With the Summer Fancy Food Show spotlighting so much mmm in New York City, we can’t get gourmet off our minds. Fancy Food is the largest specialty food display in the country, featuring more than 180,000 products including confections, cheese, coffee, snacks, spices, ethnic, natural, organic and more. There’s a treat for everyone—including the growing segment of consumers who want their indulgences to deliver healthy perks. Here’s a look at the natural and clean label treats that make our lives sweeter, and take the guilt out of guilty pleasures.

The Gourmet Consumer

No doubt about it: Consumers are indulging, with 85% saying they give in to half their cravings, according to L.E.K’s biennial consumer food and beverage study “Talk Thin, Eat Fat: The Paradox of Indulgent Food Trends”(1). According to another report conducted by Specialty Food, from 2015-2017, the specialty products industry grew to $140 Billion, which was attributed to product innovation. The share of consumers buying specialty foods by generation includes iGens (age 18-23) 79%, Millennials (age 24-41) 67%, Gen X (age 42-53) 65%, and Baby Boomers (age 54-72) 60% (2).

“Trending ethnic and functional ingredients truly span all generations, including Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Boomers and the Silent Generation,” says Randy Kreienbrink, VP of marketing at BI Nutraceuticals, based in Rancho Dominguez, CA. “Consumers are looking towards cleaner, and less processed natural foods that are plant-based.”

Gael Orr, marketing-communication and PR manager at Once Again Nut Butter, located in Nunda, New York, also sees the category having broad appeal. “The typical consumer for our Amoré products is someone who takes great care in selecting a high-quality indulgence that they can feel good about eating,” she says. “They want a premium dessert product that aligns with their desire for clean, wholesome ingredients but that stands up to its conventional counterparts when it comes to taste. Being educated on the products’ unique quality and sustainable attributes can help retailers connect with their health-and-environmentally conscious shoppers.”

Indeed, more and more consumers want to be healthy but don’t want to feel deprived. Joanne Walter, chief marketing officer at Smart Baking Company, based in Sanford, FL, summarizes it nicely: Health conscious people who purchase natural and organic products want to have fun foods and maintain a healthy lifestyle at the same time.

The staff of Simply Nourished, a 100% specialty, organic and local food source in Clear Lake, IA, notices that their primary demographic consists of women 40-60, in the middle to upper socio-economic category, who are professionals educated and interested in health, wellness and even travel, says Ashley Coleman, company owner.

People want benefits. Integrative dietitian Ali Miller, RD, LD, CDE, author of The Anti-Anxiety Diet and Naturally Nourished, says “biohackers” or individuals looking to out-perform human capacity with work load and demands, as well as those in the wellness world looking to employ specific diets, are seeking out natural and clean gourmet options. Also speaking to diet, Jen Michuda, senior brand manager of So Delicious, Broomfield, CO, adds, “With the flexitarian lifestyle being so popular right now, we are gaining momentum and reaching new consumers who are conscious of what they are putting in their bodies, but don’t want to sacrifice on taste.”

5 Top Trends in Fun, Functional & Flavorful

1. Stress-soothing sweets and eats Indulging in something sweet or savory is a common way to unwind, and increasingly those indulgences are working overtime, delivering functional ingredients, like beverages, chocolates and bars infused with adaptogens. “Adaptogens are herbs and mushrooms such as ashwagandha, ginseng, cordyceps, and reishi that help our body adapt to stress demands without burn out to the thyroid or adrenals,” says Miller. Within this world of adaptogens, she adds, matcha is on the rise. The concentrate of green tea powder is rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that aids in alpha brain wave expression driving concentration, focus, creativity, and supporting relaxation.

Livermore, CA-based Prince of Peace offers American Ginseng Candy, Premium Green Tea, Ginger Candy Chews, and Golden Bonbon Soft Almond Green Tea Nougat. Also, matcha producer Aiya America, based in Japan, offers a plethora of matcha products including cooking grade matcha and premium matcha powder that can be added to beverages and foods to make a range of items gourmet.

2. Goodies with global flare With a big-bang of innovation and purpose, new global flavors are being incorporated into all kinds of indulgent offerings. In demand now: “Middle Eastern flavors are really popular,” says Christopher Curtin, president of Eclat Chocolate, based in West Chester, PA. “We have been following this trend for a while with our Zuta and Orange bar, Desert Rose and the Coffee & Cardamom bar. All have been exceptionally popular.”

In addition to offering products with health benefits and promoting a well-rounded diet, companies like Lundberg Family Farms, based in Richvale, CA, are utilizing consumer interest in adventurism. “We are diversifying the too-often monotonous snacking aisle with quintessential American, Latin, Asian and Middle Eastern flavors like Samosa and Korean BBQ,” says Tim Schultz, VP research and development. He adds that these products provide opportunities for consumers to experiment and resonate with global cuisines in their daily diets.

