar reduction important for bars and snacks, 70% for baked goods, and 54% for chocolate and candy. In response, ingredient suppliers are stepping up to offer options that can decrease sugar content while maintaining the indulgent taste consumers expect, whether it’s easy swaps or pre-formulated sugar-alternative blends.
ADM’s SweetEdge toolbox was created to help product developers formulate appealing reduced-sugar treats, and includes ingredients like SweetRight Reduced Sugar Glucose Syrup (RSGS), which serves as a swap for traditional corn syrup.
At Batory Foods, Sweet Essentials is a blended swap for sugar, containing allulose, erythritol, stevia extract and steviol glycosides for “a simple, clean label, drop-in solution that functions and tastes like sugar,” shared Melissa Riddell, head of innovation and technical services.
Other simple swaps include BENEO’s Palatinose, a low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate from sugar beet, which has already made headway in the sports nutrition space as an alternative to sucrose. Kyle Krause, the company’s North American product manager of functional fibers and carbohydrates, suggested Palatinose can also be used in place of higher glycemic sugars in many snacks and baked goods since it provides a slow release of sustained energy without sacrificing the technical or sensory effects of sugar. And isomalt from BENEO (also made from sugar beet) can replace sugar, gram for gram, in most confections and snacks.
At Synergy Flavors Inc., allulose is trending for both confectionery and snacks. The “rare sugar” behaves like sugar, is a 1:1 replacement and is 70% as sweet, but is also low-calorie, appealing to consumers looking to make healthier choices. The downside? “Manufacturers use allulose to reduce calories and improve the product’s taste, but it’s a rare ingredient and availability is scarce,” explained Margaret Walther, applications specialist.
Other brands are meeting clean label trends with natural syrups. “Some of the simplest ways labels can be made cleaner and more attractive is removing some of the less customer-friendly sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and replacing them with brown rice syrup or tapioca syrup,” said Amy Targan, president of Malt Products Corp. “Similarly, sugar and brown sugar can be replaced with molasses-based sweeteners such as CaneRite Panela, which not only imparts similar sweetness as sugar but provides additional nutrients and complex flavor notes.” The company’s MaltRite (malted barley extract) and OatRite (oat extract) sweeteners lend a nutty, toasted flavor profile and are recognizable on the label, providing “positive, nostalgic and healthy associations with consumers at a time when comfort is key,” she added.
Paul Whitman, fruit and vegetable category manager for Global Organics, has noticed increased interest in chocolate sweetened with organic coconut sugar, which offers a low glycemic index (35 versus cane sugar’s 50) as well as a caramelized, brown sugar flavor that resonates well for the category.
The “Sweets & snacks: Formulating for the mindful consumer” digital magazine contains the full version of this article. Click the link to access it.
Melissa Kvidahl Reilly is a freelance writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering news and trends in the natural, organic and supplement markets. She lives and works in New Jersey.