Sponsored By
Natural Foods Merchandiser logo

In the aisles: Natural brands serve up better-for-you—yet nostalgic—treats

Few things comfort us like sweets, but consumers no longer want the sugar-laden, artificially colored and flavored treats of childhood. See what innovative, healthy indulgences are available for your shelves.

Adrienne Smith

October 4, 2019

11 Min Read
consumers now seek cleaner confections that can help take the guilt out of indulgence
Photos by Brad Bartholomew

Few things nourish the soul like sweets—the icing on the cake, so to speak, of every celebratory milestone and memorable feast. Their flavors and aromas can transport us back in time and invoke treasured memories. But in recent years, a growing consciousness about the foods we put into our bodies has somewhat tarnished our enjoyment of sweets.

Yet despite the “vilification of sugar”—one of New Hope Network’s NEXT trends for 2019—our love of sweets endures. Rather than forsake them completely, consumers now seek cleaner confections that can help take the guilt out of indulgence. This could mean turning to treats made with alternatives to refined cane sugar or focusing on products that are sustainably sourced, non-GMO or organic. Or it may mean seeking sweets that suit a certain lifestyle choice or nutritional requirement (gluten free, keto, paleo, vegan) or that pack in nutrition from added protein or superfood ingredients.

Natural foods companies have responded to changing consumer demands with an outpouring of new sweets in recent years, resulting in an incredibly dynamic market. In candy alone, while natural and specialty candy represent only 12.1% of sales, they are responsible for 96.3% of the category’s growth, according to data from SPINS.

Related:Weigh In: What are the secrets to staying ahead of natural products trends?

Sugar begone?

Opting for better alternatives to refined sugar is one way the sweets category is evolving. Stevia continues to be the top sweetener in the natural candy category, with SPINS indicating 92.3% growth and $22.4 million in sales of stevia-sweetened candy last year. Meanwhile, sales of candy made with agave nectar increased by nearly 53% to $6.9 million. Other significant cane sugar substitutes include honey, tapioca and coconut sugars, as well as maple, date and brown rice syrups.

Sugar is still sugar, but these nutrient-dense alternatives allow for cleaned-up product labels with minimalist ingredient lists. Like other naturally sourced ingredients, they offer consumers a clearer conscience because of organic certification, biodynamic production, fair trade or non-GMO status.

Real food rules

Sugar isn’t the only casualty as the market moves toward cleaner confections. As Bill Weiland, president and CEO of Presence Marketing, points out, keto products continue to soar, driving the creation of more and more low-carb, grain-free options in the sweets category. He mentions almond and coconut flours as best-selling ingredients, while gluten-free cassava (tapioca) flour, teff (an ancient grain), oat flour and flax drive the reemergence of baking mixes, many of which nod to our childhoods—at once retro and innovative.

Tiger nut flour is one of the latest superfood discoveries for baking, providing an extra dose of fiber along with other nutritional benefits to this comeback category. And while flavor is paramount in baking mixes, so is texture; keto- and paleo-friendly starches such as arrowroot have helped immensely with that.

Although the growing desire for healthier sweets is authentic, people are loath to give up their favorite goodies altogether. Therefore, the key to successful natural sweets, says Weiland, is still giving consumers an indulgent experience. “If you can compress sugar and net carbohydrates, and the delta in flavor and texture is not too great, then you will win,” he explains.

Along these same lines, Weiland says the transformative products in the cookie category will be “real-food, clean-ingredient cookies with reduced sugar and compressed carbs … with room to grow in the gourmet area.”

Chocolate, perhaps the most beloved confection of all, benefits from limitless applications and is a key driver of innovation in the industry. This manifests as new formats, new ingredients, innovative flavors and socially and environmentally responsible production. Raw (unroasted) chocolate is on the rise, and craft chocolates and free-trade products are still huge trends.

Added value

Much like the nutrient boost provided by almond or tiger nut flours, traditional empty-calorie sweets go from guilt trip to guiltless with the addition of protein-rich ingredients like nut butters—cashew being one of the biggest trends. Other enhancements include healthy fats such as coconut oil and cacao butter; antioxidant-rich seeds such as flax, chia and hemp; and other superfood ingredients such as the sprouted grains and beans in Second Spring’s baking mixes. Bonus nutritional punch is particularly apparent in the frozen desserts category, where brands are sneaking vegetables into creamy organic ice cream and launching innovative, palate-catching nondairy alternatives based on avocados, macadamia nuts, greens and whole fruits.