3. Bold blends Unexpected combinations are a draw. Michuda says So Delicious is giving products a specialty twist with creative combos like Spiced Pear & Fig, Snickerdoodle and Peanut Butter & Raspberry.

The team at Wood Stove Products, a manufacturer of gourmet beverages in Mont Vernon, NH, also sees a shift in flavor combinations. “Right now we have a lot of focus on vinegary flavors, but we recognize that shrubs and briny drink mixes primarily remain niche ingredients,” says owner Steve Zyck. “We think that flavors like ginger, cardamom and cilantro will gain traction and get far larger followings.”

Consumers are looking for interesting ways to expand their beverage options with cocktails and sodas, adds Meredyth Archer, owner of MOTHER Shrub in Richmond, VA. “Our shrubs are available in familiar yet unexpected flavors,” she says. For retailers, she adds, “Carrying more than one brand of shrub or drinking vinegar lets the consumer know that shrubs are a ‘thing’ and they are here to stay. They are the perfect drink mixer—interesting taste—a perfect blend of sweet and tart.” Crafted with combinations of organic, non-GMO and fresh ingredients, the company uses organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar for consumers interested in adding more ACV to their diets.

The bold combo trend is also seen with ice cream. In addition to healthier options like probiotic organic ice cream, coconut milk ice cream, almond, cashew and soy ice cream, the frozen aisle is seeing artisan flavor infusions like Balsamic Fig & Mascarpone and Bananas Foster from ice cream brand Coolhaus, based in Culver City, CA.

Popular flavors include Churro Dough, Chocolate Molten Cake and Dirty Mint Chip made with real mint leaves and a touch of brown sugar, says Natasha Case, co-founder of Coolhaus. An interesting addition to the palette, she says the breakfast for dessert theme will be incorporated in future Coolhaus flavors as well as their dairy-free line made from rice, pea, and cocoa butter. Further, Coolhaus utilizes the upcoming spices trend in the Aunt Gladys Yellow Cake Batter flavor which includes gluten free ginger and rum raisin. The company expects the spice element to be the next big wave of ice cream.

4. Specializing in the seasons Floral and botanical flavors are a hot trend for spring and summer, says Nielsen-Massey Vanillas CEO Kirk Trofholz. He adds that products like their Rose Water and Orange Blossom Water can add a perfect pop of flavor to cold beverages, ice creams and marinades. Summer flavors like raspberry cream, lemon and orange cream are big sellers for Smart Baking Company, says Joanne Walter, chief marketing officer of the company.

Zyck sees growing demand for Wood Stove’s cocktail mixes in flavors summery flavors like blueberry-lavender and strawberry basil, which are made without corn syrup-filled, artificially-colored mixes. “The same is true for our honey-lemon-ginger Hot Toddy Mix,” he says. “Customers like that these drinks are only sweetened with honey, and they love that they can be served with or without alcohol. We probably see as many people buying our cocktail mixers to mix with seltzer as with spirits.”

5. Gourmet as a good in the world “Premiumization continues to be on the rise. This is largely in thanks to Millennial consumers on the hunt for goods with unique attributes that warrant a smaller package with a higher price,” says Whitney Bembenick, director of innovation for Endangered Species Chocolate, based in Indianapolis, IN. “We are seeing consumers use their dollars to express themselves and support what matters to them, which is driving the growth of non-GMO and Fair Trade products as ‘specialty’ foods.” One thing drawing consumers to Endangered Species Chocolate, beyond the desire for a sweet treat: The company has made an effort to support conservation with a goal to give $1 million annually through their continued growth in sales.

Christopher Curtin, president of West Chester, PA-based Eclat Chocolates, also points to social benefit. “There has been a lot of research of the health aspects of chocolate, but besides the direct health benefits a lot of our products have proceeds that go back to social and environmental nonprofit. We have supported many projects through our chocolate.” Currently he says, the company supports Rice Hull stoves for all the farmers they purchase beans from in Peru, as well as a water conservation organization and a food rescue organization in New York.

”The consumer desire for transparency in ingredient sourcing is still at the top of many lists, as are organic and fair trade ingredients that give the consumer the hope that the product they are purchasing is doing something good for the planet and for other people,” agrees Todd Kluger, VP sales & marketing at OCHO Candy, based in Oakland, CA.

Even when shopping for an indulgent product to satisfy cravings, shoppers are seeking organic and Non-GMO Project Verified options, says Orr. Another trend, she says, is a shift toward eco-friendly products and an appreciation for companies working to make a difference. Once Again Nut Butter products are packaged in 50% recycled glass jars and part of the brand’s Honest in Trade program.

Wine & Chocolate Get Even Better

Wine and chocolate are classic indulgences, and they can be healthy ones, too. Frey Vineyards offers sulfite-free wine with the benefit of antioxidants. “High quality, organic fruit provides an abundant supply of naturally occurring phytochemicals that provide rich and complex flavor components,” says Cathie Nicolaus, sales manager at Frey. “Plant chemicals also act as preservatives and are beneficial to human health. New research, particularly a study from UC Davis, California, shows that organic fruits and berries have up to 58% higher antioxidants than non-organic.”

