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What's in the cards for snacks and desserts in 2016? As we approach the close of 2015, industry pundits are gazing out over the next 12 months in an effort to foretell the direction Americans' rapidly changing tastes and eating habits will be taking in the future. Not surprisingly, experts contacted for this forecast predict that the American consumer will become even more adventurous in 2016, spurring chefs and manufacturers to pursue bolder directions in their culinary explorations. While we can expect to see some old favorites like chocolate retain its position as the center of inspiration for many desserts and snack items, new flavor cravings combining sweet and spicy — or even hot and cold — ingredients will push the boundaries of creativity next year. So look for unexpected menu mashups that also are able to accommodate such freewheeling trends as desserts served anytime and round-the-clock snacking habits. And while it's true that some predictions stick and others don't, experts agree that whatever the case, 2016 is shaping up to be a busy year for menumakers and manufacturers looking to cater to evolving tastes and dining habits.
1. Snacks, desserts still growing
The snacking segment will enjoy modest gains next year, with dollar growth ranging between 2 percent and 3 percent, according to John Sommer, Senior Market Research Manager/Foodservice, at leading snack company Mondelēz International. Lower gas prices will provide favorable tail winds, fueling consumer expenditures on snacks in both the retail and foodservice environments. Increased spending among consumers also is likely to generate more robust dessert sales, with restaurants tapping into the trend by offering more limited time offers and seasonally based items.
2. Snacking nation
Several drivers are expected to boost the frequency of snacking among consumers as well as influence their choice of purchases in 2016. As lifestyles become more frenetic, busy Americans will increasingly seek out satisfying meal solutions by turning to more portable, grab-and-go snacks, both in restaurants and in the retail arena. At the same time, consumers will continue to balance two important factors — the desire for a rich, indulgent treat and concerns about eating more healthfully, Mondelēz International’s Sommer says. However, with manufacturers and restaurateurs developing new ways to combine the two, the pair of influencers need not be mutually exclusive. Look for more whole grain and gluten-free selections, too.
3. Forever dessert
Restaurateurs will continue to see consumers break out of their conventional ordering patterns and opt for dessert selections any time of the day — from breakfast to late night snacks. With dessert occasions becoming more frequent and varied, operators will have the opportunity to broaden their dessert offerings and boost their average check. This change in behavior, Sommer says, will be driven chiefly by the ever-restless millennials, a very socially oriented group that tends to dine out more often than previous generations. They like to share and favor smaller dessert portions, too. Millennials are projected to number 75.3 million, says Pew Research Center.
4. Chocolate is hot!
Even as chefs expand their culinary palettes with a wealth of novel ingredients, chocolate will still rank as No. 1 among snack and dessert flavorings, says chef Thomas Vaccaro, dean of baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Whether it's white, dark or milk chocolate, Vaccaro says, chocolate is king. It's a versatile ingredient and can be found in highly portable snacks or desserts like cookies and brownies, molded and added to other components, or incorporated into an indulgent upscale dessert. According to Statista, Americans consume 9.5 pounds of chocolate per capita each year.
5. Let them eat cake
Experts point to cake as being a major trend in the dessert and snack market. Cake — or items with a cakelike component — can prove to be another versatile preparation, says the CIA's Thomas Vaccaro, noting that it can run the gamut from a simple yellow spongecake to a devil's food cake to something dense and rich like a brownie. Items like pound cake or angel food cake can be used as a base for many other ingredients and incorporate trendy elements such as tropical flavors or seasonal ingredients. In fact, look for more fresh fruits like apples, pears, berries and stone fruit to give cakes a seasonal twist.
6. Chefs' choice
As a part of its What's Hot Culinary Forecast for 2016, the National Restaurant Association asked nearly 1,600 chefs and members of the American Culinary Federation which desserts will be trending on restaurant menus in 2016. House-made/artisan ice cream leads the group at 71 percent, followed by bite-size mini-desserts and savory desserts, both at 60 percent. For the full list for 2016 desserts, see the infographic.
7. Running hot and cold
Look for the pairing of ingredients served at different temperatures in 2016, says the CIA's Vaccaro. He forecasts that restaurants will be offering warm desserts with a cold or even frozen component. As an example, he cites a warm winter spice custard with notes of espresso or latte combined with brown butter ice cream. The warm, silkiness of the custard is a perfect foil to the cold, flavorful ice cream, Vaccaro says. The warm-and-chilled pairing of elements also works well with snacks.
8. Future flavors
Michael Whiteman of the Baum+Whiteman consultancy in New York says if foodservice and hotel operators want to know what snacks will be hot in 2016 they should look no further than the aisles of their supermarkets. Whiteman points to several retail snack flavor profiles that could easily transfer to restaurant menus. Current trends include a shift from sweet to savory snacks, as seen in the move from high-carb to nutrient-dense, high-protein items. And even when sugar is present, it's often combined with spicy elements, like chili-spiked honey. Consumers also are gravitating toward spicy-salty-savory ethnic snacks, opting for such selections as hummus variations, flavored popcorn, chili-citrus potato chips, and mango-chili-lime chips. Savory yogurts also hold out promise for snack purveyors as well as foodservice operators, while good-for-you, good-for-the-earth packaged snacks are expected to gain further traction in the coming year.
9. Looking for transparency
Americans are continuing their quest for transparency on packaged goods labels and restaurant menus, which means that the makeup of snacks and desserts is likely to be held under closer scrutiny in the coming year. Research firm Mintel says we should look forward to consumers demanding more natural, less-processed foods. Consumers will reward operators and suppliers who can post a label or menu touting natural formulations with easily identifiable ingredients.
10. A Bowl with Benefits
Acai, the “superfruit” from Brazil, could well emerge as a breakfast supersnack in the next year, according to Baum+Whiteman's Michael Whiteman. The New York-based consultant called acai bowls the “next big hipster food.” Like smoothies but thicker, acai bowls contain frozen acai pulp mixed with soy and other milk, bananas and assorted fruit, and plenty of ice. Eaten with a spoon like ice cream, acai bowls can be topped with granola, chia seeds, chocolate chips, coconut flakes and peanut butter. In addition to boasting a variety of healthful ingredients, however, they also contain a lot of sugar, Whiteman says. Acai bowls are priced at about $10 each.