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How to Build a Healthier Dessert

Oct. 2, 2009
With fat, sugar and calories on the outs, wise manufacturers are building healthy indulgences through clever application of current ingredient and technology trends.

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 (www.howaru.com), 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 (www.virginiadare.com), 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 (www.latejuly.com), 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-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. (www.gumtech.com), 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. (www.galaxydesserts.com), 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.

John Namy, vice president of applications at Kerry Ingredients & Flavors (www.kerryingredients.com), Beloit, Wis., concurs and lists the formidable challenges processors encounter. “Some of the technical and ingredient challenges include: matching sweetness levels, textures and mouthfeel; choosing appropriate fat replacers and bulking agents; layering levels of flavor; substituting healthy alternative ingredients; and creating innovative, appealing healthy dessert concepts.”

He says the challenges of developing healthier desserts are delivering on a multitude of senses, being creative and innovative as well as visually appealing and having bold flavors and textures that meet high expectations.

To solve those three challenges, Namy says he turns to “functional” ingredient forms of fat and sugar replacers, emulsifiers, bulkers and stabilizers, plus trendy ingredients such as live and active cultures. “We also use low-fat, no-sugar-added (NSA) dairy and non-dairy ingredients for ice cream, yogurt, whipped toppings, bakery products, dessert toppings, fillings and compound coatings,” he adds.

Ice cream poses the strongest challenge because of its premier position as a “reward” indulgence. Consumers take some sweets seriously enough to make the risk of disappointment particularly high. 

Improving the profile of ice cream is a challenge because of its purely indulgent status. Ben & Jerry’s does it by lowering the fat of the ice cream but keeping the indulgent mix-ins.

“The challenge for Ben & Jerry’s is delivering the indulgence of our original, full-fat ice creams in a ‘better for you’ concept,” says Arnold Carbone, conductor of Bizzare & D (yes, that’s his real title!) for Ben & Jerry’s Inc. (www.benjerry.com), South Burlington, Vt., now a unit of Unilever.

“Sugar and cream play important roles in delivering a great ice cream texture, mouthfeel and flavor, but they also add calories and fat,” he continues. “In our light ice cream and frozen yogurts we’ve been able cut the fat and calories in the ice cream and deliver on indulgence through the use of alternative sweeteners and natural ingredients, while still formulating with the same decadent add-ins in the original full-fat recipes.”

Angie Muether, associate R&D director for Decatur, Ill.-based Tate & Lyle Americas (www.tateandlyle.com), acknowledges opportunities for both reduced calories and functionality. “Healthy indulgence is a growing trend [so] we work closely with manufacturers to reformulate desserts for a healthier profile,” she says. “This can include reducing calories and sugar [but also] adding functional ingredients, like fiber.”

The company’s Promitor line of soluble corn fiber can be incorporated into desserts allowing a reduction in sugars and calories while improving the nutritive value by adding fiber. For ice-cream and frozen desserts, Tate & Lyle makes Sta-Lite polydextrose, both a soluble fiber and a partial replacement for sugar, reducing calories by providing only 1 kcal/g compared to 4 from sugar.

Dessert flavors as passports

“There are three primary trends we see in dessert occasions relating to flavor: Looking at the past to see the future, using food as a passport for experience of authenticity and thinking pure through fewer ingredients and flavors,” says Mia Arcieri, market manager for FONA International Inc. (www.fona.com), Geneva, Ill.

“As consumers treat themselves, they demand innovative flavor pairings combined with traditional and familiar chocolate, vanilla and caramel flavors. Consumers want a simple yet elegant taste of happiness to remember days past, and the staple classics forge the way.”

She points to four tiers of such dessert flavor trends noted by FONA and based on research by Mintel International Group Ltd. (www.mintel.com), Chicago: Comfort (such as s’mores, PB&J and caramel), Fruit (such as blood orange, passionfruit and açai) Herbal (such as ginger and chai tea) and Spicy(for example, chipotle).

Fruit, flavor and fresh

Despite the urge to “add value” (and ingredients), “thinking pure through fewer ingredients and flavors” is one of the trends being carefully monitored by many processors, according to Mia Arcieri, market manager at Fona International Inc. (www.fona.com), Geneva, Ill.

The “fewer ingredients” trend has, naturally, been a huge test of processors’ ingenuity. Luckily, frozen treats are well-suited to take advantage of this trend. Witness Häagen Dazs’ recent line of five-ingredient ice cream products.

“When people see a whole story in place of a simple list of ingredients they worry, especially when they stumble across ingredients they’re not aware of,” says Steven Tselios, director of Greek Gods (www.3greekgods.com), Mount Lake Terrace, Wash. “We keep it simple and use ingredients that are readily recognizable.”

For its honey pomegranate, baklava and chocolate fig-flavored premium ice creams, the company uses organic milk, unprocessed sugar, pure pomegranate juice, real honey, natural chocolate and unsulfured figs — all naturally sourced.

Even for Olympian deities, it wasn’t easy to create such uniquely flavored ice creams. “One of the problems is when you combine honey with milk products, it tends to break down,” says Tselios. “We used different techniques in mixing to solve those problems. The product melts a little faster because of the honey, but our solution was to tell consumers to eat it more quickly — that not only keeps it natural but acts as a reassurance these are wholesome, natural ingredients.”

