Toppings: For the Eyes First
by Donna Berry
Whether they are mixed into batter or dough or topically applied as a finishing touch, inclusions, particulates, toppings — whatever you want to call them — add eye appeal to all types of baked foods. And because today’s food ingredient suppliers continue to push the envelope with their product development programs, bakers are able to bring excitement to a category predominantly based on the neutral color of refined wheat flour.
“People eat with their eyes and are attracted by ingredients that add color, texture and aesthetic appeal,” said Kristen Girard, principal food scientist, Ocean Spray Ingredient Technology Group,
Improving the appeal is what it’s all about. “Imagine whole-grain bread made with just whole-wheat flour as the base and then another loaf of bread with the same ingredients but also with six different grains sprinkled on the top of the loaf,” proposed Kevin Holland, product developer, Tree Top, Inc., Selah, WA. He predicted that consumers would rate the second loaf higher in multiple sensory categories.
“But it’s important for bakers to remember that toppings and inclusions must complement the product or bring some functional attribute to the baked product. They must be added with some thought,” Mr. Holland continued. “It’s too easy to add a particulate that is not correctly formulated and ruin your product. Consumers don’t want hard berries in their Danish or green sprinkles on their bran muffins. These ingredients need to have the correct texture, flavor, color, density and water activity for the specific application.”
Indeed, toppings and inclusions are not one-size-fits-all ingredients. For example, sprinkles, also often referred to as “jimmies,” are a decorative staple for most bakers. They come in all colors of the rainbow, as well as pearlescent, metallic and flavored options. The individual styles can have a different impact on the baked food depending on when they are added and how they are applied. This is because jimmies melt and can bleed into the product. They also can vary in texture and degree of waxy mouthfeel.
Inclusions and toppings come with built-in creativity, as explained by Kathy West, owner of
Mockingbird Cafe, Basking Ridge, NJ. She and her husband make all the baked foods served in the restaurant using simple base recipes. “It’s the extra ingredients that go into the dough or batter or top off the finished product that make it a signature bakery item,” she said.
For example, the cafe’s Elvis muffin and its Mango Macadamia muffin use the same batter, but the former gets bacon, peanut butter and bananas and is topped with milk chocolate chips while the latter features chunks of fresh mango and macadamia nuts with a topping of crystallized ginger streusel. “Because we serve freshly baked products, we have more flexibility with the ingredients we add,” Ms. West said. “I imagine industrial bakers would need to source ingredients that can hold up to distribution and a week or two of shelf life.” Many ingredient suppliers are focusing their efforts on just this shelf life goal, or even longer.
According to the “Culinary Trend Mapping Report,” published in April by the Center of Culinary Development, San Francisco, CA, key motivators for consumers purchasing baked foods are convenience, top-quality ingredients, exotic and new flavors, health benefits and an urge for comfort food.
“Particulates for the baked foods industry play an important role in catching the consumers’ attention and motivating them to purchase the product,” Ms. Girard said.
Bakers use some ingredients solely for visual appeal. Others, while also being visually stimulating, provide flavor, texture and even nutrition — and often serve as permission to treat oneself.
“Research shows that two-thirds of US consumers take health implications into account when buying food, but in baked foods, consumers are often willing to overlook some attributes in order to enjoy a little treat,” Ms. Girard said. “Low-fat or fruit-added products can tempt health-conscious consumers, and toppings and particulates that add an extra touch of wellness should also be considered by manufacturers of baked foods.”
Many bakers take advantage of the growing trend to accessorize baked foods with visually stimulating ingredients that also provide health appeal. Such ingredients include fruits, nuts, seeds and even diced vegetables.
“Flavor-infused fruit is enjoying heightened popularity as manufacturers reject lower-value particulates such as re-formed fruit pieces, gums and jellies in favor of fruit ingredients with greater consumer appeal and bake stability,” Ms. Girard said. Ocean Spray’s sweetened dried cranberries come not only in their original flavor but also infused with blueberry, strawberry, pomegranate, orange and cherry flavors. Their high tolerance to the additional processing involved in mixing, depositing and baking overcomes many problems of color bleed and moisture migration traditionally associated with adding soft fruits or berries to baked foods.
