Edward Bergen
Edward Bergen is a Global Food & Drink Analyst experienced in identifying FMCG trends and applying analysis to client projects to highlight opportunities in their categories.

In a world where health and wellbeing have become a major focus in the food and drink industry, how do treat brands innovate to meet modern consumers’ palates?

Moments of pure indulgence

The desire for intense, sweet and indulgent flavours will continue to bring pleasure to those looking for moments of pleasure and escapism. Brands will continue to innovate around sweetness, offering new sensations and opportunities to boost one’s mood.

Core flavours still lead

Core sweet flavours will remain bestsellers. Therefore, indulgent brands should not ignore them when innovating. Instead, the flavour favourites should remain the ‘core’ but be blended with more nuanced flavours or experimental textures so there is familiarity rather than something brand new.

It’s not about innovation, it’s about taste

Sweet indulgent treat categories see regular innovation, but they also attract consumers who desire the comfort of a familiar routine. In fact, three in four UK biscuit consumers that say the taste of a perfect biscuit is the main choice factor, but just one in 10 state they look for new innovations.

Biscuit consumers will be unwilling to shift away from their favourite variety, especially in the current financial climate in which many have less room for money mistakes and are seeking comfort in the brands and products they already know. Instead, major brands in the sweet treat space often innovate around core flavours, with slight tweaks or inclusions. A recent strategy from major brands has been to strengthen the core flavour and market its intensity.

Market flavour intensity

Many brands have sought to just develop core flavours rather than something brand new. Another strategy is to intensify favourites.

Premium-tier indulgence
McVitie’s Classic Caramel Bliss Caramel & Milk Chocolate Digestives. UK biscuit brand McVitie’s has shifted into the premium space. The range attempts to elevate familiar flavours to be more luxurious. (UK)

A boost to the core
Ferrero Nutella + Cocoa Hazelnut Spread with Cocoa. The European chocolate spread boosts the flavour of the cocoa in the recipe to offer a strengthened core flavour. (UK)

Core base, with some frills
Magnum Luxe Chocolate Cake Batter. Keeping the base flavour familiar, ie vanilla and classic magnum chocolate, this ice cream product adds a cake batter sauce for additional indulgence. (Australia)

A new route to creating sweetness

New technologies and natural sweetening ingredients are coming to the market and helping to improve the health perceptions of indulgent categories. Taste is still of paramount concern – can new sweeteners really replicate the taste of sugar?

Be careful with sugar reduction

Concern about sugar from health departments and consumers alike has encouraged producers to focus on sugar reduction. Reducing sugar is challenging because of the role sugar plays in delivering desirable and familiar tastes, flavours and other sensory attributes.

Consumers are more likely to accept less sweet tastes in healthy categories rather than treat categories, eg ice cream. Many treat brands have strong brand loyalty and reducing sugar in these heritage brands carries great risk. Consumers often dislike the taste of their favourite treats being meddled with.

For heritage brands, producers should consider launching reduced sugar variants, rather than making changes to products that consumers have known and loved for decades. Alternatively, producers can consider portion control rather than recipe reformulation as a tactic to helping consumers to reduce their sugar intake.

Big brands are reacting to low-sugar demands

Simply less sweet
McVitie’s Cranberry Crunchy Granola Oat Bakes uses a very simple strategy for sugar reduction. McVitie’s reduced the sugar content and pushes the other ingredients. The addition of cranberries also helps to balance the sweetness (UK).

Contains soluble maize fibre
Cadbury Dairy Milk Reduced Sugar Milk Chocolate contains soluble maize fibre and features a ‘no artificial sweeteners’ claim (UK).

Contains alulose (rare sugar)
Z0cal All Natural Mint Chip Lite Ice Cream. The US brand uses allulose, which occurs naturally in certain foods. As a result, the ice cream brand markets its nutrition table clearly on front of pack (US).

Portion control and shrinkage will still lead in sugar reduction

Sweet treat brands will continue to use calorie and sugar portion-control headlines to market moderation. For instance, two in five of UK chocolate consumers agree that reducing portions or pack sizes of chocolate is a good alternative to cutting sugar content.

Indulgent brands have focused on innovation in this area. The Freddo ice cream sandwich is a perfect example, taking a famous portioned chocolate bar and offering it in an ice cream format.

Changing the palate of sweetness

Indulgent brands can reduce sweetness through new, more savoury flavour profiles with the potential to naturally reduce sugar content without impacting the perception of indulgence.

Hot and spicy ingredients offer a new flavour experience

Hot, spicy ingredients are increasingly prevalent in sweet foods, including wasabi-flavoured Oreo cookies in China and jalapeño chilli M&M’s in the US.

In ice cream, chilli generally appears as a base flavour, such as chocolate and chilli. But as consumers’ tolerance for spicy heat develops, they will demand more adventurous and decorative chilli inclusions, such as chilli sauce and flakes.

Sweet brands shift towards a more herbal profile

Salty and sour
Pepsi Salt & Litchi Flavoured Japan Cola Drink. Pepsi goes local with this popular Japanese flavour combination.

Botanical gin
After Eight Gin Tonic & Mint Flavoured Dark Chocolate Thins. The popular after-dinner chocolate brand offers its mint chocolate with a gin flavour to enhance the after-dinner experience. It was launched in Romania.

Spiced and seasoned
Kowhai Creamery Ginger & Turmeric Hand Crafted Batch Made Gelato. This spiced ice cream launched in New Zealand claims a handcrafted batch creation process.

What we think

The future of sweetness is bright, and indulgent brands are not going anywhere. Instead, they have a wider playing field to innovate around a developing palate of flavour to service consumer needs. There will be a continued focus on providing consumers with new ways to indulge – with more intensity, new flavour combinations and new textures continuing to provide joy.

Many consumers will search for moderated portions rather than health variants. However, with governments and brands trying to reduce unhealthy content to support health and wellness goals, low-sugar and low-fat products will continue to be central to innovation. Treat manufacturers will explore new ingredients and technologies to reduce the use of controversial ingredients such as sugar while minimising the impact on taste and texture.