In the Beach Boys’ tropical-inspired hit “Kokomo,” the song’s lyrics extol the virtues of a “tropical drink melting in your hand” and “falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band.” Although not a catchy tune that makes one dream of a tropical vacation, more brands are “catching up and loving” the tropical fruits trend by using sunny-tasting tropical ingredients and fibrous nuts in ice cream, cheese, milk, and yogurt. 

“The demand for simple, minimally processed foods such as dried fruits and nuts that are easily recognizable ingredients is what a growing number of consumers seek in all food categories including dairy,” Heidi Clark, national sales and marketing manager for MicroDried, points out.

“Mixed berries and blueberries, rich in flavonoids and antioxidants, are trending in the dairy and dairy-alternative space as consumers continue to demand functional ingredients,” she continues. “As dairy and dairy-alternative categories continue to innovate — such as artisan butters and nutrient-rich beverages — MicroDried is seeing a growing demand for fruit and vegetable-based inclusions.”

Founded in 2012, the Nampa, Idaho-based ingredient supplier offers a range of 100% ready-to-eat whole fruit and vegetable ingredients in a variety of piece sizes — whole, diced, fragments, and powders — to help dairy developers create wholesome traditional dairy or plant-based products with a clean ingredient label, sustainability commitment, and functionality.  

As on-the-go snacking remains a top trend in the food and dairy industries, the dried fruit extracts market stands poised to capitalize. Fact.MR reports that the global dried fruit extracts market is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years, growing from $8.9 billion in 2022 to $15.8 billion by 2032. Over the 2022-2032 forecast period, growth is anticipated to accelerate at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.9%, the market research firm says.

The healthy halo of dried fruit extracts, which are processed from fruit juices and purees using various drying methods and technologies, and rising health awareness among consumers serve as a catalyst for growth. “These dried fruit extracts are rich in nutrients and thus offer various health benefits including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumor and antidiabetic,” Fact.MR states.

Highly inclusive ice cream

In dairy categories, ice cream is the leader in using inclusions, with nearly one-in-two new products containing one or more over the last two years, notes Phil A’Becket, senior consumer insights manager at Kalamazoo-based FlavorSum. “Inclusions such as cookie dough, cake bits, and sprinkles are also highly popular as bakery-inspired flavor systems increase in popularity in North American ice cream. Other dairy categories heavily incorporating inclusions like fruits and nuts include spoonable yogurt and some processed cheese.”

Incorporating fruits and nuts and other inclusions helps dairy foods better position themselves as a healthier indulgence. Photos courtesy of the Pecan Deluxe Candy Co.

Citing Innova Market Insights, Tara Gonzales, who works in marketing at Pecan Deluxe Candy Co., notes that brown flavors are No. 1 in desserts and ice cream, comprising 43.3% of new category launches, followed by fruit flavors, which climbed 3 percentage points over 2021 to nearly 31% of new product development. Nuts, at 6.3%, ranked No. 5 in new category ice cream and dessert launches.

Proclaiming that “everybody wants a date,” Lyons Magnus, a global foodservice and ingredient company, suggests that naturally caramelly sweet, delicious and versatile dates containing antioxidants and fiber will be turning up everywhere this year. Application-wise, look for dates in smoothies, baked goods, coffee beverages, on charcuteries boards, in desserts, as ready-to-eat snacks, as a syrup substitute for honey and more, the Fresno, Calif.-based source states.

Yet, the top emerging trend influencing food and beverage menus this year and beyond is “all things pistachio,” according to Lyons Magnus. Not only will consumers see pistachio as a flavor in beverages, pastries, ice cream (think spumoni), and plant-based milk because formulating with pistachio requires less water than other nut-based milks, but the green-shaded-pistachio color is expected to be the “it” color this year in handbags, shoes and interior design, the company notes.

While they never went away, slushies are new again, and they’ve evolved to a broader and more robust line of frozen treats, Lyons Magnus reports. Somewhere between a smoothie and a shaved ice, premium slushies, real fruit slushies, and creamy slushies will drive basket rings for quick-service restaurants like McDonalds, Starbucks, and Subway. 

“Flavors will be bold, [and offer] more complex flavors choices such as guava, blood orange, and pitaya,” the report states. “We also anticipate seeing restaurants that serve alcohol and bars follow suit with upgraded adult versions of the frozen treats.”

