Desserts have long since left the boundaries of chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry and cake, pie, or ice cream. Modern desserts include such ingredients as florals, figs, vinegars, alcohol reductions, and even normally savory or pungent elements like tahini and lemongrass.

Among the top food trends recently noted by research group Mintel are “less sweet” desserts featuring ingredients such as olive oil and rosé. From 2015 to 2018, Mintel showed a 16% increase in the use of olive oil as a flavor in desserts.

For some desserts, the exotic new is rooted in the past. For example, tahini (sesame paste) has been appearing in a number of new dessert applications. Soom Foods, LLC, reports that its classic tahini, and even moreso, its chocolate-flavored tahini, are in hot demand as an ingredient used in restaurant desserts, such as ice cream bars, milkshakes, and cakes. (All this sounds less strange when one considers that the Near and Middle Eastern countries have a centuries-old tradition in the honey-sweetened ground sesame dessert known as halvah.)

Another driver of the tahini trend has to do with the impact of allergen avoidance in food manufacturing. Tahini can be used in place of peanut butter in nearly any recipe calling for the latter. Developers should note, however, that like peanut butter and other nut butters, tahini is a concentrated source of calories.

Where there’s tahini, can hummus be far behind? The chickpea spread also is lending itself to sweet offerings. Hummus & Pita Co. offers hummus in flavors such as chocolate, cookie dough, and pumpkin spice. As these desserts fill many consumer demands for sweet, exotic, gluten-free, non-GMO, and, for the most part, healthful attributes, we can expect to see a lot more such creations hitting the shelves.

“We always try to anticipate trends,” admits Jean-Yves Charon, pastry chef and co-founder of Galaxy Desserts, Inc., one of the largest manufacturers in the world of brioche and macarons. “For example, fifteen years ago we started making French macarons. Today, we make a million macarons a day.”

While spotting opportunities in the market can lead a company to success and growth, no matter how intriguing a particular trend is, certain fundamentals are always important in developing a successful dessert product. Flavor, simplicity, and attractiveness will give a good dessert — no matter how exotic — staying power. “I don’t think flavors that really push the boundaries can last,” says Charon. “Bacon desserts have dwindled in the past few years, and, whatever happened to glitter cappuccinos? Consumers will try [anything unusual], but then the novelty wears off and people go back to what they know.”


Hand to Hand

One of the obstacles manufacturers face when riding the wave of a new food trend is consistency during product development and initial rollout. This is especially true of desserts, which can lose a great deal of flavor and texture when made in large batches. Charon’s long experience with product consistency has helped Galaxy, where volume is a must, avoid such deficits.

“It’s impossible for us to make small amounts because we’re equipped for large volume,” explains Charon. “But in some ways, consistency is easier with mass production, because the recipe must be more scientific. Specs are critical. You need to constantly check the flour’s texture, check the pH of the chocolate, use a refractometer to measure the density of syrups and the viscosity of your chocolate — in the world of pastry and mass production, science is still king.”

Other directions dessert makers are taking in reimagining the category include concepting more individualized approaches. “The dessert category is definitely in the spotlight when it comes to eggs,” says Elisa Maloberti, director of the American Egg Board. “Dessert is a favorite category among Millennials and Gen Zs,” she says. Maloberti points to a 2018 study conducted by The Center for Generational Kinetics on behalf of The Hershey Co. The study found that 87% of Gen Z “thinks about dessert one or more times a day.”

This generation also likes to share sweet indulgences with friends over social media. Moreover, the demographic boasts $44 billion in buying power, according to a 2017 NPD Group research study. But it’s not just young consumers driving trends. The category is influenced by overarching market trends, such as clean label, transparency, sustainability, health, wellness, and convenience. “This manifests itself in a variety of ways,” says Maloberti. “For example, smaller portions — think, mug cakes — and ingredient selection, such as artisan grains. These drive quality and such items as made-on-demand desserts.” Maloberti also brings up the inescapable indulgence factor: “If I’m going to have dessert, I want it to be worth the calories. So, make it good!”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the 72 million or so baby boomers are making their own marks on the dessert category. Jennie Schacht, a cookbook author and culinary consultant, points to the ways this older generation is influencing trends.

