As the food industry rides out major trends, the cookie category finds innovation inspiration from every angle.

Nutrition, indulgence, snacking — all these movements are making waves in the food industry, and cookies are managing to catch them all. With three avenues for growth, it’s no wonder that Mintel, Chicago, is reporting that US retail cookie sales grew 17% from 2008 to 2013.

Cookies are special because consumers see them as both a dessert and snack, depending on the positioning. Mintel reported that cookies can be found in 68% of households due to their popularity in multiple eating occasions. Convenient like bars, cookies can be a sweet snack for people on-the-go or packed in a child’s lunchbox. More decadent varieties can make a dessert to rival cakes and pies. Shareable and portable, cookies are adaptable, and that’s just what consumers are looking for.

“Cookies are definitely a year-round treat,” said Sheila Howell, vice-president of marketing, Cheryl’s Cookies, Westerville, OH. “There are cookies for almost every occasion. It’s an easy dessert to take, to share with family. It’s easy to transport. You get there, and you can plan on bringing dessert without a lot of thought.”

As consumers continue to live more on-the-go lifestyles, snacking continues to be on the rise. Already benefitting from the perception of being a sweet snack option, bakers can strengthen the cookie’s place in the segment by creating more nutritious products that will allow consumers to snack guilt-free. However, people expect cookies to taste good first and foremost. That said, health positioning can keep cookies relevant and give consumers permission to indulge in a treat.

“There continues to be a growing demand for premium or specialty cookies that offer simple ingredients and ’better for you’ options, as well as healthy and functional ingredients,” said Brooke Smith, president, Salem Baking Co., Winston-Salem, NC. “Today’s shoppers are increasingly discerning as they look at product labels. They want to see a clean list of simple, wholesome ingredients they recognize.”

This dichotomy of healthy and indulgent can be seen in the types of cookies leading sales. Mondelez International, Deerfield, IL, the dominant cookie producer in the US according to the latest data from IRI, Chicago, can attribute most of its growth to the nutrition-minded belVita brand and the latest indulgent flavors from Oreo, for instance, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos.

Smart snacking

When it comes to eating habits, it is no secret that consumers are having fewer meals and snacking more. Because more and more people are turning to snacks to satisfy them, they are naturally becoming more interested in nutritious snacks that satisfy. Although cookies can be a tasty treat, they are not known for packing a nutritious punch. Rather than let this fact and the current consumer climate put a damper on sales, the cookie industry accepted the challenge by finding ways to make cookies more appealing to the health-conscious snacker.

“The challenge I put out to B&CMA [the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association] was to give me something good for me in the form of a chocolate chip cookie,” said David Van Laar, B&CMA president. “That’s an oversimplification, but we really need to do that.”

While misconceptions continue to spread about dietary science, Mr. Van Laar said the industry continues to push back, not by debating the talking points but by improving the nutritional value of the cookie and letting the product speak for itself. While in years past, creating a healthy cookie acceptable to the mainstream consumer had proved difficult, today’s bakers are finding success in adding fiber, reducing sugar and using different fats and whole grains.

“We have an opportunity to educate consumers by showing them that the products we have are not bad for them,” Mr. Van Laar said. “We can do that by continuing to innovate products as more science is known.”

While healthy cookies may be top-of-mind for cookie producers, it’s important that they not get too carried away with creating the most nutritious cookie. Taste is still the No. 1 reason shoppers purchase a product.

“There’s a big push in healthy cookies, but consumers also want a cookie that tastes good,” said Bill Skeens, president and founder, Prairie City Bakery, Vernon Hills, IL. For Prairie City Bakery, the initiative to create more wholesome, tasty products resulted in developing a butter cookie that had 0 g trans fat. This balance of a popular flavor and the elimination of a ‘big bad’ on the label is one key to success in the cookie aisle these days.

Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, channeled this obsession with healthy into its cookie products not by trying to make them nutritious at the expense of taste, but by cleaning up the ingredient label. “Consumers wanted a great-tasting packaged cookie made with simple and recognizable ingredients,” said Colleen Chorak, senior marketing director, Kellogg Cookie Portfolio. To address this, Kellogg launched Keebler Simply Made, classic cookies made with ingredients people could find in their pantries. They are available in Chocolate Chip, Butter and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip varieties.

