While bread bakers work to leverage the latest trends and reach more health-conscious Americans, bakers of more decadent products can easily wall themselves off from the health wave with the simple argument, “Consumers want cookies to be cookies.” To an extent, this is true. When it comes to cookies, brownies, muffins and other treats, people will not sacrifice taste for nutrition.

“If the cookie does not taste good or if there are taste tradeoffs that are being made to deliver a more ‘healthy’ cookie — consumers will not come back to the product,” said Phil Singh, associate director, Cookies and On-the-Go Innovation, Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI.

However, the tide is too strong, and bakers of these sweet goods find themselves preparing with fortification and natural ingredients just in case the trend finally washes over indulgent snacks and desserts.

Dominating health themes

Health is a science, but not necessarily an exact one, so what it means to consumers varies. Consumer concerns range from cutting out gluten and reducing salt, sugar and fat to adding greater amounts fiber and antioxidants to their diets. Then there are the consumers looking for natural ingredients — ingredients consumers can recognize. Despite consumers saying they want to eat healthier, they continue to reach for cookies, brownies and muffins.

Cookiehead Cookies, Housatonic, MA, built its business on this premise, offering sweet treats that taste good but are nutritionally responsible. The company’s president, Lisa Newmann, believes it is the food industry’s obligation to provide nutritious food to consumers. This mission manifests itself in Cookiehead’s products with ingredients that have made headlines for their health benefits but still taste delicious, ingredients such as oats, dark chocolate, nuts and coffee.

“We’re not saying you should eat six oatmeal ­raisin cookies instead of an apple,” Ms. Newmann said of Cookiehead’s positioning. “Eat an apple. But if you’re going to have a cookie, eat this cookie because this cookie has whole grains and all the good stuff.”

Cookiehead Cookies also offers mini brownies and muffins. Its brownies are made with spelt flour and dark chocolate and are dairy-free while the muffins are made with spelt flour and include nuts, seeds, fruit, wheat germ and maple syrup. The company plans to expand its product offerings this year with a line of Java Snacks that will include additional cookie flavors and a biscotti-like snack that all tap into the antioxidant power of ­coffee. Cookiehead introduced these snacks at this year’s International-Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association show, and they will be on supermarket shelves in the fall.

Big names step up

Healthy indulgent snacks aren’t just for niche manufacturers anymore, though. Large players in the industry are stepping up to deliver nutrition in a sweet vehicle. For Keebler, a Kellogg Company brand, the approach to “good for you” cookies banks on consumers backing away from unfamiliar ingredients. Worried about compromising taste, the brand avoided fortifying its cookies with added nutrition and focused instead on revamping the ingredient deck.

“Our research strongly indicates that consumers are looking for simple, recognizable ingredients in their foods — essentially, the same ingredients you would find in your own pantry,” Mr. Singh said. In May, the company launched Simply Made, a line of cookies that provide the taste consumers expect with an ingredient list they recognize. “We see this as an opportunity to deliver a delicious line of cookies to consumers who want make sure that their ­family gets the very best,” he said.

General Mills, Minneapolis, strives to offer consumers a guilt-free way to satisfy their sweet tooth with portion control, limited calorie content and fortified nutrients — all of which characterize its über-popular Fiber One brand. The latest addition to the line: brownies.

“Consumers are looking for healthier options, but they still want traditional, familiar treats,” said Doug Martin, marketing manager for Fiber One. “Our approach has been to offer those items in a 90-Cal version that gives them enough of what they’re craving, but they can feel good about that treat on a daily basis.”

Everything the brand does is not only 90 Cal but also individually wrapped, making indulging responsibly easy for people on-the-go or watching their weight. “Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you’re not going to crave a little chocolate at 3 p.m.,” Mr. Martin said. “If weight managers feel they’ve made a big mistake, they can be off track for days. If we can help them satisfy a craving, then they feel good about themselves for making the right choice. That’s the sweet spot for us.” And the Fiber One brand would not be complete without delivering on its promise of being an excellent source of fiber.

Portion and craving control are also on Kellogg Company’s radar with its Special K Brownie Bites. These brownie products allow consumers to satisfy their sweet tooth without going overboard by delivering small treats in a convenient 100-Cal pouch. The bites come in a Fudge Brownie flavor and Blondie Brownie flavor.

Fiber One hopes to tackle another challenge for dieters: boredom. A lack of choices can be the downfall of any diet, and with the Fiber One brownie seeing so much success, brand managers decided to extend the line and give consumers watching their diets more choices. This year, Fiber One introduced a chocolate chip variety and, this month, lemon bar and cinnamon coffee cake varieties as well.

Taste vs. nutrition

Taste is the biggest challenge when it comes to creating an indulgent snack that offers nutritional value as well. The difficulty, however, does not arise from adding the nutrients, but from battling consumer expectations.

“There’s been no-sugar, no-fat, no-salt, no-anything, including no-taste, and our approach has been to respect the consumer’s desire for delicious snacks along with their interest in eating healthier food,” Ms. Newmann said. Starting from the ground up, Cookiehead builds products with ingredients that are delicious but inherently nutritious, so formulating for good taste isn’t a problem.

 “Chocolate and nuts actually do taste good when they’re mixed together,” she said. “I’ve been balancing dark chocolate and nuts for a long time. When I hear someone say to me, ‘It’s healthy, so it’s not going to taste good,’ it doesn’t make sense to me.”

For Fiber One, the flavor challenge doesn’t come from the added fiber, but from the calorie limitations it places on itself. “When a consumer thinks about a brownie, we have to deliver against their really high taste expectations,” Mr. Martin said. “A brownie you’d find in a deli might have a couple hundred calories, and we only have 90. We’re trying to deliver as much delicious flavor within those constraints.”

Good-for-you advertising

No matter how delicious product developers make a new healthy indulgence, without a taste test ­demonstration, a baker relies completely on the marketing message and packaging to convince consumers that this healthier sweet snack is indeed still tasty. Sometimes, attaching a health buzzword to an indulgent product can even backfire.

When Cookiehead first launched its cookies, the packaging label identified them as “whole grain cookies.” Ms. Newmann said that even though the cookies are simply oatmeal cookies, a consumer favorite, people were scared off by the phrase whole grain. “People thought they were diet cookies instead of just oatmeal cookies,” she said. “They’re all just oatmeal cookies.”

Labeling the cookies as whole grain led to a ­consumer perception that they wouldn’t taste good, something Cookiehead discovered in market ­research. When people were asked if they would buy the product simply by the label without a taste test, most shied away from the whole grain label saying the cookie would taste like cardboard or that their children would never eat them.

To remedy this unforeseen issue, Cookiehead introduced labeling that first describes its cookies by ­flavor —for example, Crazy for Cranberries or Chocolate Chunk — and then identifies the product as an oatmeal cookie rather than a whole grain cookie.

Fiber One, well-known for its bars, used television advertising to let consumers know they were branching out into brownies. “This is a category that is more about granola bars, so if you don’t tell people to look for a brownie there, they’re not going to find it,” Mr. Martin explained. With consumers hearing the message that brownies are no longer off-limits to dieters, the brand has seen success in the form of $100 million in sales.          

Healthy ingredients and fortification don’t need to be a threat to sweet snacks and desserts. Consumers will always reach for cookies, brownies and muffins, whether they are counting calories, fiber or ­nothing at all. Natural ingredients, fortification and portion control can all assist bakers in making indulgent snacks that reach both health-conscious and mainstream consumers.