While the successful merger that is a "healthy dessert" does occasionally occur — think of now-ubiquitous frozen yogurt — the bottom of the great divide is littered with failures that seemed so perfect when they made the jump (e.g., candy bars laced with concentrated polyphenols, high-fiber ice cream or flax-and-quinoa cookies).
The dessert items receiving the brunt of healthy treatments certainly would be baked goods, such as cakes and cookies. "For some people, the idea of a healthy dessert is a misnomer, but I think the incorporation of ingredients such as whole grains can readily make them healthier," says Aaron Clanton, baking curriculum manager at Manhattan, Kan.-based American Institute of Baking (AIB). "But these ingredients do change the baking aspects of products -- such as the mixing -- so processes and formulas need to be adjusted."
The challenge to adding whole grain ingredients to desserts is to keep the familiar texture. Ultragrain from ConAgra Mills, Omaha, Neb., is a "white" whole-grain flour from a proprietary variety of wheat specially grown to have a sweeter, milder taste and lighter color than conventional wheat and wheat flour products.
Via advanced milling technology, Ultragrain flour maintains a mild taste and creates its smooth texture while still preserving the content of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, as well as vitamins and minerals typical of whole-wheat bran and germ. These nutritive components are not found in refined flours. The combination makes Ultragrain a whole grain product with the taste, look and texture properties of refined flour.
Including whole grains enhances the nutrient density of desserts as does increasing fiber content. Another ConAgra whole grain, Sustagrain Barley, relies on a unique macronutrient composition for its health "sell." More than half of its carbohydrate content is composed of dietary fiber, with 40 percent of that fiber content in the form of beta glucans. This form of fiber has a proven cholesterol-lowering effect. At around three times the total dietary and soluble fiber of conventional whole-grain flours, Sustagrain Barley has a low starch content and is designed for boosting the fiber of formulations rather than the bulk.
Lowering calories-per-weight has proven to be a good way of creating healthier desserts, and fiber is an effective medium. SunOpta Inc., Minnetonka, Minn., offers a family of insoluble fibers from sources such as oat, soy and pea as well as multi-fiber blends. "All of these fibers can be used to create healthier desserts such as cakes and brownies, or dessert components such as pie crust, granola or crumb toppings," says Cathy Peterson, group vice president of applications and technical services. "Some have a soft enough texture and small enough particle size to be used to increase dietary fiber levels in creamy formulations such as cheesecake or in fruit toppings."
Adding fiber and water reduces the caloric density of the dessert, allowing the consumer to indulge in the serving size she is accustomed to rather than accepting a reduced portion size to reduce calories. "Insoluble fibers are virtually calorie-free and are excellent ingredients for reducing calories," continues Peterson. "Incorporating Canadian Harvest or SunOpta fibers into a brownie formula, for example, can reduce the calories by 20 to 30 percent without sacrificing the indulgent characteristics of the brownie."
Typically the biggest risk in employing fiber-based low-fat or fat-free ingredients is losing the indulgent, creamy texture fat provides. SunOpta also makes Barley Balance, a concentrated form of barley beta glucan designed to create hearth-healthy products. It also can be used at lower levels — as little as 1 percent — to improve the texture and mouthfeel of reduced-fat baked goods and other desserts. The soft gel that is created by the Barley Balance mimics the structure of fat and can increase the moistness and creaminess of products.
Sweet and low
While sweeteners have always been a big trend in healthier desserts, a lot of them fall short in performance when it comes to baking formulations. Simply put, many low- and no-cal sweeteners just can't provide the bulk many baked goods need. Even a natural sweetener such as stevia is limited, in this case because at 300 times the flavor intensity of sugar, it can't replace sucrose ounce for ounce.
McNeil Nutritionals (and supplier Tate & Lyle) solved the bulking and browning problems in part by mixing sucralose 50-50 with sugar and introducing Splenda Sugar Blend for home baking.
Similarly, a new trend among stevia suppliers is partnering with sugar refiners. PureCircle announced at July's IFT Food Expo a collaboration with Imperial Sugar Co. Natural Sweet Ventures LLC is the resulting joint venture, and the product portfolio is called Steviacane. The result will be a number of blends of stevia with cane sugar for, among other markets, bakery and desserts. A month earlier, GLG Life Tech Corp. inked a similar deal with Grupo Azucarero Mexico, the largest non-governmental sugar marketer in Mexico, which is expected to result in similar sugar-stevia blends.
Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., well known for vanilla, recently tackled the problem of masking stevia-sweetened products. The system works especially well with dairy-based desserts, masking the "bitter, licorice-like and astringent notes" that can accompany stevia, according to the company.
Inulin is a natural low-calorie carbohydrate that also can be used effectively in dessert manufacturing and has a dual advantage in that it provides both lower calories and prebiotic benefit. "Extracted from chicory root, inulin and oligofructose ingredients are among the world's most researched prebiotics," says Joseph O'Neill, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Beneo Inc., Morris Plains, N.J. "They are proven to selectively nourish and stimulate beneficial microorganisms called bifidobacteria in the colon, promoting digestive health and function while helping the body absorb more essential nutrients and minerals, such as calcium."
According to O'Neill, Orafti's inulin ingredients can be used in low-fat frozen desserts while maintaining the typical fat-like creamy texture. "The fat replacement is based on the particle gel properties of inulin, which mimic fat droplets, resulting in mouth-coating, mouthfeel and creaminess. Oligofructose can be applied in an ice cream formulation to replace syrups or sugars. Although its sweetness level is lower than sugar, when combined with zero-cal sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame K, sucralose or stevia, it gives a well-balanced sweetness profile similar to that of sugar."
