Imagine a buffet of snacks, sweets and other assorted niblings laid out at the “big game” watch party or a work gathering. For many consumers, every cookie, cracker or brownie bite presents a question: “What ingredients are in here? Does this contain dairy? Gluten? Is there sugar that will cause an insulin spike? Should I have my Epi-pen ready?”

As consumers put an increasing amount of thought into their food, baking companies are called to do the same. There is trend-driven demand and medical necessity for reformulation that is more inclusive to those with food sensitivities, health conditions or even life-threatening allergies. And several bakeries are on a mission to bring better food for all to market.

The research and advocacy group Food Allergy Research and Education states that food allergens impact a staggering 32 million Americans, including 5.6 million children under the age of 18. The major food allergens that cause the most severe reactions in the US are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish. Sesame will officially join the ranks in 2023.

Many major allergens are commonly used in baked goods, making every sandwich, granola bar, cookie or muffin packed in a lunchbox a potential hazard. Schools remain one of the top places where cross-contamination can run rampant, increasing the need for products — especially the sweet treats that children love — to be “classroom safe.”


Several baking companies are delivering delicious, allergen-friendly products that don’t compromise on flavor. Austin, TX-based Better Bites Bakery makes cookie dough bites, cupcakes and more without any of the top allergens, using starch-based egg replacers and rice flour to replicate that signature texture.

Partake, a New York, NY-based rising star on the allergen-friendly baking scene, also makes its cookies and baking mixes without any of the top allergens, utilizing healthier ingredients such as oat flour, buckwheat and flax seed. As national retailers pick up more allergen-friendly options, it’s clear that commercial bakeries are shifting to give consumers impacted by allergies an opportunity to enjoy without worry.

In addition to being allergen-conscious, many consumers must cut out animal products due to dietary conditions such as food sensitivities. Whether people are vegan by choice or necessity, the demand for these types of products is growing stronger.

However, many shoppers feel dismayed at the current options because they’re simply not as good as what their mom used to make.

Robert Petrarca, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Maxine’s Heavenly, was on the frontlines of the testing and refinement of the formula for his company’s vegan and whole ingredient cookies. He and his co-founder started with an original family recipe, laden with ingredients that weren’t vegan friendly or reflective of current consumer needs, and then adapted it. The products took off from there.

“The idea was, if we’re already going to make it vegan, why don’t we do a real deep dive into how we can make it the cleanest possible cookie so it really can be for everyone,” Petrarca said. “It was a really organic evolution that started with vegan and then added on attributes we felt were important to us.”

Maxine’s Heavenly’s ingredients, in addition to being vegan, focus on natural products that leave refinement by the wayside, or, as the company deems it, focus on being “sweetened by nature.” This includes coconut sugar, coconut nectar and dates, creating a chewy and sweet cookie that nearly everyone can enjoy. Additionally, each ingredient packs a hidden nutritional punch such as fiber or magnesium.

“Sweetened by nature is really what I think the future of baking should look like.” - Robert Petrarca | co-founder and CEO | Maxine's Heavenly


“Sweetened by nature is really what I think the future of baking should look like,” Petrarca said. “Some sugars that are commonly used in baked goods have been stripped of things like fiber and other elements that help the body absorb the sugar more slowly, which can cause a sugar rush and then crash. You can’t make sweets without sugar, so it’s not about ditching that. It’s about making it better.”

The total dietary intake of fiber from food should be about 25 to 30 grams a day, but most Americans only get about 15, according to research from the University of California San Francisco. People need fiber to help control blood sugar levels, manage cholesterol and regulate GI health among other anatomical functions. This presents a big opportunity for bakers to choose ingredients and sweeteners that allow Americans to meet their nutrient needs.

Banza, the food company known for its chickpea products including pasta and pizza, is cashing in on the mighty legume to boost its products’ protein and fiber content. This gives them a health halo while filling in the fiber gaps for many consumers who crave a crispy and cheesy slice every now and then. In fact, Banza’s pizza has nearly three times the fiber content of an average frozen pizza.

“We chose to use chickpeas as the primary ingredient in our products because they help make products with similar taste and texture to wheat and have many great health benefits,” said Leigh Hamp, VP of product at Banza. “From a human health standpoint, chickpeas are high in protein and fiber, full of vitamins and minerals, and are proven to lower cardiovascular disease and risk of diabetes. “

Another key dietary need on the bakery industry’s mind is reducing added sugar. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that from 2017 to 2018, the average sugar intake for adults aged 20 or older was 17 teaspoons a day. That’s nearly 50% more than the recommended amount.

Reducing the amount of added sugar in the American diet is not only of interest to the government but also to consumers, especially as people pay more attention to how food impacts their overall health post-pandemic.

The Dietary Guidelines for ­Americans 2020-2025 report said that sugar-­sweetened beverages are ­highest for contributing to average added sugar intake, making up 24%, but desserts and sweets are not far behind at 19%.


Orlando, FL-based HighKey, a low-sugar and better-for-you cookie, cracker and treat brand, is one of many companies determined to keep added sugar out of its products. Joe Ens, HighKey’s CEO, brought his extensive experience in the food industry to help the brand grow, but he said it was really the consumers who were leading the charge.

“Fifty-one percent of consumers are trying to avoid sugar, so we didn’t have to create the demand because the demand is there,” he said. “The shift toward more awareness is always going to be consumer-driven, although I do think the government has been thinking about it as well. But it’s really about when a consumer personally experiences the benefit of driving sugar out and focusing on naturally occurring sweeteners that help keep glucose levels in check.”

Including whole grains or sweeteners that retain their fiber content can help prevent these glucose spikes, letting consumers indulge without so many negative aftereffects. And as more consumers pay attention to these factors, retailers are increasing the number of products that fit this bill on their shelves.

“Retailers that are focused on better-for-you with intent as opposed to just the image are looking for that,” Ens said. “Sophisticated [consumers] are looking for sweeteners [that don’t] jack up your glucose levels like sugar does. I think as long as you are coming to retailers with natural solutions and clean ingredients, there’s a pretty strong receptivity to it.”

That’s why smart sourcing of carbohydrates and sugars is not only meeting consumers’ dietary needs but also helping companies gain a loyal following for the quality and taste of their products.

“The baking industry is going to rely on flour and sugar because those are the core ingredients,” Petrarca said.

“For us, it’s still a cookie. We don’t want to get rid of cookies. People like to broadly cut [ingredients] categorically, and I think that’s short-sighted and un-realistic. It’s all about finding that next phase.”

This story has been adapted from the April | Q2 2022 issue of Commercial Baking. Read the full story in the digital edition here.