How to Build a Healthier Dessert

With fat, sugar and calories on the outs, wise manufacturers are building healthy indulgences through clever application of current ingredient and technology trends.

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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There was never a specific aversion to the idea of a healthful sweet. Consumers merely expect their desserts and confections to deliver on the indulgence factor completely and unequivocally.

Historically, that translated to two main ingredients: fat and sugar. This created nearly insurmountable challenges to manufacturers wanting to create and fulfill demand for healthier versions of cake, ice cream, chocolate bars and other treats meant to reward us after a stressful day or even following the hard labor of polishing off dinner.

Processors today are creating healthful sweets that truly satisfy, and consumers are digging in with gusto. Most approach the challenge from one (or all) of three main directions: reduce portion size, recreate the original masterpiece in lower-calorie form or acknowledge the high-calorie nature of a sweet and strive to give it added value in the form of nutraceutical ingredients that make the extravagance doubly worthwhile.

Danisco Bioactives (, Madison, Wis., is promoting the last approach. In late August it announced applications for its Howaru probiotic in ice cream. To raise awareness of the product development potential, the ingredient supplier developed three frozen dessert concepts: a peach frozen yogurt, a strawberry cultured ice cream and probiotic-containing vanilla ice cream, all containing an effective dose of Howaru probiotics.

“Although there have been many technical advancements that can aid in delivering delicious desserts, it remains very challenging to swap key ingredients for others with healthier benefits while still delivering on all the taste and texture expectations,” says Stephanie Lynch, business development director for the health and wellness, nutritional and pharmaceutical industries at Virginia Dare (, Brooklyn, N.Y. “Some healthy ingredients can introduce off notes in the finished product’s flavor that detract from the full enjoyment and taste. The use of masking flavors addresses off notes and ensures a tasty product.”

When using what once were “suffer for the health of it” elements such as whole wheat flour, processors today draw on new technologies that bring those thorny ingredients in from the cold.

“One of our biggest challenges is using whole grains, which we like to incorporate into our cookies but which also can impact texture and flavor,” says Nicole Dawes, president of Late July Organic Snacks (, Barnstable, Mass. “I believe strongly that if you’re eating a cookie, you’re doing so because you want something indulgent and satisfying. I want to add these kinds of [healthful] ingredients but without affecting that aspect.”

Dawes says solving such issues involves “constant R&D -- we’re constantly tweaking formulas,” she explains. “Being organic, we can’t really use any processing ‘aids’ such as dough conditioners. Our arsenal is much smaller than [manufacturers of] conventional products, so we opt for techniques over additives.”


Gum Technology Ingredients
Gum-based ingredients can replace fat in many dessert applications.

Dawes has kept on the crest of healthful indulgence trends through other innovations. Combining her awareness of increased consumer attention to ingredient sources and the welcome science behind healthfulness of dark chocolate, she did something unique: She became her own chocolatier, calling this approach “reverse innovation.”

“We make the chocolate first. We created our own blend of pure chocolate, not cocoa and shortening — we use real ingredients.” Late July makes a genuine dark chocolate from scratch — cocoa butter, cocoa “liquor” (not the aperitif but the liquid mass from the cocoa nibs), cocoa solids and pure vanilla.

“Dark chocolate has been very popular for us,” Dawes says. “It has a loyal and passionate following, and is indulgent and delicious. Yet it also has antioxidants and fiber. In fact, our chocolate cookies have as much dietary fiber as a granola bar, purely from the flour and the dark chocolate.”

The skinny on replacers 

“Over the past two or three years, we’ve found ourselves working more on reduced-fat desserts,” says Joshua Brooks, vice president of sales and marketing for Gum Technology Corp. (, Tucson, Ariz. The company provides ingredients such as Coyote Brand CKX-Fat Replacer to impart desired mouthfeel and texture, which normally would have come from fat. “Besides providing mouthfeel, the system is a very effective moisture binder and therefore reduces staling,” he adds.

For dairy applications, Gum Technology designed its Coyote Brand Dairy Fat Replacer, which although similar to its CKX-Fat Replacer as an aid to improve mouthfeel and body, incorporates sodium alginate to prevent weeping in desserts such as low-fat mousses.

Paul Levitan, president/CEO of Galaxy Desserts Inc. (, Richmond, Calif., stresses the quality issue is critical when building a low-calorie version of a favorite treat. “Making a dessert healthier must involve using satisfying, high-quality ingredients and processes versus a lot of fillers like air or lower-calorie bulking agents,” he says.

“Consumers want to feel satiated after eating a dessert, and when you eat a large bowl of whipped air posing as ice cream, that won’t happen,” he says. Galaxy provides both ready-made high-end desserts in petit-four size as well as ingredients for processors creating their own decadent fare.

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