From soft to crunchy, various textures for caramel inclusions yield different “bites” in baked goods, bars and snacks.

Colored sprinkles, flavored chips, pralined nuts … these are just some of the many “little extras” that bakers can fold into batter or dough or scatter across a frosting or glaze. They can also be tossed with flakes or mixed into clusters and extruded into a bar or bite.

Inclusions are the fun and flavorful ingredients that add eye appeal and, often, texture to baked goods. Increasingly, they also serve as a vehicle to add extra nutrition because inclusions and toppings can be formulated to deliver protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and even probiotics.

Other extras often added to baked goods include specially prepared fruits and nuts, which are designed to withstand the rigors of the baking process. This includes temperature fluctuations during distribution, as well as lengthy ambient shelf life for packaged snack products.

“Inclusions are commonly used in the snack food and baking industries as color, flavor and texture delivery systems,” said Ron Heddleson, senior director of R&D, QualiTech Co.

Megan Culp, sales manager, Parker Products, added, “Today’s consumer isn’t satisfied with the standard flavors and ingredients of the past. Consumers now look for healthy, clean-label baked goods with intriguing culinary flavors. This is true for everything from bagels to donuts to granola bars.

“Exciting ingredients are key to creating exciting baked goods, from new flavors to trendy health ingredients,” she continued. “Since such items typically reflect a small purchase, and many consumers make numerous such purchases, new products are a key way of maintaining consumer interest in your brand. Identifying ingredient trends that work well within existing product formats can be a valuable tool for developing new products.”

Moisture matters

There are several variables to consider when working with inclusions and toppings. The most important determination is whether the ingredient will be added after the oven or mixed into the batter or dough and then baked.

“If the ingredient will be baked inside of the product, the inclusion will need to be formulated to handle processing and after-baking conditions,” said Claudia Granda, vice-president of R&D, Pecan Deluxe. “Considerations include mixing time, initial moisture content of the batter or dough, baking time and temperature, final moisture content of the baked product and storage conditions.”

Residence time was cited by Adam Hickman, senior scientist, sweet technologies, Kerry, Americas Region, for careful monitoring. “Too much can lead to color migration and a loss of piece identity,” he observed. “Particulates can mitigate the risk of long residence times with special coatings of oil and gums to slow the moisture movement.”

Batter consistency matters, too. “If the batter is too thin, it won’t have the viscosity to hold the particulates up, and they will settle to the bottom,” Mr. Hickman explained. “Certain gums can aid in particle suspension, too.”

When the ingredient is more of a topping than an inclusion — meaning it is added after baking — there is more flexibility because heat stability is no longer much of an issue. However, moisture migration must still be considered.

“A moisture barrier is normally needed to avoid the inclusion or topping from dissolving or bleeding, as well as to prevent it from staling,” Ms. Granda said. “In addition, if the product will be refrigerated or frozen, and thawing is needed before serving, a moisture barrier will help maintain the ingredient’s integrity.”

With dry bakery mixes, moisture migration is a critical consideration, according to Robert Mason, senior scientist-applications lab, SensoryEffects Ingredient Solutions. “If the inclusions are high-moisture, the moisture can transfer into the mix and compromise shelf life,” he said. “Some high-sugar inclusions can absorb moisture, which would cause them to become sticky or syrup-like.

“Oxidation of inclusions can also be an issue in dry mix products,” he added. “To combat this, the producer may need to have antioxidants in either the mix or inclusion or to use an inclusion that is predominately lipid-based to act as a barrier.”

Extrusion creates crispy inclusions made of the ancient grains quinoa, amaranth, sorghum and millet.

‘Real food’ aspects

Labeling attributes must be determined up front because many consumers increasingly seek out simple ingredient legends void of artificial ingredients. Even though inclusions and toppings are small and often just a minute part of the finished product, they can have quite complex compositions.

“The biggest trend we see is a shift to natural colors and flavors and non-GMO ingredients, as well as moving away from trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils,” Mr. Mason said.

The formulator’s choice of inclusion can play up those angles of simple and natural. “In the inclusions space, it’s all about real food,” said Bill Vlach, food technologist, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. “We are seeing a great deal of interest in using real chocolate, with a physical size that makes the inclusion apparent.”

Fruits and nuts come with their own set of criteria. With fruit ingredients, moisture transfer is likely the leading consideration, while with nuts, oxidative rancidity can be detrimental to a baked product.

“In terms of eating experience, fresh fruit ingredients often make better inclusions than dried and freeze-dried fruit,” said Wayne Lutomski, vice-president of international, Welch’s Global Ingredients Group. “However, it’s also fair to say that fresh fruit can be difficult to work with when formulating products.”

This is particularly true for snack foods and bars. These products require low-moisture fruit pieces that maintain their integrity and avoid water activity problems.

Tree Top Fruit Ingredients is now using a proprietary puffing approach to create light, low-moisture, low-­density puffed apples with a crunchy texture, making them ideal for snack mixes and ready-to-eat cereals.

“The process forces air into the cellular structure of the fruit, causing each cell to puff up,” said Kevin Holland, product developer, Tree Top, Inc. “It duplicates the crunchy texture or mouthfeel of freeze-dried fruits.”

Because cookies and granola bars have their own set of needs, Tree Top developed apple chews, where dried apples are super-infused with fruit juice concentrate. The infused piece retains a soft, pliable texture, and the reduction of free water cuts the potential for microbial activity.

