Innovation Evolution: The Next Generation of Delectable Desserts

by | Apr 6, 2023

When was the last time you had dessert? Was it after dinner last night? Perhaps you quietly opened the freezer for a late-night bowl of ice cream after the kids were in bed. Maybe you grabbed a sweet treat on your way out the door this morning. The boundaries of what’s considered a “dessert” have always been expansive, but with blurred definitions for meal occasions, people have more options for the sweet pause we call dessert. Recent innovations include creative formats or targeted treats for dayparts.

What’s on the horizon for dessert trends? Let’s explore trending flavors and formats in frozen, ambient, and chilled categories to see how brands can create innovative and indulgent desserts to excite shoppers and inspire brand loyalty.

How Are Consumer Needs Shaping Desserts?

Plant-Based Options

Plant-based innovation has been on a steady track over the past few years across the food and beverage landscape. In the frozen dessert category, plant-based innovation rates keep pace with dairy NPD, and Innova reports North America ranks second for non-dairy ice cream and frozen yogurt launches.

But why do people reach for non-dairy offerings? Most who choose a plant-based alternative are looking for products that fit health or sustainability goals. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, those who follow a plant-based diet lower their risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Despite the uptick in innovation, acceptance of plant-based desserts varies across generations. Mintel notes that Gen Z shoppers are drifting away from plant-based ice creams. Brands can reengage with younger people by addressing their interest in complex tastes and textures. Using upcycled ingredients will align with Gen Z’s sustainability values.

A recent plant-based frozen dessert launched in December 2022 exemplifies tactics producers use to connect with consumers. Van Leeuwen’s Vegan Oat Banana Bread Pudding frozen dessert is made with oat milk and adds texture with fudge swirls and brown sugar bread bites.

Van Leeuwen Vegan Oat Banana Bread Pudding frozen dessert

Permissible Indulgence

The idea of ‘permissible indulgence’ emerged on the food and beverage scene about five years ago and is still part of formulators’ lexicon. Many people reach for a sweet treat when stressed or seeking a relaxing experience after a long day and want to enjoy the taste without guilt. In the U.S., 54% of adults agree that indulgent foods can benefit overall health/well-being (Innova). Helping people find bright moments in their day and improve their mood has become a focus for developers who want to deliver permissible indulgence.

Ice cream is a go-to comfort food at an affordable price for most shoppers. Brands can lean into decadence with rich flavors and premium inclusions or dial-up nostalgia with familiar and simple flavors like strawberry or vanilla. Innovation is expanding in formats like ice cream sticks, cones, or bites to give shoppers more permissibly-sized frozen indulgences.

Other brands are acknowledging how an indulgent treat fits with health goals. UpStar Nutrition created Triple Chocolate Brownie Keto Pint to help “accelerate the transition to lower-sugar foods” and “empower generational health across the world.” In the U.K., Dough Chi launched a bite-sized ice cream treat wrapped in cookie dough. Building off the popular Japanese mochi, Dough Chi wants to connect with shoppers who want a quick, sweet snack without “ruining healthy eating plans.”

Formatted for Convenience

As they continue to readjust after two years of stay-at-home orders, people are looking for convenient ways to enjoy their favorite desserts outside the home. Mintel notes the uptick in chilled dessert launches in North America compared to shelf-stable and frozen treats. Chilled desserts, often packaged for portability, are a great way to offer convenience and expectations around quality and freshness.

Taste will always lead development decisions. But Innova recommends highlighting gluten-free, no/low sugar, low/no fat, added protein, vitamin fortification and added calcium claims to reassure people about functional qualities in ambient and chilled desserts.

Recent innovations that meet the need for convenience include Colliders from Kraft Heinz. The sweet treat is available in three formats for a unique texture and flavor combination. Iconic candies and flavors are incorporated into the “cool and creamy” desserts. Another recent chilled innovation is JarJoy’s “Dessert in a Jar.” Launched last October, the single-serve line targets familiar recipes like Strawberry Shortcake and Key Lime Pie and now has two new flavors: Chocolate Tuxedo and Campfire S’mores.

North America Nutritional Bar Claims - Mintel - 2018-2022

What Dessert Flavors are Trending?

