Exploring the dairy-free sweets trend

August 3, 2018

Growing consumer interest in dairy-free and plant-based alternatives is reflected on operators’ dessert menus.


Vegan desserts and those made with plant-based dairy products are increasingly going mainstream as more consumers explore diets that minimize their meat and dairy consumption.

In addition, chefs are learning to work with dairy-free alternatives such as coconut milk, almond milk and other ingredients to create dishes which provide a rewarding finale to any meal.

Although only a small percentage of consumers follow a vegan diet full-time, an increasing number are eating more plant-based and dairy-free foods. About 83 percent of Americans are adding plant-based foods to their diets to improve health and nutrition, while 62 percent do so for weight management, according to a 2017 Nielsen Homescan Panel Protein survey.

Foodservice consultancy Baum+Whiteman named plant-based dining as the No. 1 Trend of the Year for 2018 in its annual culinary forecast.

“Millennials and Gen X and Zers are embracing plant-based foods while still young — and probably sticking with it,” the firm says in the 2018 trend report.

The number of restaurants that feature plant-based ingredients has increased 67 percent in the past four years, according to Chicago-based research firm Datassential.

Similarly, Datassential reports that the term “vegan” appears on about 2 percent of restaurant dessert menus, up 87 percent in the last four years.

“We certainly think that ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ will be continuing trends,” says Claire Conaghan, syndicated group manager at Datassential.

Here are three ways operators are creating vegan desserts using plant-based and dairy-free alternatives.

Coconut milk as a dairy substitute

Some chefs report that full-fat coconut milk enhances the flavor of many baked desserts, serving as a rich dairy-free substitute for butter, milk or cream in certain recipes.

Stella Parks, author of the cookbook “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts,” says she prefers using coconut milk in her light lemon scones.

“Not only does coconut have a natural affinity for lemon, it tends to intensify rather than mellow an essential oil called citral,” Parks wrote in a blog post on

Conaghan of Datassential says coconut milk appears to be making inroads in U.S. restaurants, with its use on menus, up 57 percent in the last four years.

“Coconut milk has a nice flavor to it, and it can be a little fattier [than other plant-based dairy alternatives],” she says.

It also lends itself readily to ethnic flavors. New York’s Ube Kitchen, a vegan restaurant specializing in Filipino-inspired cuisine, offers a variety of vegan desserts, such as halo halo made with vegan purple yam ice cream. The dessert is topped with granola, fresh berries, mango, mung beans, tapioca pearls, jackfruit, toasted coconut flakes and sweet coconut milk sauce.

Healthy and sustainable ingredients

Offering desserts that meet dietary restrictions is becoming increasingly common, says Dallas Houle, executive chef at Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant in Boulder, Colo.

“Within vegan desserts, I notice a trend toward the use of healthy and/or sustainable ingredients,” he says. “We at Leaf are working toward meeting these trends by continuously doing research into the products we source and the health benefits they offer.”

Vegan desserts at the acclaimed eatery include:

  • • Carrot cake.
  • • Chocolate drop doughnuts.
  • • Vanilla cheesecake.
  • • Seasonal fruit crisp.
  • • Vegan ice cream.

Houle uses either soaked and pureed nuts or pureed tofu as dairy substitutes.

“There are products available that are stabilizer-based, and I would prefer to use whole foods in my cuisine, not rice milk turned into cream using various stabilizing and gelling agents,” he says.

Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen seeks to accommodate customers looking to avoid both gluten and dairy. The chain’s dessert offerings include a flourless chocolate cake served with a side of warm caramel sauce and cocoa nibs, topped with a scoop of dairy-free vanilla vegan ice cream made with coconut cream and rice milk.

Nut-free and dairy-free

Some consumers avoid both nuts and dairy, and operators can accommodate these diners in some cases by using rice milk or soy milk.

Among the popular baked goods at Emeryville, Calif.-based Peet’s Coffee & Tea is the Low-Fat Vegan Apricot Oatmeal Scone, which includes among its ingredients vegan margarine (made from a non-hydrogenated vegetable oil blend) and soy milk, according to a Peet’s spokeswoman. Most of the scones on Peet’s menu are made using eggs, milk and/or cream, and butter.

At New York’s acclaimed vegan restaurant Candle 79, the menu features nut-based cheeses in some of its dishes, but for her Vegan Molten Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis, co-founder Joy Pierson uses unsweetened soy milk, safflower oil and vegan semisweet chocolate chips, among other ingredients, according to her “Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Cafe” recipe.

In the meantime, as consumers seek out more plant-based and dairy-free choices in their diets, foodservice operators will continue to explore ways to cater to their customers' changing tastes and dietary demands.