From Low-Fat to Nutrient-Loaded: The Changing Face of Health-Minded Baked Goods

Compared to a decade ago, fewer Americans are checking calorie numbers or actively dieting, according to research from The NPD Group. Today’s consumers are approaching health differently: They’re seeking food that offers specific physical benefits, such as cardiovascular health and energy, reports separate research from the International Food Information Council Foundation.

In response, baked goods manufacturers are introducing more items with health benefits. Keeping up with this trend means they’re able to serve a larger share of the global bakery market—which, due to the growing popularity of healthy baked goods, is forecast to reach $570 billion by 2024, according to Global Industry Analysts.

“Consumers today are far more aware of the quality of food they’re putting in their body,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president, retainer services and culinary insights at food and beverage consultancy Hartman Group. “They’ve helped change the landscape of what was expected. Ingredients, sourcing and growing methods have really come to light.”

Conduct Market Research to Determine Bakery Manufacturing Opportunities

Being informed of the evolving health trends affecting the bakery industry is crucial to developing products that appeal to consumers. Along with cleaner label foods and ingredient transparency, some key trends include:

  • Gluten-free: This trend has grown in recent years, as awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance has risen. This has led to widespread availability of a variety of gluten-free bakery products, including breads, bars, cookies and cakes.
  • Veganism: While vegetarians often eat dairy products, vegans rule out all animal products. And businesses across the bakery industry—from artisanal shops to snack food manufacturers—are catering to these consumers with a range of sweet treats made with dairy and egg substitutes.
  • The paleo diet: Inspired by what our ancestors may have eaten during the Paleolithic era, this eating style typically involves eating only animal proteins and plant-based foods. Paleo dessert-makers often rely on flour alternatives like cassava and sugar alternatives like honey and agave, as well as natural ingredients like dried fruit, nut butters and carob.  
  • The flexitarian lifestyle: This involves eating predominantly plant-based and natural foods, but allows for occasional animal product consumption. Consumers following this diet may be interested in baked goods that offer a nutritional boost, such as those packed with superfoods, protein and fiber.

Conducting research into manufacturers’ target demographics and competitors is key to determining which of these trends are worth investing time and resources into. Berlin, Ohio-based Berlin Natural Bakery—which uses an heirloom variety of spelt, an ancient grain the company says provides more thiamin, B6, vitamin E and protein than typical wheat, in its bread and other recipes—has found Instagram can be helpful for determining which consumer groups might be interested in its products.

Specifically, the team draws insights by reviewing the images in which the brand’s bread appears, the hashtags that accompany them and engagement on those posts, according to Nicole Keffer-Schrock, Berlin’s head of marketing. In one case, Keffer-Schrock noticed the brand was gaining significant attention from vegans, which led her to look into potential advertising opportunities at events vegan consumers attend.

“I didn’t realize before I dived into Instagram how big and passionate the vegan community is,” she says. “It’s interesting to see, from people’s perspective, what it is they’re looking for in food and why our products make the cut in their eyes.”

For a better sense of what certain consumer segments desire in baked goods, manufacturers can also lean on their suppliers’ insights around emerging diets and trends.

Customer and Consumer Considerations for Health-Minded Baked Goods Manufacturing

Manufacturers need to know exactly how retail customers leverage their products—and how consumers come across them. 

For instance, for manufacturers that sell their goods to supermarkets, it’s important to understand where exactly their health-minded products are displayed. This often varies based on stores’ strategies and design, according to Leah Lopez, founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Better Bites Bakery.

To manage this range, Better Bites’ gluten- and preservative-free vegan cupcakes, cake balls and other treats are shipped frozen, which allows them to be displayed in a freezer or refrigerator, or at room temperature. 


Better Bites Bakery cake balls

Strawberry cake balls from Better Bites Bakery, based in Austin, Texas

By getting to know the conditions your products will be subjected to throughout the retail process, you can proactively design and formulate products to maximize shelf life and quality

Plus, Lopez keeps product marketing top of mind by meeting with buyers to discuss display options that align best with their shoppers’ needs. She also uses packaging designed to draw consumers’ attention to key product aspects. 

“We have two different [consumers]: someone with food allergies who is trying to eat a specific diet, and people wanting to eat better who want a plant-based diet,” Lopez says. “Someone with anaphylaxis likely will say they can’t go to a bakery. We really wanted to communicate in the packaging that it wasn’t made in-house, [where] cross-contamination with tree nuts, peanuts or gluten, dairy or soy [can be difficult to prevent].” 

Lisa Virtue, owner of Virtue Natural Bakery in Vancouver, British Columbia, also seeks to make her natural, nutrition-focused products accessible to multiple audiences. She sells items that are high in fiber, protein and other nutrients—that happen to be gluten-free—thanks to ingredients like flax and psyllium, and has been able to create crossover treats, such as a paleo-vegan version of almond butter cookies. 

However, Virtue notes that substituting ingredients means you may not be able to address each customer’s nutritional interest in every recipe.

“[For example], I have a vegan granola bar; it’s not necessarily that people who are vegan like granola bars better, it just happens to be a good vegan recipe,” she says. “I don’t use any gums, so it would be really challenging to make fluffy vegan baked goods. So I focus more on vegan cookies and bars, and use eggs in scones, loaves and muffins.”

Promote Healthy Baked Goods Without Pigeonholing Your Brand 

Although health-minded consumers are a well-defined audience, it’s worth noting that baked goods can offer additional wellness benefits without being strictly viewed—or presented as—health food items.

Bags of Mesa, Arizona-based Audrey’s Chia Cookies, for instance, mention the omega-3s they contain, and the company’s website includes information about the protein, energy and stamina the chia seeds featured in the cookie line can provide. 

However, as the cookies’ four flavors make their way into new stores, owner Audrey Martinez expects they’ll be found more often in the snack section than in the health food aisle.

“We figure, along with a health-food-type consumer, mainstream buyers who would like to be healthier will see chia and choose it over something processed,” Martinez says. “They are a cookie—just better for you with all-natural ingredients and the added benefit of chia. To get it into something people are already eating and going to indulge in was a way I thought people could have their cookie and eat it, too.”

A strong understanding of target consumers’ needs, as well as a strategic approach health-minded baked goods positioning, can help manufacturers explore this trend smoothly and efficiently.