Within the dairy products arena, fruit, nuts and other inclusions are much like the prize in a Cracker Jack box. They add a little fun and excitement, transforming an ordinary offering to an extraordinary one. In addition, they help differentiate the products in a crowded refrigerated case or freezer case.

Those are likely a couple of the reasons inclusions represent a growing business, inside and outside of the dairy product realm. In fact, a new report forecasts that the global food inclusions market will reach $14,730 million by 2026, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 6.1% between 2021 and 2026 (https://tinyurl.com/yc3ctzvf). And inclusions that mesh with current and emerging trends spell opportunity in new dairy product development.


Go nuts

One such trend is toward whole-food inclusions that provide flavor and texture, says Jennifer Williams, marketing director for the Folsom, Calif.-based California Walnut Board and Commission.

According to a variety of sources, whole foods are generally understood to be natural foods that undergo zero to minimal processing. Nuts certainly fit in here.

“With these inclusions, a product can maintain a clean-label ingredient listing and give something familiar and comforting to customers,” Williams says. “It’s why we’re seeing an increase in the usage of walnuts in new product development.”

Walnuts not only impart flavor, nutrition and functionality, Williams points out, but also are “neither too hard nor too soft,” providing the “perfect bite.”

Walnuts deliver healthful plant-based ALA omega-3 fatty acids, too, she adds.

“Yogurt and cottage cheese consumers often eat the products as a more nutritious breakfast or snacks,” Williams says. “With walnuts, product developers can add functional benefits to these products in the form of 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per ounce.”

Harbinder Maan, associate director, trade marketing and stewardship for the Modesto, Calif.-headquartered Almond Board of California, agrees with the trend toward whole-food inclusions, noting that many dairy manufacturers are formulating with whole and chopped almonds. A 1-ounce serving of almonds has 6 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber, too.

“Textured mix-ins, layers and drizzles add flair and flavor to yogurt and ice creams, and these can also be customized to bring a multisensorial experience to the customer,” she notes. “For example, we’ve seen manufacturers include chopped, roasted and flavored almonds for consumers to add into yogurt bases for a satisfying crunch and healthy inclusion.”

Nuts mesh with consumers’ current desire for both health and indulgence, too.

“Formulating products that deliver both — such as when using walnuts as an inclusion in ice cream — gives consumers a product they can indulge on while obtaining nutritional benefits,” Williams says.

Maan agrees, noting that almond use continues to grow. In fact, new almond product launches in the global desserts and ice cream segment increased by 17% between 2018 and 2019, she points out, citing data from Innova Market Insights.

“Almonds can be used to nutritionally enhance frozen desserts that don’t compromise on taste and texture and are as indulgent as more traditional formulations,” she adds. “For those who prefer a smoother and creamier texture, almond butter serves well as a layer or a drizzle in ice cream and yogurt products.”


Get fruity

Consumers’ desire for both health and indulgence also has them “seeking out products with fewer additives, less sugar and clean labels,” notes Kyra Appleby, innovation technologist for iTi Tropicals, Lawrenceville, N.J. Nuts are not the only stars here — real fruit juices, concentrates and purees spell opportunity for dairy product development, too.

“They can be added and blended to create a new base or used as a variegate to be twirled in,” she offers.

When it comes to flavors, however, consumers still want something new and exciting, Appleby stresses.

“Exotic fruits are the best way to create something new and familiar,” she says. “Try blending passion fruit concentrate and mango puree together for a brightly colored, sweet and slightly tart swirl to heighten a traditional ice cream.”

Fruit and botanical combinations also are on trend, says Felicia Francisco, marketing manager for Agrana Fruit (Brecksville, Ohio), U.S. and Canada.

“For example, in refrigerated dairy, fruit with a hint of botanicals — such as blueberry lavender or strawberry chamomile — offers an unexpected twist,” she notes. “Balancing the flavors in these types of fruit preparations is extremely important, and the combinations need to be carefully vetted.”

Francisco adds that her company recently developed a fruity collection of flavors “inspired by farmers markets.” The offerings include chocolate raspberry stout, caramelized apple-berry hand pie and more.

Fruity variegates also can lend provenance to a dairy product, giving the offering a premium spin, says Rebecca Davis, flavor scientist for Kalamazoo, Mich.-based National Flavors. For example, Michigan cherry or Michigan blueberry provide consumers with a “locally sourced, authentic taste that creates connections with a brand.”

Davis notes that the increased focus on gut health over the past year has boosted the popularity of both yogurt and cottage cheese. And fruit inclusions are a natural fit here.

“Sweet fruits complement the tangy taste of cultured yogurt and the slightly salty taste of cottage cheese,” she explains. “As with ice cream, incorporating a mix of textures and ingredients boosts brand credentials and taste appeal. The fruit additions also help brands expand beyond current customers to attract new buyers.”

Speaking of sweet fruit, strawberries have a natural sweetness to lend to a product, says Jeannie Swedberg, director of customer development and marketing for Tree Top Inc., Selah, Wash. They can be added as individually quick-frozen ingredients to formulations or used in a variegate.

“Interestingly, when you consider fruit flavor/variegates in ice creams and frozen desserts, year after year, strawberry is the favorite,” she notes. “While we see lots of new product launches in ice cream/frozen desserts, the focus right now is on clean label, keto, fat reduction, sugar reduction/low sugar and lots of plant-based/nondairy frozen desserts. And within those trends, we see fruit included — i.e., strawberry, berry, raspberry, mango, cherry, peach, etc.”

