KANSAS CITY — Almost everyone appreciates a little sweet treat after a meal, whether it is a cookie, fruit or a scoop of ice cream. Even with consumers increasingly making better-for-you food and beverage choices, they are not ready to desert dessert.

Out-of-home dessert consumption is on the rise as consumers expand their definition of “dessert” to include more nontraditional items, according to the 2013 Dessert Consumer Trend Report from Technomic, Inc., Chicago. Dessert is also no longer limited to the final course of the evening meal. It has become an all-day, any-day phenomenon. In fact, 40% of consumers now eat dessert twice a week or more often, up from just 36% of those polled in 2011, according to the report.

Only about half of consumers’ post-restaurant meal desserts are purchased at the same restaurant, while the remainder are eaten at home or at another food service location. What attracts consumers to eating dessert out — indulgences that are not easily prepared at home or may not be readily found at another food service concept. Another attraction is desserts that may be shared and customized.

Appealing to millennials

When it comes to the booming foodie demographic known as the millennial, dessert is a social and culinary experience. Millennials were born into a world of infinite choice and have come to expect the unexpected in foods and beverages, including desserts.

Millennials also eat impulsively. According to the Culture of Millennials 2011 report from The Hartman Group Inc., Bellevue, Wash., millennials try not to “really think about it too much ... just eat whatever I want when I feel like it.” Unique and customizable desserts that may be shared are appealing to the demographic that is eclipsing baby boomers in numbers and importance. They are projected to outnumber non-millennials by 2030. And because dessert is an important part of their lifestyle, product developers are developing products that satisfy their sweet tooth.

Seasons 52 offers miniature desserts in shot glasses.

Mark Bastian, creative director of new product development for Dawn Food Products Inc., Jackson, Miss., said two of the biggest trends in food service desserts are miniature items that may be customized to meet the individual diner’s flavor preferences and finger-food sweet treats for sharing, or even for dashboard dining.

“Our mini-bundt cakes allow operators to create their own signature desserts, as they can fill the cakes with just about anything,” Mr. Bastian said. The frozen cakes come in 48-count boxes and need to be thawed prior to serving. The Sonic chain, headquartered in Oklahoma City, uses the mini-bundt cakes to create individualized ice cream sundaes.

The individual portion concept was a driving factor in the cupcake boom and is now influencing the rise in the popularity of donuts. Upscale cupcake concepts appear to have matured, while the gourmet donut market is starting to take shape, as patrons flock to donut concepts for their innovative takes on a classic American treat, according to Technomic. Donut concepts appeal more to consumers than cupcake stores because they’re cheaper and they offer breakfast as well as snacks, said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president with Technomic.

“The consumer appeal of gourmet donut concepts will continue to grow, particularly across lower- and middle-income demographics, because donuts provide patrons an affordable, nostalgic indulgence,” Mr. Tristano said. “Concepts can differentiate themselves by switching up their flavors every few months or by pairing their donuts with high-quality coffee and specialty drinks.”

He cited the example of the five-store Chicago-based chain Glazed and Confused, which opened its flagship store in May 2012. The artisan donuts are prepared throughout the day at the location and then delivered to each unit. The donuts contain no trans fatty acids and are made with such ingredients as seasonal jams and Madagascar vanilla beans. Some of the chain’s specialties include Apple Caramel (apple-cake donut with chunks of Granny Smith apples, topped with a cinnamon glaze and peanuts), Crème Brûlée (bismarck with vanilla crème brûlée, pumpkin or chocolate filling, with brûléed sugar crust) and Maple Bacon Long John (yeast-raised Long John topped with real maple glaze and peppered maple bacon).

Smaller indulgences, such as the small desserts offered by Delightful Pastries, are often perceived by consumers as a smart choice.

This past May, Dawn Foods received the National Restaurant Association’s FABI Award for its Taste-fills bakery bites, a spin on the traditional donut hole. Taste-fills are freezer-to-fryer (or oven) bite-size treats that allow operators to provide a sweet option to expand their menus, said Bill McClellan, vice-president of food service at Dawn Foods.

“Taste-fills were created with both operators and consumers in mind,” he said. “They are not only delectable, but also easy to prep and serve.”

Varieties are apple, cinnamon, cream cheese, cinnamon cream cheese, strawberry cream cheese and strawberry.

“They allow unlimited customization,” Mr. Bastian said. “They can be used in mouth-watering recipes such as French Toast Bites, Bananas Foster for One, Caramel Walnut Apple Bites, and more. The versatile variety of flavors allows Taste-fills to be used in desserts, breakfast applications and snack options. They can even be served as a shareable dessert with different dipping sauces.”

Mini treats are often perceived by consumers as a smart choice.

“Little portions complement the ‘everything in moderation’ approach to dining,” Mr. Bastian said.

Janet Carver, culinology group manager for Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., agreed that smaller portions are what keep consumers ordering dessert.

“Sample-size desserts help diners manage their calorie and sugar intake, and still allows them to have a full-fledged dessert, less the guilt.”

She cited the decision by the Seasons 52 chain to make shot glass desserts a mainstay on their dessert menu.

“They make it fun and easy to try a couple of different things and share at a table,” Ms. Carver said. “The thought is a little indulgence is better than none at all.”

It’s no wonder mini-portion desserts, such as flights and dessert sampler platters, are trending on restaurant menus, according to Technomic. Offering the treats may drive traffic among consumers who prefer affordable desserts that are less filling and better for you.

The nutritional cover-up

When it comes to better for you, the emphasis in the dessert business is currently on sugar reduction.

“This is quite different than fat reduction, and much more challenging,” Mr. Bastian said. “We have had some success with stevia and monk fruit extract in fillings, frostings and icings.”

