Building Healthier Desserts

Processors have been trying for nearly a generation to bridge the gulf between the reality of dessert and the concept of health.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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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?

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