Mondelez International has used the cookie’s portability combined with some improved nutrition to take advantage of the meal giving way to snacking the most: breakfast. Mondelez’ belVita brand launched in the fall of 2013, a line of soft-baked breakfast biscuits. The brand boasts nutrition that will grant a person sustained energy all morning with 18-20 g whole grain, 3 g dietary fiber and a “good source” claim of four B vitamins and iron. The biscuits are even packaged in portion-control packs of four. The positioning and the innovation have proved successful as IRI reported belVita cookies sales totaled $183 million in the 52 weeks ending July 13. That’s up 95% from the same period the previous year.

While health trends should not be ignored by cookie producers, they certainly shouldn’t dominate the innovation landscape. “Everything in moderation,” Mr. Van Laar urged. “You don’t make a meal out of chocolate chip cookies.” However, the chocolate chip cookie — and all of its counterparts — end a meal quite nicely.

Decadent dessert

While some cookies may be cut out as a guilt-free snack, there are others that just deserve to be plated and served up as dessert or a decadent spread for entertaining. Enter the premium cookies.

While upscale cookies took a dip in sales after the recession, according to Mintel, they are beginning to see a turnaround as consumers start to feel more comfortable splurging in their spending. As consumer interest in high-end cookies bounces back, bakers are upping the ante with more nuts, inclusions and always more chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Salem Baking Co. is using this interest in premium to inspire its new products.

“As shoppers are spending a growing number of food dollars on specialty food, our chefs continue to seek out ingredients and flavor profiles that answer the need for decadent, high-quality cookies baked with simple, familiar ingredients,” Ms. Smith said. “For example, we’ve evolved our classic Moravian Cookie line, which has featured long-time favorites like Ginger and Meyer Lemon, to include Toasted Coconut, Pomegranate Lime, and Chocolate Dipped Caramel with Sea Salt, among others.”

Pepperidge Farm, Norwalk, CT, found inspiration in traditional desserts and launched its Dessert Shop line of cookies. These soft, large cookies come in varieties such as Carrot Cake and Dark Chocolate Cheesecake as well as seasonal flavors. “The range has proved popular and delivered incremental growth to our sweet cookie portfolio,” said Irene Chang Britt, president of Pepperidge Farm, during Campbell’s July 21 investor day conference. “This year we will continue to innovate with flavors such as blueberry cobbler and chocolate brownie and rotate seasonal variations such as pumpkin cheesecake.”

Pepperidge Farm isn’t the only company looking outside the cookie aisle for inspiration. Cheryl’s Cookies also turned classic desserts such as devil’s food cake and wedding cake into cookies. Ms. Howell said Cheryl’s Cookies has also turned to ice cream for flavor inspiration, featuring a butter pecan cookie made with buttery brown sugar cookie dough loaded with pecans and topped with buttercream frosting and roasted salted pecans.

Kellogg also reimagined cookies by reinventing them through classic indulgences. Red velvet cake became Keelber Red Velvet Fudge Stripes launched in October, and Kellogg also rolled out Keebler S’Mores, a cookie delivering the taste of the classic camping dessert without the campfire.

Seasonal flavors, often centered around a holiday, can bring a boost in variety and sales. Limited-edition products bring new interest and excitement to the category, according to Ms. Smith. “Special flavors that capture the tastes of the season are as popular as they have ever been,” she said. Salem Baking Co. recently introduced Pumpkin Shortbread Cookies as well as Maple & Brown Sugar and Apple Cider varieties of its Moravian Cookies. For the holiday season, the bakery rolled out Eggnog and Hot Cocoa Shortbread cookies. “We always try to dream up new twists on the classics,” Ms. Smith said.

Indulgence goes beyond flavors and can also include other characteristics of the cookie. At one time, bakers wanted their cookies to bake uniformly, but these days, consumers want cookies with homemade charm. According to Mr. Skeens, unlike the puck cookies that bake in the same shape, Prairie City Bakery’s cookies spread irregularly and give them the look of being made in a person’s own oven. They are also larger with a soft texture. “Consumers eat with their eyes and then pick them up, so we think a soft cookie is important,” he said.

While some segments of baking have struggled with the current trends that have rocked the food industry — nutrition, indulgence, snacking — cookies have managed to find opportunities for growth in every one. Sure, creating a nutritious chocolate chip cookie that tastes good hasn’t been easy, but the industry didn’t shy away from the challenge. Tapping into both sides of the spectrum, health and indulgence, there is plenty of room for every cookie baker to expand.