Despite all the talk of diets and obesity, of nutrients and health, one thing is certain; we will eat sweets. And we should! Desserts and confections can be readily compatible with health and healthy weight.
The focus on healthier sweets once focused solely on removal of fat and scaling down portions. The results were rarely in keeping with the theme of an indulgent treat. But several ingredient paradigms for re-making sweet-tooth satisfiers are becoming the coin of the dessert realm.
Fruit has always been both a stand-in for sugar and an indicator of health. The latter all the more since high-antioxidant fruits became stars. Today, however, the impetus is keeping fruit real.
"Blueberries seem to be ubiquitous in desserts and other sweet things these days," says Tom Payne, industry specialist for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif. "Food processors, bakers and chefs use real blueberries in a range of dessert applications, from baked goods, fillings and toppings to sauces, frozen novelties and healthy treats."
Their color, taste and nutritional profile make blueberries an attractive addition to any dessert formulation.
Payne notes that because consumers identify blueberries as irrefutably beneficial, they actively seek them. "Consumers see blueberries as a value-added ingredient because they are linked to heart health, anti-aging properties, cancer prevention, improved eyesight and better memory," he adds. Blueberries and other purple and red fruits manage this via a variety of phytochemicals -- such as anthocyanins, resveratrol, flavonols and tannins, which act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds -- plus fiber, minerals, folate and a wealth of vitamins.
The best thing is, fruit is an ingredient class consumers associate equally with highly favorable flavor. Processors can enhance this dual level of acceptance when used in clever applications. Notes Payne, "Blueberries provide an acidic note that adds the perfect accent to rich desserts, chocolate and otherwise. With fruity, burst-in-the-mouth flavor, blueberries give products lush taste, broad appeal and a clean label."
Fruits such as blueberries "find a ready market in every demographic, from those concerned about childhood obesity to adult interest in health-perpetuating lifestyle and eating habits. Even in this challenging economy, these concerns bode well for ingredients consumers view as good for them," says Payne.
Which also explains why other common berries and fruits are becoming more popular: In a down economy, they are inexpensive and provide "retro" comfort.
Botanicals grow sweet
The sugar-swap method of cutting calories while maintaining cravability has been one of the hardest to employ. Basically, zero- and low-calorie sugar substitutes fail to make confections that can successfully mimic their high-cal counterparts. The arrival of stevia was supposed to change that, but because the natural sweetener is about 300 times as powerful as sugar, it's difficult to use in baked dessert formulations that also rely on sugar for its bulking effect. But even in other applications, stevia did not hold up well to heat, leaving products with a bitter aftertaste.
Blue California's purified rebaudioside A (reb-A), Good&Sweet, is a zero-calorie natural sweetener that can be used in a variety of food products and applications that require heats of up to 385°F. "Good&Sweet is preferred by consumers [and is especially important] for children's treats, pastries, chocolates, etc.," says Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president at Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. "Because of its high purity — greater than 99 percent — it offers the best taste possible from reb-A.
PureCircle's stevia product, SG95, also is finding application in desserts and confections. Lisa Drawer, global marketing director for PureCircle's U.S. distributor, Premium Ingredients International, Carol Stream, Ill., points to SG95's stability at multiple pH levels and wide temperature ranges.
"Its high purity composition of nine sweet steviol glycosides is ideal for sugar reduction," she says "In confections, we've found it can replace up to 20 percent of the caloric content from sugar, and in bakery items up to a 35 percent reduction. These characteristics make it a lot easier to work through flavor formulation and masking." Processors still will have to adjust for the difference in bulking, however.
New, natural, low-calorie sweeteners are available that function in a dual capacity to compensate for some of the bulking effect. The CereSweet line, from Grain Millers Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn., is a sweetener derived from certified organically grown oat varieties via a proprietary enzymatic process. About 60 percent as sweet as sugar, CereSweet #30 is sucrose-free and can work as a fat replacer and sweetness enhancer in baked goods. CereSweet #40 is 35-40 percent maltose (a disaccharide composed of two glucose sugars) that can be used as a sweetener in breads, pastries and even low-fat ice creams — its high maltose content minimizes crystallization.
Milk, dark or progressive?
That pinnacle of sweet indulgence, chocolate, has enjoyed an increase in popularity ever since it was found to be "good for you." Cocoa contains high levels of antioxidants like epicatechin, a flavanoid linked to cardiovascular health, and studies show dark chocolate in moderation may lower LDL cholesterol.
But it's also taken on social health as well, with a huge jump in the use of fair trade and organic marketing. In an increasingly common paradigm, it's the boutique manufacturers leading the way.
With most cocoa coming from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil and Cameroon, there's a lot of poverty and child labor behind that delicious crop. Fair trade is a big issue in chocolate, as well as coffee, tea and some fruits. The Fair Trade Federation lists as "the sweetest" chocolate companies Sweet Earth Chocolates, Equal Exchange and Divine Chocolate. They're "most committed to sustainability and improving the livelihoods of cocoa farmers globally."
Agostoni Chocolate in March began offering probiotic-containing chocolate mini-disks as an inclusion or private label product. The probiotic is GanedenBC30.
Products from NibMor Chocolates, Huntington, N.Y., "are 100 percent USDA organic, contain no refined sugars, are dairy free, gluten free and are non-GMO," says Heather Terry, vice president of product development. Small-operation chocolatiers center their competitive spirit on appealing to the global-health side of marketable ingredients, and they employ that with surprising success.
