CHICAGO — Google searches for keto diets have started to wane, according to SPINS data, while the 2023 Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council showed a drop from 7% to 4% of consumers reporting they are following a keto diet. Are consumers losing interest in this high-fat, ultra-low-carb weight loss regimen?

The answer is complicated, but there were hints of it all over the 2024 Natural Products Expo West exhibit floor where there was a notable decline of products marketed with bold keto branding. Instead, many new products are now sporting the statement “keto friendly,” a claim that is viewed as being more inclusive and inviting.

Catalina Crunch, Indianapolis, used Expo West to introduce new varieties to its keto-friendly dark chocolate cookie bar line. Peanut Butter joined Mint and Raspberry. All three bars contain 2 grams of sugar and 3 grams of net carbohydrates per serving as a result of a carefully crafted formulation. They are all about providing permission to indulge.

“Keto-friendly seekers do not appear to be embracing the diet strictly for weight loss,” said Paula LaBine, marketing director, global milling and baking solutions, ADM. “Multiple perceived benefits have contributed to the lifestyle diet’s success, including blood sugar and mood/energy management, as well as support for a focus on (disease) prevention.”

Eighty-nine percent of keto dieters said their diets satisfy their goal of feeling better and eating healthier, according to a consumer study on keto baked goods conducted by Ingredion Inc. When it comes to labeling, keto-friendly statements outperformed keto-certified claims, suggesting that having a keto-friendly label is sufficient for most buyers.

“In terms of sub-categories that consumers have purchased more frequently, bread, cookies and bagels are the top three,” said Ricardo Rodriguez, marketing manager, bakery, snacks and confectionery at Ingredion. “When choosing bakery items, consumers are concerned with no added sugars, reduced/low sugar and no artificial ingredients.”

Baked snack foods are also trending. Crisp Power, Hauppauge, NY, for example, is a new line of protein-packed pretzels. One serving contains 6 grams of carbohydrates and 27 to 28 grams of plant-based protein. The protein is a blend of grains and legumes, and packages flag a claim that they are a good source of protein.

It starts with carbs

For many mainstream consumers, keto-friendly is all about being low carbohydrate. Meeting the strict keto diet requirements of consuming 75% of calories from fat, 20% from protein and 5% from carbohydrates is on the decline.

“Keto-friendly has evolved as an indicator of healthier, low-carb, high-protein bakery goods that appeal to not only those who adhere to the keto diet but individuals seeking a healthier lifestyle,” said Steve Adolphson, senior research manager, Glanbia Nutritionals. “The inclusion of better-for-you fats and proteins that function well in these products provides an opportunity to develop and market healthy baked goods that earn repeat purchases by concerned consumers.”

For a baked good to align with a keto-friendly diet, carbohydrates must be limited. That has historically been a challenge as carbohydrates serve as the base for most baked goods. That’s changed with advancements in ingredient technology.

“The more a baked good relies on the functionality of key carbohydrates — wheat flour, sugar and starch — the more challenging it is to formulate a keto-friendly product,” said Erin Nese, principal technologist, technical service at Ingredion.

Removing or reducing carbohydrates requires the baker to build back their functions. This includes taste, texture, processability and even shelf life stability.

“Baked goods with delicate textures can be more challenging,” said Brook Carson, vice president of research and development, Manildra Group USA. “Sweet goods are more difficult than bread-type products since the flour component and sweet component must be replaced.”

When flour is removed, so is the gluten, which is important for rise and texture in baked goods. Eggs can be very helpful, as they contribute protein and assist with aeration and stabilization. Bakers seeking a keto-friendly and vegan claim have their work cut out for them.

“Vegan keto breads and pastries are even more challenging as eggs are essential to providing structure and texture that is often missing without gluten,” said Kate Kadlec, research and development scientist, Scoular.

Keto-friendly mixes containing a cocktail of different ingredients have also been helpful in reducing reliance on flour and therefore the net carbohydrates in a formulation.

Brolite’s keto-friendly low-carb mixes are made from resistant starch, inulin, gum, gluten, isolate and fiber that provide a low calorie/carbohydrate flour replacer. The mix creates a single serving of sliced bread with only one net carb. The mix is available in white, grain, sesame and sour varieties.

Ardent Mills’ keto-friendly blends enable bakers to swap out their conventional flour in a range of bakery applications, including bread, pizza crust, tortillas, bagels, breadsticks and others. According to the company, this can be done without an impact to processes, equipment or the formulation.

Better nutrition

Early generations of keto baked goods were criticized for their lack of protein and fiber, two nutrients closely associated with wheat flour.

