It’s a plain fact that in times of crisis, people seek comfort. As the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the nation, Americans are finding comfort however they can as they shelter in place, cook at home more, enjoy extended family time—and then maybe finding moments when they can enjoy extended time away from the family—and indulging in treats they might not otherwise. I know I’m not the only one with a house full of sweets lovers supporting this trend. Then there’s the fact that my wife and I, like many parents these days, are trying to navigate our kids’ virtual learning while also trying to work from home––everyone deserves a treat after that!  

This March saw sales of fresh and packaged baked goods increase 37% over the same period for the year prior, according to Chicago-based IRI. And according to data pulled from our online product discovery platform, we’ve seen more than a thousand positive engagements between buyers and snack bar manufacturers, and almost as many between buyers and chocolate producers. Overall, between January 2020 and April 2020, confectionery and snack products have been one of the top 10 categories that retail buyers are requesting samples of, according to our data. 

Despite being at home for the majority of the past few months, and wanting to indulge in comforting sweets and treats, consumers do still have a focus on eating healthily. Before the pandemic struck, recent research showed that 65% of consumers were looking for products that have functional ingredients. And if anything, the pandemic seems to have increased people’s awareness of the need for nourishing foods. Nevertheless, nourishing foods don’t end at the dinner table, and snacks that skew on the healthy side of indulgent are seeing increased interest these days. If a product can strike that balance between healthy and indulgent, they can strike while the sweet and snack iron is hot with consumers.

As consumers ask for these type of treats, companies are saying, “Ye shall receive”—the recent Ingredients and Equipment Trends Study from Candy Industry showed that 60% of companies are planning on increasing their spending on healthy/nutritional ingredients in the coming year, and 52% will increase their purchases of functional ingredients. Already, a third of the survey respondents in the report are using healthy and functional ingredients in their products.

It’s clear that healthier sweets and snacks are not a passing trend, and those that can provide function—yet still taste good—will rise to the top of the list. Let’s dig a little deeper into the trends we’re seeing when it comes to delivering better-for-you treats.

Undercover snacks

For too long, consumers equated “healthy” treats with “not good.” But that’s changing—even if consumers don’t realize it. At the Winter Fancy Food Show this past January, more and more brands were including vegetables and healthier for you options in their ingredient lists while still maintaining good flavors that consumers seek. You, as the consumer, might not know from the taste that healthy ingredients abound in the product, but your body will, in a good way—a win-win for everyone. An added bonus to these tasty treats are products that kids love, and that parents don’t mind buying for them, thanks to their healthier bend.  

Snack bars are an area that has seen a lot of activity lately with healthy ingredients on the rise, as consumers look for products that are both delicious and functional, and snack bars can deliver on both. They are an ideal vehicle for delivering functional, healthy ingredients, and have been doing so for years, adding in quinoa or eliminating dairy or gluten, all in the name of creating a better-for-you product. And now some brands are taking it a step further for health-conscious consumers, and creating vegan offerings to meet a need. That’s big for the already large protein bar market that is expected to hit $1.8 billion in sales by the year 2024. We’ve seen the major brands roll out their vegan offerings, but this trend in healthy snacks and sweets isn’t limited to the Clif and Kind bars of the world. Smaller brands are making waves and taking some of the category dollars and shares, which is great for consumers—more options to try, more opportunities to indulge.

Plants a-hoy

During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have been forced to shift their shopping behaviors. For many, that is seen in the transition from in-store grocery shopping to online grocery shopping, and that means product discovery has had to shift as well. Given that consumers are leaning into better-for-you products, some retailers are responding accordingly, and have added filters to help with this. Thrive Market, for example, offers a search function on its site that can filter products by consumer diet type, say, vegan or sugar-free. This means sellers need to embrace these new diets as well, so they’ll show up in those search results.

More and more Americans are stepping toward a plant-based diet—as many as 40% are trying to eat more plants, according to Nielsen—and the keto diet is still gaining steam, an industry expected to be worth about $15 billion by 2027. These are just two of the consumer eating habits that are affecting shopping habits, which in turn affects product innovation and discovery. Retailers, after all, want to offer the products that consumers want, and if consumers want healthy sweets and snacks, they need to be ready to provide.  

The healthy and delicious way forward

The rise we’re seeing in better-for-you treats doesn’t seem to be coming down or even leveling off any time soon. When you pair consumer demand with the manufacturers supplying, retailers have every reason to stock their shelves with healthier sweets and snacks offerings—it’s a true recipe for success.

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