Meeting formulation challenges and keeping up with the trends means a bit of multi-tasking for the savvy baked goods manufacturer. So, with “multi-trends” in the marketplace, multi-tasking has become second nature.

New cracker products have emerged as the benchmark for baked good introductions. In fact, according to Datamonitor, crackers’ 10.8% new product growth in 2011 easily surpassed the performance of other baked goods sectors. Next closest was “cakes and pastries plus morning goods,” whose flat performance was good enough for second best among growth in baked good launches. New cookie introductions dipped by 19.5%, and new breads and rolls decreased by 19.4% in 2011, as compared with 2010.

Recent innovative baked goods launches have managed to blend health, convenience and even indulgence. WhoNu?, for example, are nutrition-rich cookies nearly identical to Kraft’s Oreos; however, the Suncore Products Inc. treat promises “as much calcium and vitamin D as an 8oz glass of milk, with as much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries.”

While most cookie introductions are less blatantly nutritious, a pair of claims has allowed manufacturers to market their products under a certain halo of healthiness. “Whole grains” and “all-natural” have health connotations among consumers, and manufacturers have turned to each—and sometimes both—to differentiate their products on store shelves. As Mintel has found, consumers are drawn to the claims. In the U.S., 46% of consumers regard whole grains as important in a cookie, with 51% believing all-natural to be an important factor. Similarly, cracker consumers seek these claims: 40% are interested in all-natural crackers and 45% in whole-grain options, per Mintel’s “Cookies and Cookie Bars—U.S.—April 2012” and “Crackers—U.S.—March 2011.”

At the same time, the ancient grains utilized in whole-grain applications allow manufacturers to benefit from another positioning that has seen a boom in recent years: allergen-free labeling, as many of these grains are inherently free of gluten. HomeFree cookies, for instance, are organic, chocolate chip cookies, and are a source of whole grains, low in sodium, and free of trans fats, peanuts, eggs, dairy and gluten.

While the use of whole grains may open the door to certain claims, manufacturers should be aware that consumers remain confused about the nature of whole grains, in and of themselves. A General Mills survey in 2010 found only 16% of consumers recognized that the terms “enriched flour,” “100% wheat” and “multigrain” were not synonymous with products containing whole grains. For that matter, General Mills found 17% of consumers believed whole grains were always organic, while 28% failed to comprehend the difference between whole grains and enriched grains.

Haves vs. Have-nots

Regardless, recent research suggests manufacturers would be better served by noting what their products have, rather than what they are missing. In 2010, Datamonitor surveyed consumers and found 63% of those in the U.S. are more interested in what they should eat, rather than what they should avoid. A 2011 Datamonitor survey seemed to echo that sentiment globally, as 61% of consumers believe nutrition experts contradict each other—and, often, themselves—over what is healthy at any given time.

Amid that consumer climate, what are consumers looking to find in their baked goods? The aforementioned Mintel reports found that, in the U.S., some 86% of consumers shop for flavor when selecting a cookie; 58% are looking for products made with real fruit and/or nuts; and 39% want premium/gourmet or “artisanal” attributes, i.e., high-quality ingredients. (A similar regard for flavor choice compels cracker purchasers, according to Mintel: 85% of U.S. consumers indicate they buy crackers based on the flavor of the cracker by itself; 83% do so based on their familiarity with the flavor or type of cracker.)

Considering the importance of flavor upon consumer purchase behavior, manufacturers would be well-advised to look to complementary categories for flavor inspirations when launching new baked goods, particularly in the cookie and cracker segment. Coffee and teas, for instance, have been very active segments, each benefiting from a wealth of positive health news.

Biscottea’s Biscoffee Espresso Shortbread is a prime example of how these flavors have been pulled into baked goods. The shortbread is made with organic, fair trade coffee sourced from Brazil, Ethiopia, Mexico and Peru, and promises “the aroma and flavor of a full-bodied espresso in each buttery square.” The line also features Earl Grey Tea (with spicy, floral notes, blending Darjeeling with the citrus aroma of bergamot and shortbread), Chai Spice Tea, Rooibos, Mint Tea and Mocha Coffee varieties of shortbread. For that matter, the Rooibos Shortbread variety could well benefit from the proven antioxidant properties of the Rooibos plant, another healthy attribute that could carry over into baked goods and provide, at the least, a beneficial aura. Furthermore, it suggests the potential for other, similar efforts, perhaps with green tea as a basis.

