For a while now, consumers have been changing their dietary habits either by choice or because of a food intolerance or allergies. Some of these changes were influenced by product trends and others through personal research and interest. Now, as product trends such as gluten-free die down for the average consumer, others have spiked in popularity such as plant-based that also reflect a more deliberate and educated consumer base. Snacks and indulgences can be a good place to gauge how consumers approach buying food because this category is by its nature optional, a treat that speaks more to personal biases such as nostalgia. Do they stand by their new dietary commitment when considering getting a box of cookies or is it a special treat, a small cheat to reward their sacrifice?

Baked PerfectionWhen it comes to gluten-free products, those with Celiacs or a gluten intolerance don’t have much of a choice, but when the gluten-free seal grew in ubiquity as brands saw the value of accommodating their gluten-free customers, the lay consumer began to interpret the products carrying the seal as a better-for-you option. This, of course, was not always the case. Now, most consumers understand this which has some consequences for the category.

“There is a reduction in the growth in the gluten-free sector,” says Jerry Bigam, president of Kinnikinnick Foods Inc., based in Alberta, Canada. “Many consumers began to use gluten-free foods for the wrong reasons and this part of the ‘fad diet’ is diminished.” Brands still devote themselves to making gluten-free Celiac-friendly foods, but now the real goal is making great-tasting food that everyone will love. However, taste isn’t all consumers care about anymore, either.

“Today’s consumers do care about where their food comes from, even if it is a treat,” says Pamela Giusto-Sorrells, owner of Pamela’s Products. “There is growing desire for transparency from companies, and consumers have a heightened awareness of what they put in their bodies.”

Bigam agrees. “There is much more interest in the use of non-GMO ingredients for a larger segment of the population,” he says. “More attention is being paid to nutritional labels and ingredient contents as consumers look for the healthiest (and safest) food possible.”

The priority for manufacturers then becomes ingredients. “I certainly value taste as a priority for my consumers, but I also want to make sure that if I create recipes for those with dietary restrictions, that those products also excel in flavor and texture,” Giusto-Sorrells continues. “I use organic ingredients wherever possible, and I require that all of the ingredients we purchase come with statements that they do not contain GMOs.”

However, this is true of most manufacturers now, so companies like Pamela’s and Kinnikinnick Foods are not just competing with other gluten-free companies. “As more companies are doing the same, I make sure that I look at what attributes consumers are asking for, and then I make a delicious, gluten-free version,” she explains. “I make products for specific dietary needs such as grain-free for those needing to avoid grains or who benefit from a paleo diet. I offer dairy-free and vegan options for people needing to avoid dairy products and eggs, and I also use alternative sweeteners to reduce the sugar content of some of my sweet product offerings for consumers avoiding high sugar foods or for parents wanting to give their children a sweet without feeling too guilty.”

Another strategy has been to accommodate a broader range of consumers that suffer from allergies. “We have moved beyond ‘gluten free’ to ‘free from’ which means that all of our products are free from gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts and tree nuts,” explains Bigam. “All ingredients are lab tested for these allergens to the smallest level possible, so we produce the safest food possible for people with these medical conditions or allergy issues.”

This is advantageous because when it comes to nostalgic, indulgent products like cookies, donuts, and baking mixes, it’s a family affair. “Often, when a family member has Celiac disease or is gluten-intolerant, the household must also be gluten-free to avoid cross contamination and for ease,” says Giusto-Sorrells. “I create my products so that no one feels like they are having to miss out.”

Not only that, but innovation over the years has created better and better products and more discerning customers. “The quality of gluten-free foods has increased dramatically in the past six years and many families that have Celiac Disease in a family member have switched to using more gluten-free foods because in many cases there is little difference between these foods and conventional foods,” says Bigam.

This innovation has been wonderful for consumers and is great for retailers too, who have more and better gluten- and allergen-free products for customers to choose from. Of course, this poses new challenges to manufacturers to keep up with trends. Among these new trends is low-sugar products says Giusto-Sorrells, not an easy task for companies that make baked treats and other indulgences.

“A challenge for me is finding a low-sugar alternative that is acceptable in natural foods that also delivers the taste profile that I want,” she explains. “My Brownie Mix is sweetened with molasses and honey and contains fewer grams of sugar per serving than many other brownie mixes on the shelves, and I use agave, tapioca syrup, and date paste and other alternatives to sweeten some of my cookies and snack bars.”
There is growing desire for transparency from companies, and consumers have a heightened awareness of what they put in their bodies.
Manufacturers must also think about how this innovation translates to the consumer financially. “One of the biggest challenges in this area is that every time an improvement in food formulation is carried out there is an impact on the price tag,” explains Bigam. “In our case, we conduct thousands of allergy tests annually on ingredients and finished products to assure food safety. Non-GMO ingredients carry a hefty price differential since it costs farmers more to produce and additional charges to segregate these items. The production of free from foods are far more complicated than conventional food — ingredients may come from three different continents rather than local supply. As a result, free from items will always require a premium over conventional foods.”

Many consumers understand this and are willing to pay the premium, but if they are paying that premium they want premium flavor and quality.

