American food trends have been focused health-and-wellness since obesity in the US was declared an epidemic in the late ‘90s. Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, American consumers are living in a dichotomy between health and comfort, often seeing indulgence through a different lens.

Once considered an “either/or” proposition, eating habits are now thought of more like a puzzle, where healthy and indulgent each have a specific fit.

“Consumers are recognizing that what they’re trying to achieve is a sustainable way of feeling well,” said Shelley Balanko, PhD., senior VP at the Hartman Group, a research firm focused on food and beverage consumer trends. “When the pendulum swings to either extreme, it really doesn’t leave anyone feeling well. Too much restriction is unsettling — for its own reasons — and too much indulgence is unsettling. So, trying to achieve more of an equilibrium is the desired path for most consumers.”

NielsenIQ research revealed that almost a third (31%) of Americans said they have a totally different set of priorities than they did in 2019, and those priorities will significantly impact their buying decisions. In NielsenIQ’s Global Consumer Outlook report for 2022, 63% of consumers said physical wellness will be important to them over the next 12 months. And 65% of the respondents said the same thing about mental wellness.

Hartman Group research sees this playing out in food choices and how those puzzle pieces all fit together.

“As we become a health-and-wellness culture, the thought around indulgences is that they’re an integral part of a balanced lifestyle,” Dr. Balanko said. “People have really embraced that notion of balance, and they’re thinking about health-and-wellness more holistically than ever before. The pandemic really solidified this notion that physical well-being is just as important as mental well-being, and those two sides can affect each other to a certain degree.”

Oftentimes, the word “diet” gives way to “lifestyle,” and that provides room for consumers to dig into a treat occasionally. And as people give themselves permission to indulge, they can be more discerning on what they consider to be worth it. For bakers producing decadent sweet goods, this becomes a key consideration in product development.

The first step is identifying the goals and strategies for a product or brand’s primary demographic. When it comes to eating well, what’s considered a worthy indulgence primarily depends on the camp in which its consumers fall.


As nostalgia leverages itself for justifiable indulgence, Northampton, PA-based Creative Crispies has turned a beloved homemade treat into a next-level consumer experience.

The bakery creates upscale Rice Crispie Treats in just about any shape imaginable, from balloons to clowns to donut and cupcake shapes, topped with icing, sprinkles or even messages written in edible screen printing. The Crispies are sold mainly through QVC, in boutique retail outlets, hotel and hospital gift shops, or direct-to-consumer on the company’s website.

“It’s a straight-up indulgence,” said Amy Kirby, Creative Crispies founder and CEO.

Because people have different, very personalized ways of indulging, Dr. Balanko noted that even consumers most committed to a healthy lifestyle still want to indulge. It will just look quite different from the person on the periphery who hits the cookie jar or dessert bar more often.

It’s all relative.

For example, one person may be more likely to regularly partake in an exotic treat with dark chocolate or goji berry not necessarily high on the sugars, and another might give in and sneak a Twinkie from the kids’ lunchbox stash every once in a while.

“That core health-and-wellness consumer might have a Twinkie on occasion,” Dr. Balanko said. “But it might happen once every five years. More and more, there are everyday or weekly indulgences that focus on premium ingredients and premium production practices.”

This is a huge area of focus for Miamisburg, OH-based Killer Brownie Co., which unapologetically produces some of the most extravagant brownies on the market with varieties made with a layer of caramel sprinkled with chocolate chips and finished with more chocolate chips.


For Killer Brownie consumers, it’s not just an experience; it’s also a worthy one. And at the bakery, the conversation usually starts with the ingredients.

“We want consumers to come to us for a great indulgent overall experience,” said Chimene Ross, Killer Brownie president and chief customer officer. “That means adding unique ingredients that also hit the target for our brand. When we look at creating a product, we never skimp on ingredients.”

Ingredients are the primary factor for Creative Crispies as well. After much trial and error, Kirby has discovered nothing beats the real deal.

“We only use real ingredients, like real butter and sea salt,” Kirby said. “And we only use Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. There’s a distinct difference in the texture of the product. I’ve tried to use generic or gluten-free cereal, but it just doesn’t create the same consistency.”

For Kirby, that’s what leads to an “in the moment” type of experience.

“This isn’t something someone would buy to put in their kid’s lunchbox,” she said, noting that gift-giving and events are a primary purchase driver for the product. “We get a lot of orders for birthdays and baby showers. Shapes like bears are very popular because they’re so versatile and can be applied to different types of occasions.”

With shapes like bunnies, parents can offer their kids that memorable experience of biting the ear off the Easter Bunny with a product that’s not only nostalgic from their own childhood but also a lighter alternative to a solid chocolate version.

As indulgence enjoys its time in more neutral territory, its sure to become a key part of consumer well-being moving forward.

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


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