Sambazon, part ingredient supplier and part food and beverage processor, made açai a household word, proving it’s possible to pull the trifecta of healthful, indulgent and trendy by relying on fruit. “I believe products will continue to evolve that have more healthy components like antioxidants, healthy omega oils and vitamins,” says Jeremy Black, vice president of the San Clemente, Calif., Sambazon (www.sambazon.com). “Our organic açai sorbet has become one of the best selling sorbets in natural foods stores nationwide because people love eating something that looks, feels and tastes like ice cream but is good for you.”

The focus on fresh fruit is likely to only grow as a trend. “We see antioxidant fruit ingredients such as açai, cranberry, pomegranate and blueberry being used more and more in desserts and sweet beverages,” seconds Emilio Gutierrez, vice president of technical services for BI Nutraceuticals (www.botanicals.com), Long Beach, Calif. “They help the product promote a healthy image and they also provide a great point of differentiation.”

As with ice cream and other frozen desserts, that other American classic, fruit-flavored gelatin, is experiencing a renaissance. As a long-recognized comfort sweet without guilt, even this naturally healthy dessert category need a little help when keeping up with trends. 

Gelatins traditionally have been healthful, but acidulant adipic acid can bring out fruit flavors to make the dessert more exciting.

“For many consumers, gelatin desserts deliver a great-tasting and low-fat treat,” says Barbara Heidolph, the technical service principal for food phosphates at ICL Performance Products LP (www.icl-perfproductslp.com), St. Louis. “For formulators, the question is how to introduce new and exciting flavors.”

Fruit being the typical flavor for this category, Heidolph describes adipic acid as the “perfect acidulant alternative because it allows for a clean flavor palate so every flavor — from tropicals to conventional grape — can have a true, natural taste.”

Bake it to make it

Some of the key considerations for baked products are proof times, volume (i.e., bulk density), bake time, final color, texture and flavor, according to Sarah Staley, vice president of business development for Chicago-based Friesland Foods Domo USA Inc. (www.domo.nl). “The big challenge for desserts is delivering on the expectation of a good-tasting, indulgent product while combating the formulation issues from the reduction or replacement of certain components, specifically fat and sugar,” she explains.

Christine Law, product developer at San Francisco-based FullBloom Baking Co., laments the loss of shelf stability when fat and sugar are removed. “We make all natural and organic desserts, with ingredient labels consumers can actually read and understand, so our choices are limited when it comes to preserving our healthful items for extended shelf life requirements.”

“Another growing market in which customers need help is the gluten-free bakery market,” adds Gum Technology’s Brooks. For gluten-free baked products, the company developed its Coyote Brand ST-101 stabilizer to replace the elasticity and mouthfeel, which would have been provided by gluten in such products as muffins and cakes. It also improves crumb structure and, as an all-natural hydrocolloid system, its use is suited for products being marketed as such.

Aida Prenzno, laboratory director for Gum Technology, points to a similar demand for replacers for the emulsion stabilizer propylene glycol alginate. The company created its pectin- and cellulose gum-based PGA replacements specifically for use as stabilizers in applications such as whipped toppings, cakes and glazes.

Can-do Candy

Of course, often a sweet treat can be as basic as a piece of chocolate. And chocolate certainly has diversified since the simple milk chocolate bar of the past. Chocolate has created a lot of news in the past year or so.

Look to the Future

Portion control is becoming a key weapon in America’s battle with obesity. But even this solution is not without some thorny issues.

As debate continues into the creation of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, portion size is coming under scrutiny. While most of the concerns are about canned and bottled soft drinks, debate may well spill into other food categories, desserts and candy bars included.

And while 100-calorie packs have been lauded as a solution, there also are studies finding consumers will eat two or more 100-calorie “single” serving packets to feel satisfied. But Paul Levitan, president & CEO of Galaxy Desserts Inc., points out smaller serving portions can work very well with more luxurious sweets. “Smaller size desserts allow manufactures to create satisfying desserts. They may be very rich, but they are also very satisfying and don’t leave the consumer wanting more.”

As we went to press, Kraft was bidding on a reluctant Cadbury, which may be forced to position itself for sale to another suitor. Researchers in England announced they were able to create stable cocoa butter emulsions containing up to 60 percent water by mass that do not cream during storage and melt at the same “perfect” temperature — just below body temperature, about 92°F — as regular chocolate. The study results will appear in the upcoming November issue of the Journal of Food Engineering.
Also as we went to press, Bubble Chocolate debuted in the U.S., although only through web site www.bubblechocolate.com. Although new in the states, the company claims millions of customers around the world who love the all-natural "aerated" chocolate.

“While the sensation will be new to most Americans, it will be a taste of home to the millions of international citizens living in the States,” the company says. “The nature of the aerated process makes the bars lower in calories than a regular chocolate bar ... and the burst of flavor tends to satisfy chocolate cravings sooner.”

Mars has been a leader in touting the antioxidant properties of chocolate, particularly the flavanols naturally found in darker chocolates.

“New tools have come into play over the past several years as ingredient suppliers drive for new and innovative ways to deliver positives and reduce negatives in what we eat,” says Hank Izzo, vice president of research and development for Mars Snackfood North America, Hackettstown, N.J.

“The combination of these new ingredients with unique and innovative ways to process them is the best chance for success when creating the ‘indulgence of the future,’ ” he says. “Applying all aspects of food science, nutrition and engineering with a passion for experimentation will bring us to the next frontier.

The trends in molecular gastronomy and the development of unique techniques and equipment to incorporate air or water while making things ultra smooth may make this more of reality than some may think. In addition, trends in the area of ‘fresh’ and combining fruit with other indulgent products give people new ways to enjoy and explore more healthful dessert combinations.

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