Today’s bakers have a toolbox of carbohydrate replacements that build nutrition back into the product. And when opting for the “keto-friendly” descriptor, there’s more flexibility in the product’s nutrition profile.

ADM recently launched a keto-friendly flour replacer. It functions as a one-to-one replacement for wheat flour.

“It contains a blend of wheat and pea proteins, fibers and resistant starch with a clean, neutral flavor and incredible functionality, enabling ease-of-use when developing pizza crusts, breads, tortillas, pancakes, crackers and biscuits,” LaBine said. “In addition, our portfolio of ancient grains and seeds, including flax, hemp, chia and custom blends, can help elevate keto-friendly products and support clean label goals as they are wholesome, recognizable ingredients with positive nutrition attributes and visual appeal.”

Another common wheat flour replacement is a combination of resistant wheat starch and wheat proteins. The ratio of the two varies by application, with blends customized to achieve desired finished product attributes.

“Our resistant wheat starch is an excellent fiber option because it provides absorption similar to flour,” Carson said. “It is a good fiber option for maintaining the color and texture you would expect from standard bakery products. And our wheat proteins complement the resistant starch in order to add protein back, thereby creating the structure of the flour.”

Sound easy? It’s not. It’s a product-by-product consideration.

“Using too much protein and fiber can lead to a heavy and dense texture, which is especially undesirable for cakes and cookies,” said Michael Buttshaw, vice president of ingredient solutions sales and research and development, MGP Ingredients. “Wheat resistant starch type 4 (RS4) is commonly used to help reduce bulking and create a light texture in these products. We also are seeing more wheat protein isolates in baked formulas to provide a softer texture while preserving freshness without artificial preservatives.”

Using the wheat RS4 in baking with wheat proteins imparts viscoelastic properties, he said.

“Vital wheat gluten or other protein concentrates have a higher net carb count than wheat protein isolates,” Buttshaw explained. “The common strategy to create a keto-friendly product with a low net carb count is by combining the wheat RS4 with wheat protein isolates. Because of the range of properties of wheat protein isolates, from extensible to elastic, and by understanding ingredient functionality, we can create all kinds of keto-friendly flour suitable for yeast-leavened or chemically leavened bakery applications.”

Wheat RS4 functions like wheat starch in baked goods. It does this with a minimal contribution to the net carbohydrate levels. It also can boost fiber and lower calories.

“In addition to these benefits, our RS4 has demonstrated advantages in human clinical studies for digestive wellness and metabolic syndrome, including lowering postprandial blood glucose, reducing cholesterol and decreasing body fat percentage,” Buttshaw said.

Blue Diamond Growers’ wheat flour substitute is a blend of almond flour and almond protein. Both ingredients are commonly used in keto-friendly baked goods.

“Almond flour, when combined with almond protein, contributes to the ease of forming a cohesive dough and to the desired texture of finished products,” said Laurie Colin, senior technical business development manager, Blue Diamond Growers. “This may also have a positive impact on product shelf life. The high percentage of almond oil that is present in almond flour provides a soft, tender crumb structure that may be desired in some bakery applications.

“In addition to replacing wheat flour, these almond ingredients contribute healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, protein and fiber,” Colin said. “They are a source of vitamin E, calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron and other essential trace minerals.”

To add back some of the vitamins and minerals lost through the replacement of enriched wheat flour, bakers may use a nutrient premix containing these micronutrients. Such blends ensure consistency and quality, as well as simplify the addition and tracking process, according to Adolphson.

Premixes can also minimize costs and maximize efficiency since numerous ingredients are replaced with one premix. The onus of ensuring stability and bioavailability of individual nutrients in a premix falls on the supplier, with the shelf life of the least stable nutrient determining the expiration date of the premix.

“In certain instances, the use of premixes, rather than adding each ingredient individually, can help ensure even distribution, as well as help reach dosage level targets, particularly for those ingredients added in small amounts,” said Jeff Hodges, manager, bakery, snacks and confections applications at ADM.

Making a plant-based claim

Keto-friendly innovations are being fueled by the plant-based movement. The Scoular Food Innovation Test Kitchen, for example, has received an increase in requests for keto formulations that are plant-based or incorporate plant proteins and specialized fiber ingredients to boost nutrition.

“We offer a range of soy protein isolates that deliver key functional properties, such as gelling and emulsification, that are essential to formulating keto bakery items,” Kadlec said. “These properties can help build structure and prevent oils from leaching out of the products. Using soy protein isolate for any application is favorable because it is functionally versatile and very cost effective. In addition, soy protein isolate has a high Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid (PDCAAS) score, which ultimately allows the formulator to declare a higher Percent Daily Value (DV) of protein on their finished products.”