If adding fibers improves the "per calorie" side of the equation, increasing protein content ups the nutrient portion for increased nutrient density. "Solae has several isolated soy proteins to select from in order to formulate a healthy dessert," says David Welsby, research fellow at Solae LLC, St. Louis.
Protein, however, can be tricky to use in products that need a light texture. According to Welsby, as protein concentration rises (up to as much as 12 percent of the formula), the texturizing components of the formula have to be modified to take into account the thickening effect of high protein. At these levels of protein, other ingredients, such as refined carbohydrates and fats, are displaced from the recipe – which does reduce calories and allow the final product to be suited for weight-management and diabetic formulations.
"High levels of soy make it easy to reach the necessary amount for the soy heart-health claim, even at relatively small serving sizes," continues Welsby. "The first and key step for successful manufacturing is correct hydration of the soy protein. Incorrectly hydrated soy protein will not provide the functional properties required for the dessert. Poorly hydrated protein has poor emulsification properties and can result in emulsion breakdown and fat separation. In addition, incorrectly hydrated protein can lead to chalky or sandy mouthfeel."
"In the case of a dry blended dessert, it's critical to get the correct dispersion of the ingredient in water, in addition to good flavor release and a good mouthfeel sensation," adds Alejandra Gonzalez, senior research investigator at Solae. "For ready-to-drink desserts, protein and fiber selection is also very important. Texture, flavor and good dispersion, too, are important characteristics to keep in mind to get a good healthy dessert."
Fruit gets functional
Functional ingredients in the form of "superfruits" have become a popular way to pump up nutrient density while adding taste, color and texture to desserts. But not all superfruits have to come from the Amazon.
Among today's hottest ingredients are tart cherries, the ones you stuff into pies. Cherries contain strong antioxidants called anthocyanins (responsible for the bright red color), which also have anti-inflammatory properties that can help protect muscles and joints before a workout and reduce exercise pain afterward.
According to the Cherry Marketing Institute, Lansing, Mich., tart cherries are becoming recognized as a functional superfruit -- so much so that Nestlé made whole, dried Montmorency Tart Cherries only the second new fruit in more than 80 years to be drenched in pure Nestlé dark chocolate and added to the company's successful Raisinets family of healthy snacks (cranberry was the other new Raisinet).
Speaking of cranberries, the tart little fruit continues to break out of its seasonal constraints to find wider application in sweet formulations year round.
"Cranberries are being added to a variety of desserts for several reasons," says John Wankewicz, director of marketing for Carver, Mass.-based Decas Cranberry Products Inc. "They have a unique red color, a wonderful tart taste and are an excellent source of antioxidants. But best of all, cranberries are very process tolerant. They do not ‘bleed' and are well-recognized by consumers as a ‘good for you fruit."
"This year, food product developers are using blueberries to rev up interest in offerings from beauty-from-within foods to health-halo desserts, confections and snacks," says the U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council. "Cultivated blueberries have become almost synonymous with good health. Thanks to all the good news about antioxidants and health benefits, blueberries have a place at the forefront of the superfruit mystique. The simple act [of including them] in the ingredient mix is used to certify the healthy attributes of a product."
Make mine chocolate…with vanilla
"Vanilla is often a natural way of helping you eat what's good for you," says Dan Fox, director of sales for Waukegan, Ill.-based Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc. "That's why it's in so many nutritious -- but otherwise not always tasty -- energy bars and soy-based beverages.
"Pure vanilla will mask those off notes. In the case of something truly good tasting and nutritious, it will enhance those flavors, especially all those fresh fruits you're putting in your smoothie," he adds. Vanilla also is known to enhance chocolate to such a degree testing has shown stronger consumer preference for chocolate that has a slight vanilla undertone than chocolate without.
If there's anything that says dessert, it's chocolate, and with the latest research showing chocolate to be a rich source of antioxidant flavanoids, it's something we can all feel good about. But even chocolate needs a little help when it comes to taste, and while vanilla helps, other opportunities lie in malt-based enhancers.
"Desserts made with milk chocolate benefit from the addition of malt extract because it adds another dimension of flavor and helps balance the bittersweet flavor of the chocolate," says Judie Giebel, technical services representative for Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, Wis.
Briess' malt extracts are made without additives, allowing for a clean label. The base starches are converted to sugars via the natural enzymes available in the malted barley. "Because malt extract comes in many flavors and colors -- from intense malty flavor to sweet caramel-like flavor – it offers a variety of formulating options for different types of desserts. And malt extract imparts sweetness that comes from a natural source: barley."
But malt ingredients function beyond simple flavor enhancement. "All-natural, whole-grain malted barley flours and malted wheat flakes used in cookie and muffin recipes add flavor and color," she explains. "Because malting preserves all of the natural fiber and nutrients of the raw barley, whole-grain malted barley flours help attain nutritional claims too."
The trend toward healthier desserts is going to continue to pick up speed. An analysis by Innova Market Insights, Duiven, Netherlands, investigated global positioning of chilled desserts launched in 2009. The report found 30 percent of newly launched products in the category were positioned based on health characteristics that included: no preservatives, low calorie, low cholesterol, gluten-free and vitamin/mineral fortified -- or on lifestyle choices such as vegetarian. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too?