Fruit particulates can be tailored to specific bakery and snack applications. Tree Top, for example, produces apple dices of almost every size and water activity. These pieces and apple granules can be colored and flavored to mimic other fruits at a reasonable cost. Granules also can be mixed into a batter or dough or sprinkled on top as part of a streusel. Textures range from crunchy to chewy, and the time of addition depends on the application and desired effect, visually and orally, in the finished product.
Such adaptations offer technical advantages as well. “Infused fruit pieces, because of their increased density, remain suspended throughout the batter,” Mr. Holland said.
Mr. Holland observed that bakers using more domestic superfruits such as cherries, blackberries and elderberries rather than the tropical exotics. “I think this is driven by familiarity. Americans are willing to try new things, but at the end of the day, we reach for fruits that are familiar to us,” he said.
MADE TO LAST.
As Ms. West suggested above, industrial bakers prefer not to use freshly diced fruit pieces in baked foods. The physical abuse experienced during processing and distribution will degrade the fruit’s quality and limit the baked product’s shelf life.
To overcome such hurdles, bakers often rely on extruded flavored and colored cereal-based bits made to mimic dried fruits or other inclusions. According to Jim Thomasson,
executive vice-president, sales, Cereal Ingredients, Inc., Leavenworth, KS, the company’s patented process yields physically firm particulates with relative low moisture, thus supporting good shelf life and storage. Color, bleed characteristics, flavor, size and textural qualities can be tailored to complement the finished product. The baking process hydrates the particulates, transforming them into soft inclusions.
“These inclusions can be added to low-moisture foods such as bakery mixes without risking moisture migration into or out of the product,” Mr. Thomasson said. “The baker can also mix them directly into a dough or batter and bake the product in normal fashion.”
Another technology uses lipids as its base to provide flavor, aroma, color and texture to finished products. “The particulates can be designed to impart all types of sensory experiences to baked foods, even delivering nutrition” explained Becky Calvo, R&D manager, inclusions, SensoryEffects Flavor Systems, Defiance, OH. The particulates should be incorporated at the dough stage as a last ingredient, after mixing is completed. “Usually no changes to the base formula need to be made when using these particulates; however, some customers have been able to reduce the amount of oil or shortening that they use,” she said.
While sweet and fruit flavors may be standard for baked foods, SensoryEffects Flavor Systems also makes savory- and spicy-flavored inclusions such as bacon, jalapeño, chipotle and garlic. “Many of our customers are looking for exotic flavor combinations, such as chocolate bacon, jalapeño lime and mango peach,” Ms. Calvo said. These ingredients simplify the process because a separate inclusion contributes each flavor. Their use streamlines the development process and maintains the visual and sensory integrity of each flavor.
“Our newest product line is our ‘gooey’ inclusions: cinnamon, maple, marshmallow and caramel,” Ms. Calvo said. They add a sticky texture and visual appearance to baked foods such as muffins and brownies, which have high levels of available moisture. “Not only do they impart flavor, the mouthfeel is very impressive, too,” she added.
Adjusting the color, shape and flavor of toppings presents myriad possibilities, according to Gavin Watson, vice-president, film division, Watson, Inc., West Haven, CT. “In my opinion, the key thing is that the particulates look as exciting as possible. Their main function is to catch the consumer’s attention and make the product special in some way,” he explained.
“If the colors and shapes of the particulates can be tied into the product theme, then that is probably the best use of them,” Mr. Watson added. “They can also be used for holiday-themed decoration or to promote a movie or other special event.”
Watson manufactures two general types of toppings: edible glitter and cut shapes. Both can be customized for color, with metallic becoming increasingly popular, according to Mr. Watson.
The company makes its edible glitter out of several different materials, with the most popular and least expensive being gum arabic. This material does not melt when heated and withstands baking temperatures well, but it is water-soluble and will dissolve in moist environments. Another material is hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, which does not dissolve at temperatures above 140°F.
“Glitter is usually best applied late in the process,” Mr. Watson said. It can be added topically to baked foods using the sugar-dusting equipment. Or the baker can create a bright swirl of edible glitter inside baked foods through the same process that swirls cinnamon into bread.
Cut shapes start as sheets of edible film, and the shapes are cut out of it. “Stars are the most popular followed by hearts,” Mr. Watson observed. The company’s roster of shapes, available in different sizes, includes butterflies, daisies, moons, trees and all types of geometric figures as well as custom shapes.
Toppings enable transformation, and as Mr. Holland reminded bakers, “Toppings and inclusions are always popular because they can turn a regular baked food into a memorable experience.”