The PDCAAS is used to assess the quality of all proteins. It is based on the types and amounts of amino acids in the food as well as the overall digestibility. The PDCAAS values range from 0.0 to 1.0, where values are truncated to a maximum score of 1.0, which cows’ milk, casein, whey, eggs and soy protein all possess. Most plant protein sources have much lower values.

The Percent DV for protein is determined using PDCAAS; the Percent DV determines the type of protein content claim a food can carry. A food making a “good source of protein” claim must contain at least 5 grams of complete protein per serving. To make an “excellent source of protein” claim, that number jumps to 10 grams.

This makes soy an attractive ingredient in keto-friendly baked goods. However, soy can’t be used in products with an allergen-free claim.

“If you need a plant protein that is allergen-friendly, we offer a highly soluble fava bean protein,” Kadlec said. “It has a neutral flavor that blends well in baked goods.”

While the true keto diet prioritizes consumption of large amounts of fat, keto-friendly is more about the reduction in all carbohydrates. Fat selection, however, remains important from a health and wellness perspective.

“Fats and oils can provide satiety and help sustain energy levels for people following a keto diet,” Hodges said. “They can provide essential vitamins and fatty acids. Oils with increased oleic acids are also garnering more attention in this space. Because oleic is a monounsaturated fatty acid, it can support nutrition needs in addition to delivering oxidative- and shelf-stability.”

Additional ingredient considerations

Sweet baked goods require the addition of ingredients that provide sweetness without — or with minimal — carbohydrates. This can be achieved with some sugar alcohols, soluble fibers and even flavor extracts and modifiers.

“When removing the sugar-based carbohydrates for keto-friendly applications, it is recognized that polyols and allulose can be subtracted to obtain the total net carbs in a product,” said Eric Shinsato, senior project leader, technical service at Ingredion.

Erythritol and maltitol are often found in keto-friendly products. Erythritol is considered more label-friendly while maltitol is used as a one-for-one replacement for sugar.

“Allulose is also used in combination with polyols to lower the net carbs,” Shinsato said. “Allulose functions as a bulk sugar replacer and humectant, provides color and a clean, sweet taste, and contributes no total or added sugars. High-potency sweeteners like stevia are also used to build back the desired sweetness.”

Another challenge with removing sugar-based carbohydrates is the lack of sugar available for yeast function in yeast-leavened baked goods. Lallemand Baking developed an enzyme solution — Essential FSA 2013 — to provide yeast the fuel it needs to fully function.

Luc Casavant, senior baking technologist, Lallemand Baking, explained that the enzymes in Essential FSA 2013 convert damaged starch from the formulation into fermentable sugars, which then help the dough proof to the desired height.

Hydrocolloids tend to be part of keto-friendly baked goods systems. They may assist with retaining moisture, creating a gel and managing viscosity. This in turn influences machinability and contributes to dough strength.

“Hydrocolloids do a great job in replacing the function of the arabinoxylans or non-starch polysaccharides that were lost with the removal of flour,” said Kristine Thomas, scientist, bakery, fats and oils innovation, IFF. “Depending on the function the baker is looking for, the selection of the hydrocolloid will change.”

Use of hydrocolloids increases moisture content. This is something that must be addressed in terms of long-term product quality. While the moisture may improve immediate texture and mouthfeel, it may have a negative impact on shelf life, as it can cause the product to mold quickly.

“We offer a variety of mold inhibitors that delay the growth of mold, keeping products fresher for longer,” said Jerry Savino, technical services manager, bakery, Kemin Food Technologies. “Nuts, seeds, etc., are also prone to oxidation, which can create off-flavors in products. Oxidation solutions can assist.”

The enzyme-based ingredient system that Corbion offers for keto-friendly baked goods also enhances bread crust color and provides a slight sweet flavor, said Yanling Yin, director, bakery applications, Corbion.

Innophos developed a leavening solution that aids in texture improvement of keto-friendly baked goods.

“It helps commercial bakers achieve desired product characteristics while adding functional ingredients, such as more protein and fat,” said Amr Shaheed, technical service manager, food applications, Innophos. “This solution has been proven to improve volume and texture in protein-fortified baked goods.”

As the toolbox of keto-friendly ingredients grows, so will the variety of baked goods sporting the claim. Opportunity exists with additional nutrients and functional compounds to attract low-carb consumers back to the bakery aisle.