On the chocolate side: “Many consumers are looking to reduce their sugar intake and may be inclined to shop sugar-free chocolates—however, those chocolates typically do not have a high enough cocoa content to reap the benefits of naturally occurring flavanols from the cocoa bean,” says Bembenick. She adds that the company’s best-selling chocolate bar, the Bold + Silky 88% Cocoa Dark Chocolate, has just 3 g of sugar per serving, thanks to its high cocoa content. “In late 2015/early 2016, we worked with a 3rd party lab to measure the antioxidant properties of this particular bar. The testing showed that the flavanol content—catechin and epicatechin—of a one-ounce serving of our chocolate bar contains the equivalent antioxidant power of 2 cups of green tea,” she adds. “We believe it is important to continue this antioxidant research so that consumers can make an educated choice on what best suits their needs when it comes to sweet indulgences.”

The health-conscious trend has also led to more sweet treats with added goodness, like a plant-based twist. “The plant based food movement continues to trickle into every crook and cranny of the grocery store. Thus far, the gourmet chocolate industry has only seen this emerge through the prevalence of nut-based confections in aisle, but I do predict we will continue to see more plant-based centric chocolates emerge,” says Bemenick.

And from Lundberg: “In March 2019, we announced that we were expanding our gourmet snack portfolio with the launch of Chocolate Thin Stackers,” says Schultz. “Inspired by our favorite desserts, these are hand-crafted recipes, balancing chocolate with the goodness of whole grains. The new line of Thin Stackers delivers gourmet indulgence with premium dark and white chocolate offerings in portion controlled packs.”

Successful Selling

Whether these products are integrated throughout the store, or in a store-within-a-store concept, Kluger says, people still need to know where to find them.

“Consumers are craving more premium, specialty and natural indulgences, however, the options that are plentiful continue to be buried in aisle at many retailers, “says Bembenick. “Positioning sweet indulgences closer to check out and on end-caps will capitalize on the intrinsic impulse purchase of these products and bring awareness to new products that the shopper may be looking for.”

Grouping complementary products can help sales. Cross-merchandising can be a successful way to market these products, says Trofholz. “For example, placing pure vanilla extract and all-natural flour near each other gives shoppers a natural baking solution.”

Prominent shelf space of quality, gourmet items with visually engaging packaging can help draw the attention of shoppers, adds Orr. “Our Amoré products are packaged in glass jars and feature a classy, high-end foil label that showcases their position as a premium indulgence and effectively captures consumers’ attention. It can also be beneficial to make your staff knowledgeable about how the brands you carry are making a difference in this world and share that with consumers whenever possible.” WF

The Future of Indulging

Based on current demand for natural and clean products, this doesn’t seem to be a passing trend, says Randy Kreienbrink of BI Nutraceuticals. And as modern-day living gets increasingly hectic and harried, grab-and-go and single serving options will become more popular, predicts Once Again Nut Butter’s Gael Orr. “People are busier than ever and increasingly seeking grab-and-go options that can satisfy their sweet tooth cravings and deliver on taste, quality, and convenience.”

Along with single serve, Todd Kluger of OCHO candy says smaller portion sizes, unique flavor combinations, more supply-chain transparency, compostable packaging and regenerative agriculture are all trends that will continue to grow over the next 5 years. Indeed, says Kirk Trofholz of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, industry should look forward to serving younger consumers who will purchase from companies with values that focus on sustainability and the environment.

When it comes to chocolate, Whitney Bembenick of Endangered Species Chocolate foresees continued growth in natural and specialty chocolates. “This is largely indicated by the shift that has already been seen in the beverage industry to more craft, premium and specialty drinks of all kinds. We believe the same will occur in chocolate, as well as continued preference to “new takes on traditional chocolate goods—meaning, how can a conventional chocolate or candy be made better, more premium or more unique,” she says. “And as we head into another election year, consumers will look for stability in the flavors and types of food they eat as a way to subconsciously balance the lack of stability in the political and economic environment.”

Similar to other subsets of the natural and organic product industry, there may also be an increase of customers calling out more for products that are convenient but which also come with an associated ritual or activity…whether it be foods that require some assembly and experimentation or that come with associated activities or even games, says Steve Zyck of Wood Stove Products. He adds that food increasingly needs to be fun—not just flavorful.
References 1) Wilson, R., Picciola, M., Steingoltz, M., “Talk Thin, Eat Fat: The Paradox of Indulgent Food Trends,” L.E.K., v20(52), 2018, www.lek.com/insights/ei/indulgent-food-trends 2) Specialty Food Association Staff, “2018 State of the Specialty Food Industry Report,” www.Specialtyfood.com, Posted 6/12/2018, Accessed 5/8/2019.