For years now, the baking industry has heard a lot of noise about consumer demand for healthy, better-for-you products. But in the midst of all the clamoring, there’s still an insatiable desire for good old-fashioned indulgence. Face it: Americans may say they need healthy, but they still want to indulge.

“People are more concerned that their dessert is high quality and fresh than if it’s healthy,” said Mary Chapman, director, product innovation for Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm. “They’re using desserts as a way to treat themselves, so indulgence suits that desire more than healthy does.”

For Just Desserts, Oakland, CA, the focus of the company’s products is definitively high-quality over better-for-you alternatives.

“We’ve been mindful that while people are concerned about nutrition and health, when they want to treat themselves, they don’t want to compromise on taste and texture,” said Michael Mendes, Just Desserts CEO, adding that, “Our guidelines are we do not compromise on the consumer experience.”

A look at any Top 10 list for 2014 dessert trends reveals that, when it comes to feeding the sweet tooth, flavor, texture and flair are where it’s at. And although this has without a doubt become a foodie culture, the focus is on eating rather than cooking. They’re not necessarily making these treats in their own kitchens. They’re seeking them out in supermarket freezer aisles, restaurants and in-store bakeries.

 According to Nielsen Perishables Group data published in the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA)’s What’s in Store 2014, from 2009 to 2012, while numbers decreased slightly year-to-year, desserts remained the top sellers of total in-store bakery sales above breads and rolls, breakfast bakery and other miscellaneous baked foods.

Cake is king

The hot desserts topping the trends lists might be screaming sophisticated, adventurous and perhaps even unheard of, but make no mistake: Cakes still dominate. In the in-store bakery, they scooped up more than 60% of the share of category dollars in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to Nielsen Perishables Group data released to IDDBA.

“While consumers talk about novelty, our research has shown that they want novelty when they’re ready for it,” Mr. Mendes said. “Generally, when it comes to food, they go back to many of their staples, and cake certainly fits in that area. The question is, are cakes more or less relevant in the marketplace?”

Looking at the Top 10 Dessert Trends for 2014 on, the answer seems to be a resounding “Yes.” From Midwestern influence to flavored salts and international spices to nut inclusions to small batch and shareable desserts, opportunities abound for cake producers.

With more and more desserts layering up — and mixing it up — cakes can provide a starting point or even a component of creatively stacked desserts.

Mashing up the comfort

Although millennials (the generation with some of the strongest purchasing power) tend to be some of the most adventurous eaters, don’t discount the comfort mainstays. Traditional items such as cakes, brownies and pies tend to be some of the most popular treats. In fact, in the 2013 Dessert Consumer Trend report from Technomic, when asked if they tend to enjoy many of the same desserts they ate as a child, more than half of respondents ages 18-24 and 25-34, both male and female, answered positively.

Fusion is the easiest way to transform an old standby into something new. Blending textures, flavor profiles, ingredients and inclusions is a surefire way to create a fresh concept for a generation of adventurous eaters who have grown up in a global community.

“We like to think of developing products that are distinct but in a good way,” Mr. Mendes said. “Something that rings a familiarity of textures and flavors that you already know, but perhaps it’s presented in a different context. That’s something that can be broadly ­appealing, especially in an unexpected context.”

Dawn Foods, Jackson, MI, has also seen opportunities in developing cakes that offer some kind of twist on the familiar. “Shoppers look for culinary flair or a touch of decadence, as well as style and decorations that look ‘kitchen made’ and bring back memories and feelings of nostalgia,” said Hugh Brooks, Dawn senior business manager, cakes.

To create something fresh for any special occasion, Dawn developed a line of Vortex Dessert Cakes that combine cake and brownie layers topped with a signature truffle swirl.

Twisting up the mainstays not only brings together consumers’ sense of adventure with a craving for the good old days, but it also opens up opportunities to fill the need for items such as layered cakes, which are becoming increasingly popular.

“Demand for dessert cakes with three or more layers is on the rise, and we are addressing the trend with new products like our line of premium three-layer dessert cakes,” Mr. Brooks indicated.