But adding these ingredients isn’t only a matter of preventing guilt or nourishing the body. There is an emerging trend of products that go beyond our emotional ties to sweets and aim to forge new holistic connections; some can even help soothe the mind or enhance appearance. For example, Nude’s new line of chocolate bars with reishi mushrooms claims to improve mental clarity, increase vitality and promote balance and alignment. Other chocolate brands are infusing their products with probiotics, CBD (even THC), medium-chain triglycerides and targeted nutrients for skin radiance and bolstering the body against various ailments.

Indulge away

Our emotional and even metabolic love for sweets is so deeply entrenched in our ancestry, our culture and our sense of community that even the impending guilt about eating something unhealthy isn’t enough to keep us away. But with natural brands finding more creative ways to provide healthy yet sinfully delectable, versions of our favorite sweets, we can indulge away without shame.

See how you can bring modern innovation and nostalgic inspiration together on your shelves to give consumers enjoyable, cleaner confections.


wholesome baking mixes cakes brownies muffins gluten-free organic

Easy bake

Customers can have their healthy cake and eat it too—guiltlessly—with these wholesome baking mixes.

Jessica’s Natural Foods
These nutrient-dense baking mixes harness the calcium- and fiber-rich qualities of the gluten-free ancient grain teff, combined with gluten-free oat flour, tapioca flour and omega-rich ground flax seed. Bake up sumptuous chocolate cake, cookies and muffins in a flash. SRP: $6.99

Second Spring Foods
After selling its sprouted grains to local businesses for three decades, the Ontario farming family behind Second Spring parlayed its passion for whole foods into a line of organic baking mixes using only the seeds, beans and grains sprouted in its own facilities. Black beans infuse these brownies with rich, earthy notes you might just have to taste to believe. Bonus: Both box and bag are compostable. SRP: $7.99

Organic Gemini
High in fiber, plant-based protein, monounsaturated fats and an array of vitamins and minerals, tiger nuts are well on their way to joining the superfood revolution. This cake and muffin mix uses flour from this nutty tuber—along with organic cassava, coconut and tapioca flours—for a total of only six ingredients for the vanilla version (and seven for the chocolate) of this novel, gluten-free baking mix. SRP: $5.99

Simple Mills
With the goal of making it easy for consumers to choose both delicious and healthful foods, Simple Mills stresses the importance of clean labels and whole-food ingredients. For its gluten-free cake, brownie, cookie and many-flavored muffin mixes, Simple Mills relies on almond flour, coconut flour and coconut sugar to create that homemade, fresh-out-of-the-oven taste. SRP: $4.99

The moms at Namaste know that waiting for a cake to come out of the oven can seem like an eternity to a child, so these organic cake cups need only 90 seconds in the microwave before devouring can commence. Made with rice flour, all three flavors (chocolate, cinnamon sugar and yellow cake) come in either a grab-and-go cup or a box of four handy, individually portioned packets. SRP: $2.99


frozen desserts feature hidden health benefits

We all scream …

These not-so-sinful frozen desserts feature hidden health benefits.

Move over, avocado toast. This frozen dessert harnesses the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats of pureed organic avocados and avocado oil in a rich, creamy nondairy treat that’s the perfect addition to any superfood sundae. Cado launched four new flavors earlier this year (Vanilla Bean, Java Chip, Cherry Amaretto and Salted Caramel), now giving us seven ways to put the good back in fat. SRP: $6.99

This company plays it cool with its new line of “Cleaned up Classics.” Those who yearn for their youth will love these whimsical versions of classic frozen treats—don’t worry, even the bright blue color comes from all-natural spirulina—that are organic, Non-GMO Project Verified and made with Fair Trade Certified ingredients. All that’s missing is an ice cream truck. SRP: $4.99

With no added sugar or sweeteners, no tree nut milk or soy, but boasting 9 grams of soluble fiber per serving, Frill gets its kicks with vegetables, herbs, fruits, chickpeas, nuts, cocoa and spices. All four vegan flavors also contain dates, which lend additional sweetness and creaminess to every bite. These products are a great addition to smoothies and other recipes, giving them all the frills! SRP: $5.99

Eating your vegetables has never been so easy thanks to these “hidden veggie” ice creams created by the owner of a small-batch scoop shop in Miami. Flavors including Strawberry (made with carrots), Chocolate (cauliflower), Cotton Candy (beetroot) and Vanilla (zucchini) will tempt both vegetable lovers and the veggie averse. Vegan versions are in the pipeline for this ambitious startup. SRP: $6.99

Coconut Bliss
As kids, everyone eats ice cream sandwiches a different way. As adults, the best way is to get lots of nutritious add-ins in every bite. This treat from Coconut Bliss, for example, surrounds nondairy coconut cream with two gluten-free sprouted-brown-rice-flour cookies packed with organic hemp and flax seeds, millet, sprouted oat flour and plenty of chocolate chips. SRP: $5.99


cookies, cake bars, mini doughnuts or other tasty morsels for goodness on the go

Instant gratification

Satisfy customers’ sweet tooth with these cookies, cake bars, mini doughnuts or other tasty morsels for goodness on the go.