Welch’s Global Ingredients Group uses ultra-rapid concentration to create pieces, flakes and bites from real Concord and Niagara grapes. Produced from Welch’s grape juice and purée, the 100% fruit inclusions come in varied shapes and sizes, with or without other fruit or vegetable juices. Additional ingredients, such as chia seeds, can be incorporated for extra nutrition and texture. They can be used in nutrition bars, confectionery, baked goods and breakfast cereals to add 100% fruit flavor and nutrition.

“It’s all about maintaining integrity in the finished product,” said Regina Bertoldo, food scientist, Healthy Food Ingredients. “That integrity might be chemical, nutritional or physical. The inclusion should deliver as intended.”

Tailored grain-based inclusions can mimic nuts in texture and flavor but without adding allergens.

Piquing curious taste buds

Inclusions and toppings are an easy way to keep today’s adventure-seeking consumer interested. Often times, the same base recipe can be used and just the inclusion swapped.

“Flavorful add-ins are typically designed to be used in an already established formula with minimal adjustments required,” Mr. Mason said. “They are an efficient approach to making limited-time offerings and line extensions.”

So, what’s driving innovation right now? It’s all about big and bold flavors, often with tastes from around
the world.

“Savory, spicy, bitter and sour notes are on the rise,” Ms. Culp observed. “A growing area is the application of spicy flavors, such as sriracha or harissa, to products that have traditionally featured sweet flavors, such as snack bars or even breakfast muffins.”

Such flavor trends represent today’s direction for inclusions, according to Mr. Heddleson. In turn, fabricated inclusions can be designed to deliver just the right amount of flavor to prompt the consumer to crave another bite. Inclusions can be prepared with specific moisture contents and textures, as well with layers of flavor in a single bit or piece. There are even non-allergenic inclusions that provide crunchy nut-like textures.

He cited the introduction of several new particulates featuring sweet and savory flavors, including bacon, caramel sea salt, chili pepper, honey chipotle, mango-habanero, maple, sweet chili Thai, sriracha and wasabi. “We also have new nostalgic flavors, such as carrot cake, cinnamon bun and root beer,” he said.

The crunchy dimension

Consumers’ desire for healthier foods drives another significant ingredient trend, which is formulating with ancient grains, such as quinoa, amaranth, kamut, freekeh, spelt or teff, according to Ms. Culp. “These grains are perceived as nutrient-rich and complement both sweet and savory flavors,” she said.

For example, Parker Products recently introduced agave-glazed puffed quinoa, which can be used to top everything from a donut to a snack cake. The puffs can also be used in bars and snack bites.

Fiber is another nutrient that consumers seek, and here, too, ancient grains represent an opportunity. These grains can contribute fiber and micronutrients.

Healthy Food Ingredients offers an ancient grain crisp made from a custom blend of milled and extruded quinoa, amaranth, sorghum and millet. “The crisps are whole grain and naturally gluten-free with a neutral flavor profile, which complements many applications, including cereals, clusters, energy bars, granola and more,” Ms. Bertoldo said.

Premium nut inclusions can help increase the protein content of baked goods, while also contributing valuable nutrients, such as omega-3 and monounsaturated fatty acids.

“Although nuts can make for costly inclusions, clusters employing a variety of ingredients as well as the nut meat can provide a means for cost-conscious brands to deliver the nut without a high price,” Ms. Culp explained. One such an example is Parker Products’ new protein-rich coconut almond granola clusters.

Giving nuts and seeds a praline treatment by coating them with caramelized sugar delivers not only crunchy textures but also flavor opportunities. Ms. Granda described the popularity of adding flavors and seasonings to complement specific product concepts. For example, add cinnamon chili spiced pecans to an apple muffin formula, and you deliver a provocative twist.

“We use all types of nut meats and newly trending grains, then sugar, coat or dust them with on-trend seasonings and herbs,” said Kami Smith, director of culinary showcasing at Pecan Deluxe. “We are pushing the boundaries on spice.”

As attractive as nuts are from both a sensory and nutritional perspective, they also are an allergen. Many bakers do not want them in their facility. Inclusion Technologies LLC offers a range of grain-based inclusions designed to deliver the taste and texture of real nuts without the nut allergens or the high prices often associated with nuts.

“We have a range of allergen-free inclusions, including flavored flakes and nuggets, naturally flavored and coated sugars and non-GMO-verified nut replacers and extenders,” said Dennis Reid, vice-president, sales and marketing, Inclusion Technologies. “We are also working on some nut-free granolas. All of these ingredients can be customized to create signature finished baked goods.”

Flavor-spiked praline nut pieces give a “sugar and spice” appeal to oatmeal cookies.

Building nutrient density

There’s also an opportunity to enrich fabricated inclusions and clusters with nutrients.

“Desirable nutrient claims can be accomplished via supplementation of inclusions,” Ms. Culp said. “Although supplementation requires careful formulation to ensure that it does not compromise sensory quality, this technique also has the potential to support applications that will draw health-focused consumers.”

For example, Delavau Food Partners has technology that allows indulgent inclusions, such as chocolate, compound coatings and caramel pieces, to be fortified with calcium and other minerals.

Never forget the element of fun when it comes to inclusions and toppings. The trend is to maintain fun while also cleaning up labels.

“The market is crowded, and the category winners are those that will offer that elite combination of great taste and texture, a good nutrition profile, satisfaction and simplicity,” Mr. Lutomski concluded.