As an inclusion, it is a plus for the fruit to be readily identifiable, too. That suggests “quality, natural goodness/healthfulness and, of course, deliciousness,” Swedberg maintains.

Fruits positioned as functional ingredients could be a winning addition to dairy products, too. Heidi Farkas, national sales and marketing manager for Milne MicroDried, Nampa, Idaho, says a lot of product development currently is tied to immunity-boosting functional ingredients. This is being fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and consumers’ need to feel healthy and safe.

“Food developers are using blueberries, cranberries, aronia, elderberry and many other fruits with high antioxidant levels that support immunity,” she notes, “as well as looking to use more fruits and/or vegetables in an effort to reduce the need for artificial colors and flavors.”

Milne MicroDried’s dried fruit and vegetables are clean label and can help dairy product developers add bright color, texture and flavor without adding sugars, Farkas adds.

“Our fruits and vegetables blend beautifully in yogurts, add crunch and texture in cheeses and provide piece identity with a pop of flavor to ice cream or frozen treats,” she says.


Give them an adventure

Amid the pandemic, the right inclusions also can help dairy processors appeal to consumers’ desire for a break in the routine, suggests Caroline Vogel, director, new business development for Congers, N.Y.-based Star Kay White.

“On trend are inclusions that provide a lot of crunch, eye-popping color and combinations that take consumers on a culinary adventure,” she says. “Star Kay White is seeing consumers either want eye-catching crunchy colorful — like a pink or yellow cookie variegate that takes them to a dreamy place of fantasy — or candies — like Royal English toffee or chocolate-covered almonds that offer a crunchy twist to a traditional or nostalgic ice cream flavor.”

Star Kay White developed a proprietary process combining “colorful crunchy inclusions and traditional variegates” to ease manufacturing and offer the extra “culinary adventure” twist consumers are seeking out, Vogel adds.

Combinations of flavors and textures also can lend a sense of adventure to dairy products, Davis suggests.

“For example, a swirl of huckleberry variegate with bits of walnut transforms a plain nondairy dessert into an indulgent treat,” she says. “The unexpected texture of a crispy bit of cookie or the crunch of a piece of dark chocolate delivers a delightful surprise.”

Speaking of promising combinations, praline nuts married with fruit and granola-type bases are on trend for ice cream and frozen desserts, says Chef Walter “Smokey” Waters, director of culinary innovation for Dallas-based Pecan Deluxe Candy Co. They not only add texture and flavor, but also are visually appealing.

“Obviously, the impact of COVID-19 is a key driver in many of the trends we are seeing,” adds Tara Gonzales, marketing manager for Pecan Deluxe. “Consumers are more than ever concerned with health and wellness and looking for healthful options, which bodes well for fruit and nut options, as they are naturally better-for-you options with nuts being a good source of protein.”

With many people working from home and facing travel restrictions, exotic flavors boast appeal within the dairy segment, too, says Amanda Cardinal, marketing coordinator with Pecan Deluxe.

“Many people have turned to foods and inclusions from around the world to give them the sense of adventure and break from the ordinary that they are currently lacking,” she says. “Asian-inspired inclusions like matcha or mocha or taro have seen a particular rise in popularity as consumers seek flavors out of their comfort zone.”


Give them something new

Inclusion suppliers continue to introduce new offerings that mesh with current trends — or have the potential to start new trends.

For its part, iTi Tropicals launched 100% “coconut milk” powder that Appleby says makes a great inclusion for ice cream and frozen desserts.

“It can be used as a standalone replacement to make a frozen dessert with some texture, or it can be blended with dairy and/or fruits to create a hybrid,” she explains. “The product offers the perfect level of texture to create a new, familiar product.”

The powder can be naturally sweetened with coconut sugar, Appleby adds. That combination could make for a topping or an add-in for frozen desserts.

“To surprise and delight consumers,” Agrana developed fruit-and-nut-butter preparations that serve up “just the right amount of indulgence,” Francisco says. The combinations include cashew butter and mango, almond butter and orange with hemp hearts, hazelnut butter and strawberry and more.

“Permission to indulge and satisfy our cravings is a small gesture that can go a long way in improving our moods and outlook,” she maintains.

And National Flavors launched a nondairy kosher caramel variegate that adds a “buttery, sweet brown taste” to nondairy frozen desserts, Davis notes.

“Combine with apple pie flavor and a spiced apple variegate to create a caramel apple experience,” she suggests.

To appeal to consumers’ desire for healthful but flavorful options, Milne MicroDried debuted whole orange and lemon powders; a grapefruit option is soon to come. Like the company’s other powders, they boast a single-ingredient statement, are naturally rich in antioxidants and can add color to dairy products.

“These powders are 100% citrus, using the peel and fruit, and provide a tremendous burst of flavor,” Farkas notes.

Waters notes that Pecan Deluxe has been focusing on more specialized ingredients that are gluten-free, non-GMO, all natural and of no-sugar-added status.

“These trends are not going anywhere, and to stay relevant, we really need to push the product envelope while focusing on these drivers that are so important to the consumers,” he stresses.

Pecan Deluxe also “perfected the art of creating a flavorful barrier on nuts,” adds Chef Kami Smith, director of culinary showcasing. Thanks to the barrier, the nuts keep their integrity and flavor within ice cream.

And soon to come from Tree Top are ready-to-use refrigerated fruit purees and preps, says Kjersten Braaten, product developer.

“This offering will be advantageous to our customers because it eliminates the thawing process of frozen fruit puree and preps,” she explains.