A new ingredient from Steviva Brands Inc., Portland, Ore., is expanding the use of natural high-intensity sweeteners in dessert applications.

“We manufacture a 10X fine mesh powder that is a proprietary blend of two of our ingredients: erythritol and stevia extract powder,” said Thom King, president. “Once the erythritol and stevia are agglomerated, we run it through a pharmaceutical hammer mill, allowing us to create custom sweetening solutions from 30 mesh to 120 mesh.”

The ingredient is a two-to-one replacement for confectionery/powdered 10X sugar in most recipes.

“We believe we found the perfect threshold for using steviol glycosides in a bulking sweetener environment (erythritol),” Mr. King said. “If we increased the sweetening factor beyond double-strength, the flavor profile of the stevia extract would start to bleed through.

“This ingredient dissolves readily in any liquid or fat, hot or cold, and works in sweetened uncooked foods without making them grainy,” Mr. King added.

In addition to less sugar, better for you to some simply means a little taste of the very best dessert imaginable. Thus, mini portions provide permission to indulge.

Technomic said mini-desserts resonate with women who may be looking for smaller portions or healthier dessert options. Operators may want to specifically target the demographic by marketing the options as small indulgences or by including healthfully positioned ingredients, such as berries or yogurt.

Dawn Foods' Taste-fills are a spin on traditional donut holes with a variety of flavors and applications.

Restaurants are increasingly offering “foods with benefits,” and this includes desserts. For example, another approach to better for you is to include healthful ingredients, such as Greek yogurt.

“Everything Greek seems to be trending,” Mr. Bastian said. “So we created a line of tortes that include Greek yogurt fillings. These fillings are lower in fat and higher in protein than our usual cheesecake fillings. The Greek yogurt gives the tortes a slight tangy flavor and a very desirable eating quality.”

The Schwan Food Co., Marshall, Minn., recognized the Greek yogurt trend and recently introduced frozen Greek Yogurt Pie Wedges. Sold as single-serve units for easy plating, the pie wedges are available in three varieties: blueberry pomegranate, strawberry kiwi and vanilla honey. The company said the clean-label product is a good source of protein and calcium, expanding it beyond the dessert menu to a breakfast food or a morning snack.

Expect the unexpected

With millennials on a quest for taste adventures, they are more apt to explore new flavor combinations, including ethnic fusions as well as sweet with heat. It’s no wonder menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse, president of Atlanta-based The Kruse Co., said Sriracha sauce has become one of “the” cool ingredients in foods for every day-part. Another cool ingredient is beer, which is being used in desserts such as Red Robin’s Oktoberfest Beer Shake.

Technomic’s Menu Monitor report for the third quarter of 2013 indicated, as compared to the same period in 2012, chocolate, vanilla and strawberry remain the top-three dessert flavors, but all three have experienced a reduced presence on dessert menus. This is likely due to the melding and fusion of flavors, which makes it difficult to identify a dessert as having a single dominant flavor.

“With chocolate, the flavors of vanilla, coffee and cherry are joining toffee, coconut and cinnamon,” said Craig “Skip” Julius, manager of culinary services for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Other new trending flavors include wild blueberries, cocoa nibs, golden flax, apricot, star anise, pumpkin, pink peppercorn, maca, lucuma, coconut milk and of course, sea salt, but even that is now morphing into infused and smoked salts.”

Ms. Carver said salted caramel is showing up in more desserts and in different ways, from being part of a crust to an inclusion to a topping.

“Retro puddings and pastry creams are coming back strong, but with an innovative twist,” she said.

For example, Chef Wylie Dufresne serves a Root Beer Pudding at his New York restaurant Alder.

“This root beer flavored pudding is topped with smoked cashews and crushed root beer barrel candies,” Ms. Carver said.

The texture of puddings, creams and fruit fillings is critical for success.

“We offer an extensive portfolio of texturizing ingredients that allows for all types of formulations, from reduced-fat to lower sugar to gluten-free,” Ms. Carver said. “For example, we created a reduced-sugar strawberry lemon ginger filling using our instant agglomerated functional native starch combined with our stevia sweetener. This is a great way to add layers of flavors without all the sugar to products such as macaroons or mini-pies.”

Mr. Julius said cookie sales in food service are off the charts. This is likely due to the cookie’s ability to be a mini-portion dessert, as well as the batter’s ability to be forgiving with many innovative ingredients.

Innovative flavors in mini-size desserts keep macaroon cookies on the dessert menu.

“The macaroon has certainly gained popularity in the past couple of years and it’s not uncommon to see a wide variety of exciting and unique flavor combinations in this bite-size treat,” said Harbinder Maan, vice-president of global market development for the Almond Board of California, Modesto, Calif. “French macaroons are made exclusively with almond flour, as the recipe would not be functional without it.”

The healthy halo of almonds transfers to macaroon, which is attractive to today’s consumers.

The unexpected also may be delivered through the use of textured ingredients.

“Savory, crunchy toppings are proving successful in food service desserts,” said Steve Moore, director of product innovation for Brand Formula, Bedford, Va. Mr. Moore is the product developer and co-marketer of a new line of tortilla chip crumbs from Azteca Ingredients Inc., Chicago, which provide color, crunch and a Hispanic twist to all types of foods, including desserts.

“The flavor and crunch of the tortilla chip crumbs pairs well with chocolate, caramel, fruits and custards,” Mr. Moore said.

The crumbs are gluten-free and nut free, providing an innovative way to add crunch to foods that appeal to consumers with dietary restrictions.

With so much innovation, and something for everyone, dessert will continue to be an important component of the menu.