“We’re also differentiating ourselves in that space by not only ­offering dessert cakes with multiple layers but also a combination of flavors and textures,” he added. Some varieties in the line include Carrot with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Icing, Caramel Truffle, Red Velvet Vanilla Mousse and Chocolate Caramel Pretzel.

While the old cliché “have your cake and eat it too” doesn’t make much literal sense, it does paint a picture of  how layering and combining contrasting and complementary flavors can transform the ordinary into something exceptional. People can have their cake … and brownie … and mousse … and cheesecake — all in one. For example, Lawler’s Bakery, Humble, TX, offers a Chocolate Tartufo cake that combines thin layers of chocolate cake with white and milk chocolate mousses, as well as a Chocolate Eruption cake that weaves together chocolate cream, nuts, chocolate chips and turtle cheesecake cubes finished with chocolate curls, sliced almonds and caramel.

“We are still working to meet the traditional flavor needs for consumers,” Mr. Brooks noted, “but we’re combining these flavors with new textures and emerging flavor trends to add excitement and help our customers make the in-store bakery a destination for their shoppers.”

Festival of flavor

Sometimes it’s not about combining two or more types of products as much as it is fusing flavors together in new ways — or simply adding a new or unusual ingredient — to create new products or put a twist on a known favorite.

Some trends, such as salted caramel, have become clearly established. The next step then, is taking it to an ultra-decadent level. “One of our calling cards is that we look to bring premium ingredients into products that appeal to consumers who value those ingredients,” Mr. Mendes explained. “As a result, we won’t shy away from certain ingredients in our product development. That’s going to give us an opportunity to bring some unusual flavors and textures to the market.”

Spices are slowly but surely starting to pop up on dessert menus and in packaged desserts as “hot and sweet” becomes increasingly popular. For example, the Food Channel noted that cracked pepper is on the rise in 2014.

In Technomic’s 2013 Dessert Consumer Trend Report, respondents ages 18-34 indicated that they find a mosaic of salty, savory and spicy flavors more appealing than those 35 and older. Of the three options, salty flavors in desserts were most popular overall.

While some of the more exotic spices might not be trending high enough for prominent sales traction, it’s definitely something that should be on the R&D radar.

“There is an unlimited number of ways to incorporate spices that are widely accepted by consumers who are tending to eat more ­adventurously,” Mr. Brooks explained. 

Just Desserts is currently toying with ethnic flavor profiles that might not have been incorporated much in the past but could secure a place in the future marketplace. “We think it’s very interesting how spices and heat are being incorporated into the baking segment in a way that might still be new to North American and US consumers. We’re doing a lot of exploration in that area, and it’s going to be interesting,” Mr. Mendes said.

Indulging a little

When it comes to the decadence of it all, desserts, at their core, are not about healthy choices. With the trend toward minis, single-serving and flights, they don’t have to be. Through portion control, consumers can allow themselves to worry less about the calorie count and focus more on the culinary experience.

In fact, mini desserts topped US Foods’ 2014 list, and according to Technomic, 52% of women age 25-34 surveyed in the 2013 report said they would be more likely to order a dessert if restaurants provided  smaller options.

One way for bakeries to stay relevant in the marketplace is to roll with changing demographics. American households are shrinking with nearly half as many married couples as there were three or four decades ago and more people living alone than ever before. “We offer some smaller cakes that accommodate a smaller family or a smaller occasion, which is an area where cakes can become more relevant,” Mr. Mendes said.

Cakes can make portion control convenient when in-store bakeries serve up individual cake slices in single-serve packaging. Incidentally, this is also a way for retailers to showcase some of the new and unique layers and texture combinations. “We are seeing ‘mini bundts’ as the hot new mini dessert trend on the way over from foodservice,” Mr. Brooks observed. “We have introduced an extensive line of year-round and seasonal varieties with packaging options.”

Healthy lifestyles are no doubt top of mind for consumers, but in their hearts, people want to treat themselves, whether as a reward, a celebration or even just a break from those otherwise “good” choices throughout the rest of the day. No matter the reason, consumers will always have a sweet tooth, and bakeries that provide a host of dessert options will be there to deliver.