In fact, other health-focused, yet indulgent, areas could serve as inspiration for the baked goods category. Health-oriented innovation in yogurt, ice cream and candies could lead to probiotic-enhanced baked goods or even items bearing benefits similar to sports drinks. Orlando True Grains Wheat Bread, for instance, features probiotic cultures to support digestive health and help maintain the immune system, and Orlando Baking Co. has added to the line with New Seed’licious 100% whole-wheat probiotic bread. The bread blends fiber, omega-3s and probiotic cultures and joins True Grains’ other new offering, a Honey Wheat variety.

While sports drinks might not seem like an ideal source of inspiration for baked goods, keep in mind this has been a segment strongly positioned toward male consumers, a group that could benefit most from a nutritious, energizing breakfast, judging by survey data. 

Not Just for Breakfast

Breakfast has long been touted as the most important meal of the day, but time-pressed consumers have only recently begun to take notice and adjust their consumption habits. A nationwide StrategyOne survey found 61% of American adults regard breakfast as the most important meal of the day, though only 48% actually eat breakfast every day. Among those who do eat breakfast daily, men appear to get more out of their breakfast, per StrategyOne; 53% of men feel more productive after breakfast vs. 44% of women sharing that sentiment. In fact, a Kraft Foods survey found 63% of all Americans admit they sometimes feel low on energy in the morning, with less than half of them eating breakfast at all every day.

A variety of convenient options, many promising to promote good health, have been assisting consumers in their endeavors. In launching belVita, Kraft was quick to note the product was developed specifically with these tired consumers in mind.

“There is a tension in the morning: Americans know they should eat breakfast, yet they often don’t have the time,” explains Janda Lukin, director of innovation at Kraft Foods. The belVita product promises sustained energy to fuel the body for the whole morning; according to the company, “the sustained energy release results from a combination of carefully selected ingredients and a special baking process that helps preserve the integrity of the grain so that the carbohydrates are slowly released into the body.”

The belVita brand is Kraft Foods’ biggest cracker brand in the UK (garnering £27.7 million in sales in 2011, per Datamonitor), and its 2012 debut in the U.S. has proven similarly successful, judging by early sales data. The product, available in three flavors (Apple Cinnamon, Blueberry and Golden Oat), promises 18g of whole grains in each serving, as well as 3g of fiber and 10% of the major B vitamins, but no high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors or sweeteners.

Similarly lacking in HFCS and trans fats, Oatmeal Toasters is an effort by Nature’s Own to offer consumers a quick take on breakfast. Available in cinnamon-raisin or cranberry-orange varieties, Oatmeal Toasters, described as a cross between a bagel and breakfast bread, are whole-grain squares packed with real oats and sweet fruits, promising 20g of whole grains and 4g of fiber per serving.

For baked goods attempting to go the more healthful route, or at least trying to position themselves as such, a recent review published in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology explored the role of sodium chloride in baked goods. Researchers at Technology University of Munich have suggested a “global consideration of the detailed effect of a comprehensive range of NaCl (sodium chloride) on the main flour component (starch and protein).” They continue by noting the presence of “less favorable sodium-free salt alternatives on the market and that increased basic knowledge on sodium reduction is need[ed] to develop new sodium substitutes or mixtures with comparable rheological, technological and sensory qualities.”

“As salted, yeast-leavened products are a major source of dietary sodium, the baking industry needs to explore ways to reduce sodium in its products,” researchers said. “However, the replacement of sodium chloride in food is complex, in particular in yeast-leavened products. Therefore, the impact of sodium chloride on shelflife, rheology and technological attributes, as well as on the sensory quality of yeast-leavened products, needs to be understood.”

Consumers have shown a distinct interest in sodium-free offerings, prompted by numerous studies linking sodium consumption with heart problems, non-cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure. Furthermore, the amount of sodium in the average processed food is sizable; cereal products, alone, can account for more than a quarter of the daily recommended amount of sodium per serving. Innovations in baked goods that can reduce sodium levels, and account for the variety of other consumer demands, up to and including flavor and taste, might seem like the Holy Grail to product developers. But, consumers increasingly expect more out of their processed foods.

HomeFree Cookies might have been tailored for consumers looking for a lack of allergens (peanuts, eggs, gluten and dairy among them), but their real selling point could prove to be whole grains and low-sodium positioning.