In a nutshell

Plump blueberries, succulent strawberries, amazing almonds, wonderful walnuts, and other clean-label ingredients derived from nature are providing color, crunch, added nutrients, and functionality to milk, ice cream, cheese, yogurt, and cream cheese.

Citing Mintel, CJ McClellan, senior strategic marketing manager for Blue Diamond Global Ingredients Division, reports that 28% of consumers are interested in nuts and seeds included within their baked goods, and 23% would like those as a dessert topping. However, when it comes to ice cream, consumers expect a nut with a crunchy and firm texture, he says.

Because of their healthy halo, nut products are projected to reach $8.9 billion by 2027, according to ResearchandMarkets. Photo courtesy of the Almond Board of California.

As a result, the almond supplier expects demand for the crunchy goodness of California almonds to increase and give consumers the crunch-factor and texture preferences they’re looking for in dairy products. 

“For dairy-based offerings, such as ice cream, milkshakes, or cheese, formulators can include a nutty flavor while maintaining texture with the help of almond inclusions,” McClellan says. “Research shows a growing interest in dairy products, like spoonable yogurt or yogurt drinks, with a range of functional benefits. In fact, 34% of consumers are interested in yogurt with gut health benefits.

“To meet this need, formulators can incorporate ingredients that provide nutritional benefits, such as gut and immune health,” he adds. “Recognized as a superfood with benefits like fiber, protein, and vitamin E, almond inclusions can be included within yogurt products to attract consumers looking for functional dairy offerings.”

The Pecan Deluxe Candy Co.’s Allyson Iwanski is seeing a lot of unique spins that pair well with more well-known flavor profiles. “Using common and more well-known nostalgic flavor profiles, like chocolate, vanilla and caramel are an avenue to introduce new flavor profiles,” she explains. “We offer a variety of inclusions from cookie dough and extruded inclusions, baked inclusions, granola, pralines, hard candy, clusters and so much more. Our quick turnaround time, adaptability to the market, and ability to lead on upcoming trends sets us apart.”

Banana lovers are going ape for Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey, a banana ice cream with fudge chunks and walnuts. Photo courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s.

Inclusions are generating more interest within dairy products, confirms Smokey Waters, director of culinary innovation for Dallas-based Pecan Deluxe Candy Co., which has been servicing the ice cream industry since 1950.

“Fruit is especially interesting, since you can add flavor and eye appeal without compromising the integrity of the original product. Fruit is a great way to build on flavors like chocolates and caramel. Fruit can really pull out some of the nuances the average consumer may not notice but enjoy the enhanced eating experience,” Waters explains. “Yogurt and nondairy have been using fruits and nuts from the get-go as a driver to gain more buy-in.

“Ice cream is such a personal product to consumers that is has been an uphill battle to get away from run-of-the-mill vanilla and chocolate concepts but adding these inclusions to a familiar product has been a winning formula,” Waters continues. “Talenti, Blue Bunny, Milk Bar, and Chobani are just a few of many who have been very successful.

“Small operators are really pushing this initiative as well with over-the-top layered sundaes and shakes. It’s not just about the sauces and cookie dough anymore, consumers want fun, vibrant flavors and textures. If I see fruit in an indulgent dessert, I inherently think this must be semi-healthy for me,” she adds.

FlavorSum’s A’Becket agrees. “People continue to expect excitement and indulgence from dairy,” he explains. “In products like ice cream or other frozen desserts, inclusions deliver an enjoyable multi-sensory experience. Mintel reports that in U.S. ice cream launches, texture terms like chunky, smooth, and crunchy top the charts.”

Chart courtesy of Pecan Deluxe Candy Co.

Yet, there are challenges to overcome when formulating with fruits and nuts in dairy and alternative dairy products, notes Kelsey Cheadle, senior applications scientist at FlavorSum. 

“When developing multiple-component product, such as frozen desserts with a base, inclusion, and variegate, it’s essential to consider how the flavors in each element will interact. For example, if you’re formulating a s’mores ice cream flavor, you’ll want to think about how to bring the three flavors together — graham, chocolate, and marshmallow,” she explains. “Once you identify the flavors you want to leverage, you can play around with how those tastes come to life. In the case of  s’mores, this could be a chocolate inclusion, a marshmallow variegate, and a graham-flavored ice cream — and that’s just one way you could do it.”

