The rise and rise of healthy indulgence: ‘In tough times, food offers opportunity for delicious escapism’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Industry players forecast ‘healthy indulgence’ will continue to influence consumer shopper behaviour this year. GettyImages/IgorVoloshin
Industry players forecast ‘healthy indulgence’ will continue to influence consumer shopper behaviour this year. GettyImages/IgorVoloshin

Related tags Healthy indulgence

Macro trends, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, are driving uptake of products claiming to be both healthy and indulgent, according to ingredients suppliers.

The so-called healthy indulgence trend, whereby traditionally unhealthy treats are reformulated with positive nutrition in mind, continues to gain consumer – and industry – attention.

Exploding in recent years with the rise of products such as Halo Top (a low-calorie, reduced sugar ice cream with added protein acquired by Wells Enterprises in 2019, and currently in the process of being acquired by Ferrero), entering 2023 the trend looks to be holding its ground.

Indeed, industry players forecast ‘healthy indulgence’ will continue to influence consumer shopper behaviour this year due to, at least in part, global macro trends.

Macro trends drive better-for-you NPD

Understandably, the current cost-of-living crisis is causing anxiety amongst consumers, and it doesn’t appear to be going away: in Europe, inflation is expected to be over 12% by the end of this quarter.

Another major stress experienced by shoppers comes from readjusting to a post-COVID world. In some European countries, COVID-related restrictions have been upheld until very recently: just this month, the German government removed obligations to wear face coverings on public transport.

For dairy ingredients major FrieslandCampina ingredients, these two factors are influencing consumer shopping behaviour. “As the world adjusts to post-COVID life and the global cost-of-living crisis, consumers are feeling stressed, and are increasingly seeking out a sense of balance to build resilience.”

To do this, the supplier has observed consumers turn to ‘positive nutrition’ by adding beneficial foods, drinks and supplements to their diets, rather than simply cutting out negative nutrients.

“As a result, consumers are looking for solutions that offer healthy indulgence – and fortified and nutritious desserts, drinks and snacks that satisfy both body and mind will be high on the consumer agenda in 2023.”

Taste and nutrition-focused Kerry Group similarly pointed to financial and health anxieties as drivers of the ‘healthy indulgence’ trend. “When people are fraught with financial woes and health anxieties, food offers and opportunity for ‘delicious escapism’,” ​explained Soumya Nair, global director of consumer research and insights at the Ireland-headquartered ingredients company. “Food plays a specific role in complementing and often charging an emotional state of mind.”

While consumers are undoubtedly seeking out ‘adventure and indulgence’ in food, Nair stressed that health is no longer secondary to taste. “The pandemic has exacerbated consumers’ priority on healthy, nutritious, better-for-you, and sustainable alternatives that still deliver on the same taste experience and flavour intensity.”

“In this post-pandemic world, people seek functional ingredients, reduced sugar, and healthy alternatives that offer a nutritionally forward food and drink that does not skimp on taste and flavour.”

What’s trending in ‘healthy indulgence’?

Ashwagandha is one such ingredient leveraged by food and beverage makers to enhance products’ functionality. Positioned as a mental health aide, the herb – one of the most important in Ayurveda – is gaining traction amongst consumers, according to Kerry.

Research conducted by the ingredients supplier suggests close to 60% % of global consumers believe Ashwagandha will help them achieve their sleep health goals.

More recent research by Kerry in the US suggests savoury snacks is a category being overhauled by the ‘healthy indulgence’ trend. According to its findings, salty snacks are often synonymous with ‘craveable’ indulgence, while cheddar and sea salt continue to reign as mainstream flavours across the pond.

New categories of ‘healthier’ savoury snacks include vegetable snacks, lentil chips, seed crackers, protein crisps, low sodium and prebiotic puffs, keto and carb conscious snacks, and plant-based jerky.

Health will continue to play an increasingly significant role across the board, suggested Kerry, to meet the rising demands of functionally fortified and better-for-you alternatives.

chocolate skynesher
Chocolate is another category offering better-for-you options with less sugar that mainstream offerings. GettyImages/skynesher

Another area attracting healthier and indulgent options is confectionery. According to Innova Market Insights, brands are increasingly opting for low sugar claims on pack. Since 2017, low sugar claims on confections new product launches have grown 21%, while reduced sugar has grown by 15% and ‘no added sugar’ by 16%.

Innova’s research also suggests that 66% of consumers globally are looking for food and beverages that offer healthy indulgent options.

Such findings align with Kerry’s take on the market. Demand for zero sugar and low sugar confectionery are starting to be met, both in sugar and chocolate candy sweets, Nair told this publication.

“Familiar favourites and favourites and nostalgic candies will get a healthier facelift with a sugar free/zero sugar to ‘no sugar added’ alternatives that target a wider consumer base behind diabetic needs.

“Use of alternative sugars from natural to artificial are rising, such as honey, stevia, coconut, date, agave, and keto-paleo friendly sugars, including erythritol, monk fruit, and allulose.”

Where does chocolate sit in all this?

Chocolate is perhaps the ultimate of all indulgence products. Just as in the broader confectionery category, chocolate is also offering better-for-you options with less sugar that mainstream offerings.

Colombian chocolate manufacturer Luker Chocolate has observed this trend. “Since 2019, sugar-free chocolates have grown 13-fold in share in the US, according to Euromonitor 2021, while in the UK one in every five chocolate launches has a vegan or plant-based claim, says Mintel,” ​explained Daniela Quintero, chief of design and product development at Luker Chocolate.

“Evidently, the market demand for ‘healthy’ better-for-you chocolate is growing – but with one major caveat: flavour remains consumers’ top priority.”

Luker Chocolate also points to FMCG Gurus research, which suggests consumers aren’t willing to sacrifice great taste of better health. This is especially true for products traditionally associated with indulgence, like chocolate, Quintero told FoodNavigator.

Indeed, chocolate will always be considered an indulgent food, the product development lead continued. “It’s a treat, for moments of pleasure and luxury, and in our opinion, a category which should be primarily driven by taste.

“However, we understand that consumers are increasingly interested in making healthier choices for both themselves and the planet, without having to compromise on flavour, texture or quality.”

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