KANSAS CITY — Sales of sweet baked goods surged during the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers sought comfort from food. Innovative flavors based on marshmallows, churros and ube all may keep the sales momentum going and increase unit volume.

“These indulgent offerings give us an escape from what we’re dealing with at the moment,” said Darren Seifer, executive director, industry analyst, food and beverage for Circana, during an April 10 webinar. “Personally, a piece of chocolate is how I like to end my day and ease into the night. I’m still doing that. It’s something I picked up during COVID.”

The cookie category is a prime example of how snacks, while still rising in sales, need to improve in volume. US retail sales of cookies were up 9.1% for the 52-week period ended Dec. 31, 2023, but unit sales were down 1.1%, according to Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm.

Double chocolate, chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough and dark chocolate all are trending in 2024 as are marshmallow, strawberry, caramel, coconut, blueberry and vanilla, said Sally Lyons Wyatt, global executive vice president and chief adviser, consumer goods and foodservice insight for Circana.

“You saw some of the sweeter flavors coming through, like chocolate, peanut butter, honey, cinnamon, and I’ll tell you what, marshmallows had a big year,” Lyons Wyatt said. “Whether it was marshmallow itself or marshmallow included, it had a big year. It is affordable. It’s got this texture. It’s fun.”

Spicing it up

Salted caramel, spices and floral flavors all may be incorporated into sweet baked snacks, said Jennifer Zhou, global senior director product marketing, flavors for Chicago-based ADM.

“The caramel provides a luxurious sweetness while the salt adds depth,” she said. “Think salted caramel brownies that combine rich, fudgy chocolate with swirls of gooey salted caramel.”

Spices like cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg are another trend.

“These spices impart warm aromatics and add layers of complexity to traditional treats, appealing to consumers looking for unique flavor combinations,” Zhou said. “A prime example is a cardamom-spiced coffee cake, featuring the warmth of both cardamom and cinnamon, creating a comforting blend of spices that pairs perfectly with a morning cup of coffee or tea.”

Tiramisu and matcha green tea are bringing global influences into the sweet baked foods category.

“For instance, tiramisu cupcakes capture the indulgent flavors of the classic Italian dessert, with layers of moist vanilla sponge cake soaked in coffee liqueur and topped with a creamy mascarpone frosting and cocoa powder, offering a portable and shareable indulgence,” Zhou said. “Whereas matcha green tea flavor has piqued the interest of those seeking something exotic with its vibrant color and earthy, slightly bitter taste lending a sophisticated twist to cookies, muffins and snack cakes, appealing to adventurous palates.”

Popular floral flavors include lavender, rose and elderflower in cookies, cakes and pastries, she said. Dark chocolate with sea salt and ruby chocolate elevate indulgence.

Lighter fruit flavors

In cupcakes, coconut, lemon, strawberry and carrot cake reflect consumer preferences for fruit and lighter flavors, said Cathy Wisloski, manager, insights and customer experience for Dawn Foods, Inc., Jackson, Mich. Indulgent red velvet cupcakes are on trend, too.

“Consumers are tempted by seasonal cupcake flavors and frosting combinations, especially frosting color and cupcake topping,” Wisloski said. “Sparkly sugar, rainbow pastel frosting and gummy shark toppings can resonate with shoppers looking for princess, unicorn and ‘Baby Shark’ party themes. Finally, cupcakes provide an easy solution for celebrations post-COVID, because individual servings minimize health risks and do not require any additional serving utensils.”

Brownie flavor trends include strawberry, cherry, caramel, toffee and churro.

“Many of these trends incorporate a new texture to the traditional brownie base,” she said. “For example, dark chocolate brownies with cherries have a more complex texture. They also have a health halo associated with the ingredients. Traditional favorites like brownies with chocolate chips and frosting are top sellers. Double- or triple-chocolate brownies are the most popular in the afternoon and evenings when consumers are looking for an indulgent, portable snack.”

Turtle brownies, churro brownies and blondies are increasing in sales at retail by giving new twists to traditional favorites, she added. Baked foods provide a familiar canvas in which to explore trending flavors, she said. Beignets, churros, machi donuts, kouign-amann (a sweet cake) and qulab jamun (a sweet confectionery) are appearing on more menus.

“The overarching trend in recent years is incorporating global flavors into indulgent baked snacks,” said Mark Webster, vice president of sales and business development for T. Hasegawa USA, Cerritos, Calif. “Consumers look to this category for comfort, but they are also interested in mixing things up with novel ingredients, spices and flavors that deliver both indulgence and exciting variety.”

Mexican-inspired cinnamon flavors like churro and horchata increasingly are found in sweet baked foods along with pastry flavors like baklava and cobbler, he said.

Evening indulgence

While healthy snacks are eaten most often from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., indulgent snacks become more popular after 3 p.m., rising to their highest levels from 6-9 p.m., according to Circana. Indulgence took up 30% of the snack category’s dollar share for the 52-week period ended Dec. 31, 2023, followed by better-for-you at 27% and permissible indulgence at 24%. Treats came in at 18%.

A decline in better-for-you snacks may bottom out in 2025, according to Circana.

“For the last — gosh — four years, I think, I have been saying, ‘Indulgence is winning. Indulgence is winning. I don’t know when better-for-you is going to come back,’” Lyons Wyatt said. “I think we’re starting to turn the corner.”