FlavorSum also is seeing dairy formulators leveraging flavors and variegates to play up notes in the inclusion that might not be fully coming across. “Let’s say you have a cookie piece, but you want more baked notes to come through. You could leverage flavors like butter or vanilla in the base to enhance the taste to your needs,” Cheadle says.

The company offers an expansive portfolio of flavors, custom flavors, and variegates. “The benefit to partnering with a flavor supplier on variegate solutions is the access to an entire library of flavors. This allows for more creative and custom flavor profiles, such as our lemon cream variegate,” she states.

Adding spice, flavor, and eye appeal

Dairy processors that combine new tastes and functional elements and those in a position to transform traditional offerings are adding spice to typically conventional dairy categories, experts note.

“Whether it’s a cheese spread, yogurt or ice cream, incorporating almond inclusions adds a delicious flavor and texture that consumers desire, but it also adds nutritional benefits,” Blue Diamond’s McClellan says. “Almonds and almond inclusions are rich in fiber, vitamins, and protein, and can help improve the nutritional value of dairy foods. Additionally, consumers interested in clean-label products are drawn to offerings with healthy, recognizable ingredients such as almonds, which are widely recognized as a superfood.”

Blue Diamond offers a range of almond ingredients in slivers, protein powder, slices, butter, flour, and whole that can help meet the demand for healthy, functional, and sustainable inclusions within dairy foods such as yogurt, ice cream, and cheese. 

McClellan points out that Blue Diamond almonds are sustainably grown with water conservation initiatives and boosted biodiversity, so formulators can be confident they’re incorporating almond ingredients that are not only nutritious and delicious but sourced responsibly, too. 

Despite inflation driving prices up, consumers still want a premium eating experience, notes Jennifer Williams, marketing Director, US Branding and Food Innovation, for the California Walnut Commission, Folsom, Calif.

Made with a blend of oatmilk and almondmilk, Califia Farms Iced Café Mixers feature caramel or vanilla inclusions and other natural flavors. Photos courtesy of Califia Farms.

“Inclusions like walnuts offer dairy processors and food manufacturers a premium experience by providing flavor, color, and texture in every bite,” Williams says. “They are a great way to add nutritious properties to dairy foods ranging from yogurts to ice creams. Similar to most tree nuts, walnuts are a source of good fats. However, walnuts are also the only tree nut that offers an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – the plant-based omega-3. One ounce of walnuts offers 18 grams of total fat, 2.5 grams of monounsaturated fat, and 13 grams of polyunsaturated fat including 2.5 grams of ALA.”

According to a report from Chicago-based Research and Markets, the nut products market size was worth $6.7 billion in 2022, and is projected to reach $8.9 billion by 2027 at a CAGR of 5.9% through 2027.

The walnut segment — which accounts for the second largest market share — is booming in California, with more than 4,000 growers and more than 90 manufacturers. Additionally, nearly 99% of the U.S. walnut production originates from California, making walnuts the fourth leading export from the state, with a value of $970 million, the research firm states.

For on-the-go snacking, a handful of walnuts and almonds are a good choice since they contain 4.3 grams and 6 grams of protein and 2 grams and 3 grams of fiber, respectively. 

Consumer awareness of health, wellness, and nutrition is propelling the global dietary fibers market to a CAGR of 9.2% through 2030 and an estimated $14.9 billion in sales, according to a report from San Francisco-based Grand View Research Inc. The nut butter segment, which can be made with almost every nut type including almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, peanuts, and hazelnuts, accounts for the second largest market share, the report states.

The fruity flavors of yogurt and drinkable yogurt also are evolving, offering a plethora of options such as cherry, strawberry, coconut, mixed berry, raspberry, blueberry, mango, and vanilla.

With the supply chain in flux, the cost of adding fruits, nuts, and other inclusions is a major factor for dairy processors to consider. Therefore, “understanding piece identity and customer expectations when utilizing fruits/nuts is important,” Pecan Deluxe Candy Co.’s Iwanski notes. “End application, consumer expectations, cost, and desired flavor profiles drive formulation.”

“Healthy indulgence is driving flavor development and fruits and nuts fit perfectly into that space,” Pecan Deluxe’s Gonzales concludes. “Being that we custom-make products, we are really only capped by our own imagination.”