Cakes, Pastries & Sweet Goods

Classic flavors like chocolate and blueberry account for most bakery aisle launches in the last three years. Mintel notes cakes and sweet baked goods with a brownie flavor have seen increased activity, reflecting people’s desire for comfort food and willingness to try familiar crossover flavors.

Top Sweet Baked Good Flavors (Last Three Years. North America. Mintel)

  • Chocolate
  • Blueberry
  • Brownie
  • Vanilla
  • Strawberry
  • Cinnamon

Top Growing Flavors for Sweet Baked Goods (Last Year. North America. Mintel)

  • Banana (+100%)
  • Brownie (+37%)
  • Birthday Cake (33%)
  • Buttermilk (+33%)

Dairy-Based Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt

While simple flavors like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry often feature in ice cream launches, more complex profiles like cookie dough or chocolate and mint can help satisfy indulgent cravings. We are also beginning to see bakery-inspired tastes enter ice cream’s top-growing flavor list as format crossovers become more popular.

Top Ice Cream and Frozen Yogurt Flavors (Last Three Years. North America. Mintel)

  • Vanilla
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies & Cream
  • Strawberry
  • Chocolate & Mint

Top Growing Flavors in Ice Cream and Frozen Yogurt (Last Year. North America. Mintel)

  • Chocolate & Cookie Dough (+350%)
  • Chocolate & Mint (+80%)
  • Biscuit/Cookie (+50%)
  • Chocolate & Vanilla (+50%)
  • Caramel (+40%)

Plant-Based Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt (Dairy Alternatives)

Producers often start with tried-and-true flavors to mitigate the perceived risk of launching a plant-based product for the first time. Launching dairy alternatives with traditional ice cream flavors, like vanilla, chocolate, and cookies and cream, helped these flavors earn top spots by launches over the last three years. Brands also incorporate flavors that complement nutty plant bases, such as pistachio, to boost the appeal of innovative frozen desserts.

Top Plant-Based Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt Flavors (Last Three Years. North America. Mintel)

  • Vanilla
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies & Cream
  • Strawberry
  • Chocolate & Peanut Butter

Top Growing Flavors in Non-Dairy Ice Cream (Last Year. North America. Mintel)

  • Cookies & Cream (+400%)
  • Cookie Dough (+200%)
  • Strawberry (+150%)
  • Salted Caramel (+100%)
  • Pistachio (+100%)

Chilled Desserts

Innova notes indulgent brown flavors (like chocolate) led NPD in chilled desserts, followed by fruits and nut flavors. Perhaps the most notable flavor development is the rise of cheesecake flavors in top launches and fastest-growing flavors.

Top Chilled Dessert Flavors (Last Three Years. North America. Mintel)

  • Chocolate
  • Tiramisu
  • Strawberry & Cheesecake
  • Chocolate & Cookie Dough
  • Chocolate & Cheesecake
  • Vanilla

Top Growing Flavors in Chilled Desserts (Last Year. North America. Mintel)

  • Berry & Cheesecake (+300%)
  • Strawberry & Cheesecake (+200%)
  • Cheesecake (+200%)
  • Strawberry & Cake Batter (+100%)
  • Chocolate & Cookie Dough (+100%)

Water-Based Ice Lollies, Pops & Sorbets

Top flavors in water-based frozen treats include classic fruit tastes like strawberry, lime, and raspberry. An uptick in fruit pairings (like blueberry and pomegranate) and novelty flavors (like cotton candy) indicate a new generation of desirable taste profiles with more complexity.

Top Water-Based Frozen Treat Flavors (Last Three Years. North America. Mintel)

  • Strawberry
  • Mango
  • Lime
  • Raspberry

Top Growing Flavors in Water-Based Frozen Treats (Last Year. North America. Mintel)

  • Blueberry & Pomegranate (+200%)
  • Raspberry (+200%)
  • Watermelon (+100%)
  • Mango & Passionfruit (+100%)
  • Cotton Candy (+100%)

Innovate with FlavorSum

What’s your next delectable dessert innovation? Whether you’re creating an indulgent new format or a free-from favorite, collaborating with a flavor expert can help you navigate development hurdles and deliver delicious tastes. Connect with the FlavorSum team to explore solutions that help you craft indulgent desserts that keep people coming back for more.