Boulder, Colo.-based Justin's Nut Butter, which makes organic peanut butter cups, has recurrent social health campaigns, donating large portion of gross sales to non-profit charities such as Conscious Alliance.
Operations like Katherine Anne Confections, Chicago, carve out healthy wholesale and retail niches through use of organic ingredients and novel sweeteners, such as "local wildflower honey." Adds NibMor's Terry, "Our bars, which come in four flavors, are sweetened with agave nectar, coconut palm sugar and maple sugar. These are full of trace vitamins and minerals such as magnesium and potassium. Maple sugar is also higher in calcium."
Alternate ingredients also can tie into the groundswell of allergen avoidance – consumers allergic to gluten or peanuts. Another new Boulder, Colo., "peanut butter cup" crafter avoids peanuts for sunflower seed butter. Seth Ellis Chocolatier makes these aptly named "Sun Cups" as well as other boutique specialty chocolates.
"We think of healthier desserts and confections in terms of different sources of sugar and more nutritious fats, but coloring naturally is equally important," says Mark Goldschmidt, technical director for Sensient Colors, Milwaukee. "There's mounting interest in natural colors for confections so premium confection brand developers are interested in natural colors as they search for ways to deliver claims and have more simplified ingredient statements to highlight the benefits of their products, including the use of natural ingredients."
According to Goldschmidt, more mainstream confection brands are considering natural colors for line extensions or re-branding efforts to achieve such natural claims, something already commonplace in the EU.
"In contrast to beverage applications, confection products have a very low water activity," he continues. "An environment low in water activity allows for enhanced stability. A challenge exists in that liquid natural flavors are comprised of polyethylene glycol, glycerine or high amounts of acid. This composition is not friendly to confection products that require panning."
Natural colors for confectionary products by Chr. Hansen, New Berlin, Wis., come in both water- and oil-soluble formats, with the latter able to be customized for fat-based desserts. Typically, natural colors of yellow, red, green and violet can be sourced via turmeric, natural carotene, carmine, chlorophyll and anthocyanin -- but also caramel and carbo vegetabilis, a vegetable-based natural charcoal, are used. The company has a confectionery pilot plant in operation to help processors derive solutions for naturally coloring desserts and sweets.
For red colors, another source of natural colorant comes via adding superhealthy superfruit powders. Decas Botanicals Synergies, Carver, Mass., has enjoyed success in supplying vibrant reds from cranberries and other berries while imparting sweet-tart flavors to baked applications and fruit-based confections. All while significantly raising health profiles of products with high antioxidant profiles.
Bonbon or pill?
The boundary between confection and functional food has been blurring lately. When companies such as McNeil Nutritionals, Ft. Washington Pa., released Viactiv, a calcium-infused chocolate fudge chew, the gates flew open for such purpose-driven sweets.
Adora Chocolate calcium supplements flipped the paradigm by coming not from a big pharmaceutical manufacturer like McNeil but from Thompson Chocolates Inc., now Thompson Brands, a 130-year-old, Meriden Ct.-based boutique chocolatier.
An even bigger push came with the release of a probiotic chocolate bar from San Francisco-based Attune Foods. "The key to making this digestive-health product a hit was the use of high-grade, confectionary-quality chocolate and packaging it in a familiar, chocolate bar shape," says Annelies Zijderveld, a communications director for the Attune family of companies. And, of course, Attune associates on multiple levels with community and health and social awareness issues.
If the antioxidant-rich blueberry and pomegranate ingredients don't grab you, the probiotics in this frozen yogurt will.
How about some probiotics in your dessert? Ganeden Labs' patented bacteria strain GanedenBC30 is a spore-forming probiotic bacterium, meaning that inside the bacterial cell is a hardened structure, or spore that safeguards the cell's genetic material from the heat and pressure of manufacturing processes. As a result, BC30 has been added to chocolate (via an Agostoni Chocolate private label product) and to frozen desserts (via Pierre's Ice Cream Co.'s Yovation frozen yogurt).
As one of the most important health-building ingredients studied, omega oils have been high on everyone's list of must-adds. But this posed a problem for confectioners. Even the most stringent purification has left enough off-taste in some omega ingredients to be anathema to sweets. Who wants a fishy chocolate cookie, after all? But as purification and encapsulation technology has improved, the ability to add omegas to dessert items has gained both capability and attraction.
Omega Protein Corp., Houston, makes a super-refined, long-chain omega-3 in a balanced EPA and DHA fish oil ingredient: OmegaPure. It's stabilized with antioxidant blends based on rosemary and vitamin E as tocopherol. The solution provides for both oxidative stability and a clean label and is suitable for bakery products, confectionary and dairy-based desserts.
Taking it a step further into sweet indulgence territory, the company formed a partnership with New Braunfels, Texas-based Custom Ingredients Ltd. to develop the OmegaBits line of bits made from all-natural flavor concentrates with omega-3 fatty acids. Chocolate and yogurt toppings have been added in order to include coated grains and small clusters specifically customized to allow for varying textures, appearance and "flavor bursts."
The customization extends to accommodating particular nutritional requirements and can encompass combinations of nuts, seeds, fruit concentrates or powders and even be certified organic.
There is more than ample evidence that consumers are buying in with gusto the notion of desserts and confections that bring a healthy boost to their lives.