“Aging boomers are worrying about climbing rates of diabetes and other health challenges,” she notes. “I often hear about people wanting to cut down on their intake of refined sugar and starches.” Schacht believes this will lead to a continuing increase in the use of whole and artisan grains in baking, as well as desserts sweetened with fruit and honey, among other alternatives. “Not so long ago, recipes in this arena were difficult to find,” she says. “Now, it’s a vibrant area, as reflected in a wealth of blogs, cookbooks, and products.”

As does Charon, Schacht believes that the classics may be reinvented, but will never go out of style. A perfect example of this is the pavlova Schacht recreated as an ice cream sandwich for her cookbook, “i scream SANDWICH.” Since Schacht released her book, the ice cream sandwich trend has experienced a significant rise, with companies such as Cream Inc. and Farchitecture BB, LLC’s Coolhaus opening stores — and selling product to supermarkets — on a national level.


Sweet for the Sweets

The greatest challenge to today’s dessert crafters is meeting demands for reduced sugar. After all, the whole idea of dessert is to provide a sweet ending to a meal. When it comes to sugar alternatives, today’s consumers are tempering their love for sugary foods. A recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) study found that 76% of respondents were trying to limit or avoid sugars in general. The IFIC survey also found that six in 10 respondents view added sugars negatively.

Lifestyle trends that are focused on healthier choices and “clean” eating, coupled with regulatory mandates and media messaging linking excessive sugar consumption to health concerns, are some of the key influencers driving the growing demand for sugar-reduction solutions. Inc.’s Whole Foods Market Inc. recently made some predictions about where the sweet future is taking us, “without so much sugar.” According to the company’s 2019 trends report, (luo han guo), the extract of monk fruit that’s about 200 times as sweet as sucrose will be used as a sweetener to replace added sugars in some of the company’s product lines.

Fruit-sweetened products, too, are part of the company’s plan for sugar reduction in desserts. In the coming year, Whole Foods and its 365 Everyday Value brands will launch a limited collection of sweet products inspired by Pacific Rim fruits, including a mango pudding mix and passionfruit coconut frozen fruit bars.

Still, sucrose plays an important role in making confections. It’s needed for creating crisp cookies, moist cakes, and silky ice creams. Developing these types of desserts with less sugar or using sugar replacements can be challenging. 

The sweetness of sugar can be more easily replicated than the textures and nuances it provides. In addition to monk fruit, stevia is enjoying increasing use as ingredient technologists improve masking off-flavor notes from the leaf-derived sweetener that is also several hundred times as sweet as sucrose.

Hitting that sweet spot with a high-intensity sweetener like stevia or monk fruit won’t make up for the loss of bulk or functionality that sugar provides. For reduced-sugar bakery products, overcoming sensory differences can be accomplished with careful formulation using blends of stevia and another ingredient.

Commonly, these blends include erythritol and chicory root fiber. These bulking agents help deliver the tenderness and mouthfeel consumers expect in bakery applications, and can successfully replace the functionality of sugar. Moreover, they are cost-efficient.

Other sweeteners and texturizers in common usage for sugar replacements include native starches, reduced-sugar corn syrups, corn syrup solids, maltodextrins, and others. Allulose, a monosaccharide similar in structure to fructose and possessing about 70% of the sweetness, is a new competitor among alternative sweeteners. At only about 5% the caloric value of sucrose, the flavor is a close match and it boasts no aftertaste. Allulose also can form the browning Maillard reaction, important in baked confections.

By carefully using ingredient combinations, product developers can easily achieve a 25-30% reduction in sugar. That’s enough to make a reduced-sugar label claim, desirable to many consumers.