Rich and SavoryAgriculture plays a big role in how consumers shop, hence the importance and popularity of non-GMO verification and organic certification. Animal agriculture and the dairy category provokes a lot of feelings in consumers. Those who eat animal products want humanely-sourced products and for that they can’t solely rely on USDA Organic Certification, whose animal standards can fluctuate between companies. Brands like Organic Valley reflect these desires with grass-fed dairy products that not only signal superior animal well-fare standards but also food quality. Few things are more indulgent and satisfying than a good cheese. Why ruin that with a wrecked conscience?

“People have concerns about livestock-based agriculture, for good reasons, especially in the conventional world when you look at concentrated feed operations, and in the conventional world, animal welfare is the last thing anyone wants to talk about,” says Hans Eisenbeis, director of media relations for Organic Valley, based in La Farge, WI. “But from an organic perspective, organic systems really rely on livestock as being your sort of on-farm source of your best fertilizer, your best opportunity for creating healthy soil which creates healthy crops, which creates healthy animals and then healthy dairy in this holistic system.”­­

Not only that, but organic, grass-fed, whole-milk dairy has certain nutritional advantages such as a full spectrum of amino acids and protein. So, in moderation, cheese can be a healthy indulgence. However, some choose to forego dairy and animal-based products altogether. It’s not easy giving up a plate or charcuterie and gourmet cheeses, but companies like Miyoko’s Kitchen and Daiya Foods are making the sacrifice much easier by creating incredibly familiar plant-based alternatives.

“The array of vegan ice creams and gelatos is staggering both in the freezer case and at ice cream shops,” says Miyoko Schinner, CEO & founder of Miyoko’s Kitchen, based in Sonoma, CA. “However, I believe consumer demand remains higher with savory items. We are really just beginning to discover the full range of flavors possible with plant-based meats and cheese.”

That is not to say that these companies exclusively serve vegans. “While the core of our customer base comprises of passionate vegans, the majority are likely to be flexitarians,” says Schinner. “We estimate that 20% of our customers are plant based, while the rest are flexitarians, paleo, lactose intolerant, etc.”

With this diverse consumer base comes the challenge of replicating flavors and textures associated with meat and cheese for those who eat those products.

“Because these are new processes for novel products that didn’t exist before, there is no manual on how to do it, and much trial and error continues in trying to figure out how to take it from conception to full-scale,” says Schinner. “For example, our cultured vegan butter derives its flavor from fermented cashew milk, not the addition of butter flavor. To develop this, we had to figure out how exactly to culture the milk to create those flavors. We then combined traditional butter making equipment with some non-traditional ones in order to churn and form the butter. Our cheese line is like no other on the planet as it is designed to make cheese from fermented cashew cream which does not completely act like dairy milk.” The reward for successfully replicating these flavors and textures is winning over all kinds of consumers, plant-based or not.

Chocolates and Nut ButtersThere are few things more classically nostalgic and indulgent than peanut butter or a delicious chocolate bar. As consumers become savvier, they still crave these flavors but seek products that are clean-label and more elevated in flavor. The health-conscious consumer, for example, views peanut butter differently than average school children.

“More consumers are converting to veganism and having a good protein source has become more important to them than ever before,” says Gael Orr, marketing and communications manager for Once Again Nut Butter, based in Nunda, NY. “In combination, you also see a fitness trend where more people are looking for paleo foods, and then to add to that, you have people moving towards low glycemic index foods for health, weight loss, and autoimmune reasons.”

Peanut butter has somehow become healthy. How? Well, manufacturers like Once Again Nut Butter make it so by using natural, organic, non-GMO ingredients and providing those with allergies some alternatives to peanut butter. But even a peanut butter company has to get more extravagant. Once Again recently launched Amore, a chocolate hazelnut spread. “We created our hazelnut spread named Amore for the health-conscious consumer who wants a ‘sweet treat’ but still can enjoy the cleanest product we can make, that still is intended for a moment of indulgence,” says Orr. “We have lots of products that are healthier for you than this one, but this product is a gourmet dessert butter. Our consumers wanted to have a butter that not only tastes amazing, but that they can feel good about their choices.”
The array of vegan ice creams and gelatos is staggering both in the freezer case and at ice cream shops. However, I believe consumer demand remains higher with savory items.
Feeling good about one’s choices is very important with chocolates as well, considering that someone had to pick the cacao to make that chocolate bar you’re eating. “What differentiates us from the larger brands is that we work directly with the small-scale farmers, we don’t have intermediaries,” explains Maria Andrea Rivadeneira, marketing coordinator of Pacari Chocolates, based in Quito, Ecuador. “By working with over 3,500 families of small scale farmers in certified organic farms, the results of the core values have surpassed what was expected. By keeping the work and focus on the farmers and the importance of their part in the value chain, the chocolate has become the best in the world for five years in a row, maintaining all of the organic and natural processes from tree to bar.”

Fair trade practices are good, ethical business and smaller, specialty brands such as Pacari set an example of how brands can respect not only their customers but their farmers. Big brands admittedly have a harder time maintaining ethical practices trying to meet the demand for their products but after many of these brands got heat for less than savory labor practices, consumers are understanding the consequences of their sweet tooth and demanding superior labor practices. Specialty chocolate is also a big market because of unique and eclectic flavors, both satisfying and challenging consumers’ palates. This also means sourcing additional ingredients.

“Some of the challenges we have are to continue innovating, trying to use trending superfoods and ingredients from around the world,” says Rivadeneira. “If we want to enter new markets around the world we need to use ingredients that are well known for them.”WF