Dashboard dining is at an all-time high, as is consumer desire for innovative, intense and ethnic flavor combinations that have the right amount of health and wellness components to keep the food delicious with minimal guilt. Say hello to stuffed sandwiches and filled foods, a growing category of hand-held sandwiches and snacks designed to conveniently satisfy appetites as well as flavor cravings.

7-Eleven Inc., Dallas, recognizes how such products are gaining traction in the grab-and-go channel and recently introduced Breakfast Empanada Bites. The miniature, crescent-shaped pastries are filled with eggs, cheese, bacon, smoked ham and sausage. Heated in rapid-cook ovens and served hot, three Bites cost a dollar. And for those watching their weight, the deal won’t break the calorie bank either, as three contain 10 grams of protein and 230 calories.

The Bites complement many current food trends, including the growth of breakfast and snacking occasions, and the continuing popularity of all foods Latin. Add to that portion control, portability, high-protein content and value pricing.

“One of today’s biggest food trends is something I call ‘flavor adventure,’” said Kelly Buckley, vice-president of fresh food innovation for 7-Eleven. “And the Breakfast Empanada Bites add a little zing to the morning meal.”

A canvas for creation

Indeed, zing and heat are both common attributes in the growing category of convenience foods.

“Spicy continues to grow as a popular flavor, with snacks, sauces and prepared meals showing the most growth in this trend,” said Jill McKeague, market development manager for Kalsec Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich. “Chipotle, picante and jalapeño are among the top flavor trends for 2013. At the same time, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about chili varieties and simple heat is not enough. Heat now is more about depth and flavor. We are seeing products being developed using different dimensions of heat such as the numbing effect of the Szechuan pepper.

“Using heat as a base and building on the flavor of the pepper with adding spices, sweetness, smoke and different cooking methods such as caramelizing, fermenting, pickling, grilling and roasting are all trending in hot sauces. Ethnic hot sauces are playing a bigger role now due to the popularity of Sriracha. Sauces like Peri Peri, Harrissa, Gochugang are all making their way to the mainstream.”

Stuffed foods offer chefs a canvas to create a myriad of flavorful options, said Teresa Olah, marketing manager of flavor systems for Sensient Flavors LLC, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Current flavor trends for stuffed foods are driven by consumer desire for sensory experiences that offer a new taste adventure. Chefs are delivering this in several different ways. From focusing on Latin American and Asian-inspired cuisines and ingredients to fusing different global flavors to create new, unique taste experiences.”

Craig “Skip” Julius, manager of culinary services at Sensient Flavors, added that, “Familiar with a twist is another concept chefs are experimenting with. Stuffed foods are often viewed as casual bites that contain a delicious yet mysterious co-mingling of ingredients. Stuffed foods, whether they are empanadas, tamales or pot stickers, beget the question ‘what’s inside of that?’ After the first bite the answer should be ‘wow, there’s a party going on in there.’ One bite should never be enough.”

Adding health and wellness

The health and wellness trend is also infiltrating stuffed foods.

“Inspired by vegetarian cuisine, these stuffed bites incorporate healthy grains and veggies such as quinoa and kale,” Mr. Julius said.

Catherine Katavich, director of product line-specialty vegetables, Olam Spices & Vegetable Ingredients, Fresno, Calif., agreed.

“From the standpoint of the better-for-you trend, veggies are of primary importance,” she said. “We’re starting to see more requests for vegetables to be cooked into baked-type appetizers and microwavable foods.”

For example, Go Fusion Foods, Frankfort, Mich., introduced a namesake line of filled frozen sandwiches to the retail sector. Sold in boxes of two individually wrapped 4-oz sandwiches that are ready for the microwave, the six varieties of Go Fusion sandwiches are the brainchild of a husband and wife culinary team.

Developed by Vachong and Bobbiesee Ku, who have been in the restaurant business for 25 years, the Michigan couple decided the time was right to bring items from their innovative and eclectic menus of Asian fusion cuisine to the retail channel. With a tagline of “East Meets Fast,” the sandwiches combine flavorful ingredients many would never expect together in the same meal.

The Bourbon Chicken variety is a pretzel bun filled with roasted chicken, red bell peppers, cheese and sweet orange sauce. Braised Teriyaki is beef strips, broccoli, cheese and teriyaki sauce in a Parmesan encrusted wheat bun. Peking Chicken is a cracked pepper wheat bun filled with herb chicken, broccoli, potato, mushrooms, cabbage, kale, cheddar cheese and savory hoisin sauce.

For taste buds that crave heat, Korean Jambalaya contains beef meatballs, brown rice, carrots, scallions, cheese and Kochujang carib seasoning all stuffed into a Romano-cheese encrusted wheat bun. The Szechuan Taco variety contains pork carnitas, fire roasted tomatoes, black beans, scallions, mozzarella and spicy taco seasonings in a mozzarella crusted wheat bun. For vegetarians, Lemongrass Curry is a basil honey wheat bun stuffed with edamame, mushrooms, kale, carrots, brown rice and yellow coconut curry sauce.

Children want their own products, too. Peas of Mind, San Francisco, a manufacturer of better-for-you frozen foods for children, has its own approach to adding nutrition to its products.