For frozen desserts such as ice cream, sugar is what lowers the freezing point and prevents the formation of large ice crystals, creating that smooth, silky texture expected in a premium ice cream. This can be challenging when reducing or replacing sugar. However, erythritol has been shown to work well in this capacity. It has a small molecular size — about one-third that of sucrose — so it yields a threefold freezing-point depression factor. Greater freezing-point depression such as erythritol provides softens reduced-sugar ice creams, ensuring a scoopable texture, while helping to replace sugar’s bulking aspects.


Amber Waves

While replacing sugar can be a significant obstacle in designing desserts, displacing white wheat flour from its prime position in baked goods also requires its own complement of considerations. As noted by Galaxy’s Charon, creating and adhering to specs is markedly critical in batch dessert production, and this is especially the case when working within the current crush of gluten-free and non-GMO demands.

Artisan grains are standing in for white flour in a variety of desserts, and this trend is not expected to diminish soon. According to the Whole Grains Council, part of the Oldways Preservation Trust, whole grains have been in vogue for a number of years and will remain so.

Chefs and bakers focus on the culinary benefits of flours and other ingredients from non-mainstream grains, while consumers have become more attuned to them for other attributes, such as nutrition, sustainability, and for many of them, non-GMO status. Grains such as rye and sorghum are on the rise and are being incorporated into more desserts than ever before.

“The prevalence of sorghum in food products has increased four-fold over the past six years,” states Kelly Toups, RDN, director of nutrition for Oldways. “This rise in popularity can be attributed to several factors. Sorghum is naturally gluten-free, and it’s grown from traditional hybrid seeds, so it’s non-GMO.”

There are a variety of dessert applications for which sorghum (and other artisan grains) can be used. The ratio of sorghum flour that can be successfully added to a recipe is typically 15-20%. Adding too much can cause baked goods to crumble. 

To help prevent crumbling, egg or a starch (such as cornstarch) can be added to help bind the flour and prevent crumbling. This should be done at a ratio of 8g starch to 120g flour.

Other artisan grains, depending on the application, can be a little less technically demanding. This is best accomplished by making the idiosyncrasies of the grain work for you. 

For example, a dessert “granola” at b. pâtisserie in San Francisco uses a heritage strain of red wheat for its distinctly hearty flavor and texture.

The pastry chef at Bien Cuit in Brooklyn incorporates buckwheat — not a true wheat, so it’s gluten-free — into salted chocolate shortbreads with thyme. The toasty notes of buckwheat bridge the savory notes of thyme and salt, enhancing the depth of flavors within the cookies. Most importantly, buckwheat flour can replace 100% of the all-purpose flour in most recipes without negatively affecting texture or appearance.


Eggs and Chocolate

Along with sugar and flour, another core ingredient in desserts is the highly versatile egg. The Egg Board’s Maloberti notes that the health focus is a positive thing for some standard baking ingredients, such as eggs. “Eggs are truly an ideal ingredient for contemporary desserts,” she explains. “They’re a single ingredient with incredible functionality that support a clean label.”

Eggs have always been an important ingredient in baked goods because of their flavor and high functionality, facilitating leavening, browning, structure, and texture. “Eggs can help provide tenderness, airiness, or chewiness in a baked dessert,” she says. “And for gluten-free treats, eggs help improve mouthfeel by positively affecting crumb quality, dough rheology, volume, texture, and moisture content.”

Another major ingredient influencing dessert trends is chocolate. It’s the workhorse of the pastry kitchen. Always a favorite in desserts, little has changed until the recent creation of Ruby chocolate, a type of chocolate made from the ruby cocoa bean. The variety has been under development since 2004 but was only introduced to the market in September 2017 and was not available for sale to consumers until 2018.

Ruby chocolate has a sweet-tart taste, with little of the cocoa flavor traditionally associated with other varieties of chocolate. The production methods are currently a trade secret, but the manufacturer stresses the lack of any genetic modification. There is speculation that the chocolate is made with unfermented cocoa beans, which naturally have a reddish color.

Desserts will continue to evolve and entice. And while developers will try to keep up with the trends, success will remain in focusing on the purpose desserts serve: to bring sweetness and comfort, with a little (or a lot) of indulgence to a meal’s finale.