Fat Snax
With 1 to 2 net carbs apiece, these cookies are a keto diet follower’s perfect low-carb, low-sugar treat that still conjures sensations of indulgence. Almond flour, coconut flour and real butter form the base of these moist and (dare we say fluffy?) cookies, which come in four flavors. SRP: $2.99

It’s been a big year for this parent-operated company, marked by a revamped look and a new line of ready-to-eat snacks. For the new “Junk-Free Bakery” line, the company spent a year creating an alternative sweetener system that seeks to capture the texture and taste of nostalgic favorites. It does the trick for these mini doughnuts. SRP: $2.99

Rule Breaker Snacks 
From creating vegan blondies and brownies using chickpea flour to launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to drive the creation of these new, snack-sized “bites,” Rule Breaker continues to break rules with these wonderfully satisfying gluten-free sweets. And who can resist the vibrant packaging? SRP: $1.99

Nüsh cake bars
Breakfast? A quick snack? Dessert? Sure! In these cake bars, Nüsh created a versatile treat that’s low in sugar and carbs yet bursts with flavor. The Blueberry, Cherry Almond, Pineapple Mango, Peanut Butter, Carrot Spice and Banana Nut varieties are made with organic flax and coconut oil plus yummy extras like nuts and spices. SRP: $2.99

Eating Evolved
It’s a joy to pick up a product and see that it has only five ingredients—especially when they’re all organic. In this case, cashews (or coconut or almonds), cacao, coconut sugar, cacao butter and Himalayan sea salt come together in a pair of perfectly balanced indulgent cups that taste exactly like the pure, real-food ingredients they’re made from. SRP: $2.99


chocolate, the most traditional, most beloved and most innovation-inspiring confection of all

For the love of chocolate

Where would we be without chocolate, the most traditional, most beloved and most innovation-inspiring confection of all?

Alter Eco
Driven by the goals of sustainability and deliciousness, this company embodies “Enlightened Indulgence,” as they call it. We don’t disagree. These new truffles made from 80 percent cocoa and other fair-trade, organic ingredients are enclosed in plant-based, non-GMO, compostable wrappers, making it delightful to eat the whole box in one sitting. SRP: $7.99

Hnina Hemp
This offshoot of natural chocolatier Hnina Gourmet uses its trademark raw cacao, sprouted nuts, maple syrup, cocoa butter and vanilla bean in these new truffles, but with the added boost of 34 milligrams of full-spectrum hemp oil per serving. This mixture aims to promote wellness—something made even more appealing by this fully compostable packaging. SRP: $19.99

Delectable wellness could be the motto of this recent foray into quality chocolates, inspired by the co-founders’ quest to harness the healing powers of reishi mushrooms in rich chocolate. Crafted in collaboration with a certified nutritionist, each of the three Nude varieties is geared toward enhancing mind, body or soul. SRP: $10

Chuao Chocolatier
The search for joy is the motivation behind these Fair Trade certified chocolates, which weave together whimsy and innovation to produce flavor inspirations like Ravishing Rocky Road as well as Baconluxious, Oh my s’mores!, Firecracker, Potato chip and Mintfully brownie, among others. The brand has also developed a line of organic Moon Bark, which mingle superfoods like nuts, chia seeds and berries with 72% cacao. SRP: $6

Honey Mama’s
The buzz around these exquisite sweets is well deserved, but don’t call them chocolate bars, says Honey Mama’s—they’re Cacao-Nectar Bars. Either way, they are velvety and sublime, made with a minimalist list of ingredients that includes Dutch-processed cocoa, raw local honey, coconut oil, Himalayan pink salt, natural flavors and either coconut meat or sprouted almonds. SRP: $5.99


About the Author(s)

Adrienne Smith

Content Director, New Hope Network

Subscribe and receive the latest updates on trends, data, events and more.
Join 57,000+ members of the natural products community.

You May Also Like