“We add a culinary touch to our signature dough that is made with ground carrots and broccoli to replace the oil and fat,” said Ashley Knies, product manager. “We keep the fillings simple and as natural as possible. We use real, whole vegetables that are ground down, as opposed to using rehydrated vegetable powders.”

The delivery vehicle

The bread or breading component of stuffed foods is as dynamic as the filling it contains, as exemplified in the varied buns used by Go Fusion. In particular, pretzel bread has quickly become one of the fastest growing U.S. food trends.

“People love pretzel bread because it’s fun,” said Nola Krieg, research and development chef with Blimpie, a brand of Kahala Franchising LLC, Scottsdale, Ariz.

This is something that Nestle, Vevey, Switzerland, has known for some time, as pretzel bread has been on the menu of its Hot Pockets line for about two years. More recently, the company has added flavorful crusts in varieties such as garlic buttery and seasoned, as well as a better-for-you whole wheat option.

“From a culinary perspective, adding flavoring to dough prior to cooking can give an extra boost of flavor and provide overall enhancement to a product,” said Mr. Julius. “Additionally, after-cooking application of different topping items such as seeds, nuts and fruits can give a nice visual appeal to a product.”

We should also expect to see the use of more better-for-you ingredients to formulate bread and breadings.

“Inherently nutritious flours, such as quinoa, garbanzo and brown rice, are continuing to catch consumers’ attention,” Mr. Julius said. “Certainly gluten-free options continue to be on-trend with advancements being made on the taste frontier. And, healthy appeal can be achieved through the addition of dehydrated vegetables to pre-cooked dough.”

Fanciful fillings

Gluten-free is a growing trend in the hand-held category, as it is across most foods. Kiki’s Greek SpinachFeta Pockets from Kiki’s Gluten Free Foods LLC, Arlington Heights, Ill., won a Food and Beverage Innovations Award (FABI) at the National Restaurant Association's NRA Show 2013.

The stuffed pockets are made with gluten-free flour, organic sweet cream butter, eggs, extra virgin Greek olive oil and imported Greek “barrel” feta cheese made from a 70% sheep’s milk and 30% goat’s milk blend. The pockets are also soy-free.

“There is a growing trend within clean label for product labels that emphasize provenance declaration and authenticity,” Ms. Olah said. “We offer ingredients such as Sarawak black pepper, Nigerian ginger and Madagascar vanilla.”

The ethnic connection is exemplified in Nestle’s limited-edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets product. The product is described as diced ham and sliced pork combined with pickles, Swiss cheese, reduced-fat mozzarella cheese and mustard sauce.

Technical hurdles

At the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition, held this past July in Chicago, Minneapolis-based Cargill sampled prototypes of reduced-sodium sausage pizza poppers made with whole grain. Jody Mattsen, senior food technologist, explained some of the technical challenges in developing the product that was targeted to children.

“White whole wheat versus red whole wheat was important for maintaining an acceptable dough strength and appearance,” she said. “Particle size of the meat and other inclusions was also important. We needed to use a large enough piece size to identify the sausage but it had to be small enough to fit inside the individual poppers and have even distribution.”

Because we eat with our eyes first, exterior appearance was very important.

“We experimented with and without a decorative slash,” Ms. Mattsen said. “The appearance with the slash was preferred, as without, the popper resembled a breaded, fried mushroom. Also, the slash allowed a preview of the filing inside, making them more pizza like. And finally, we created a very viscous, bake-stable sauce by adding gums and modified food starches to the filling.”

Hydrocolloids may offer assistance in many areas.

“During the time in the freezer, products are susceptible to water vapor crystallization,” Mr. Julius said. “Surface barriers, such as gum or starch solutions, can be sprayed on the finished, pre-packaged product to preserve and reduce the formation of ice crystals.”

Technical hurdles such as particle suspension, viscosity breakdown and syneresis may be overcome through the use of hydrocolloids, said Tracy Mosteller, senior applications specialist, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kas.

Xanthan gum and locust bean gum are highly synergistic and can provide some unique suspension properties,” she said. “Xanthan gum by itself is highly effective as a suspending agent and is resistant to breakdown even under high-acid conditions.

“Since hydrocolloids affect the water phase of the food product, they can have a direct impact on water separation. However, there must be a balance between viscosity and syneresis control. Blends of hydrocolloids are effective to maintain this balance to promote control of moisture but not generate too much viscosity. A filling or sauce can be so thick that water is essentially immobile but the texture and flavor release is unappetizing for the consumer.”

Premium ingredients also may assist with performance and help keep labels clean.

“The main hurdle with including vegetables in stuffed foods is their very high water content, and when you microwave stuffed foods with veggies in them, this water can either make the dough soggy or rupture and cause the filling to leak out,” Ms. Katavich said. “One solution is to use controlled-moisture vegetables, which provide improved functionality without the need for adding hydrocolloids. These vegetables also tend to be brighter and more identifiable.”

As consumer demand for better-for-you, flavorful convenience foods grows, the category will continue to boom. Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef with Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Northbrook, Ill., sums up the trend.

“Every culture has some form of stuffed food, plus ethnic and traditional American sandwiches are currently being replicated in hand-held forms,” he said. “The possibilities are infinite because there are many concepts to pull form.”