KANSAS CITY — After a brief pandemic-related dip, perimeter cookies are on the rebound with indulgent and better-for-you formulations ready to take the category to new heights.   

Shaking off its pandemic slump, purchases of bulk cookies are on the rise, up 2% since last year, showing evidence people are more willing to buy and share cookies with people in their lives. As 85% of consumers return to instore shopping with confidence and celebrations become more normalized, the instore bakery continues to experience positive turns.  

In April, cookies were at $146M, +3.6% April versus 2019 and 26.2% versus April 2020. Perimeter bakers saw $1.1B in sales, +21.0 dollar % gains and +235M in absolute dollar gains as fresh bakery meets the demands of shoppers in a post-pandemic world (IDDBA’s COVID-19 May impact report). Instore cookie purchases are up close to 6% compared to this time last year, with a 16% increase in specialty cookie purchases, according to Nielsen Answers on Demand, Total US xAOC, YTD 5/1/21 vs 2020. 

“The pandemic has caused a bit of an identity crisis with consumers in relation to the cookie category. On one hand, there was a significant return to comfort foods and indulgence that benefitted cookie makers,” said Jennifer Williams, marketing director, California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom. “On the other hand, the pandemic taught us the importance of our diet in relation to preventing serious illness, which now has consumers thinking more about the nutrition and functional value of the foods they consume.” 

More healthy attributes 

While cookies remain a perfect vehicle for indulgence, there are changes on the horizon as consumers seek to balance an indulgent cookie splurge with health and wellness attributes. With increasing consumer health consciousness, Ardent Mills is seeing health-seeking behaviors make their way into the cookie category through higher protein or higher fiber and ingredients that contribute to a healthy halo effect. Data from Innova Market Insights found 91% of U.S. consumers believe food products with recognizable ingredients are healthier. 

Proprietary Research from the Denver-based flour supplier found 71% of consumers who are interested in digestive health/fiber would be enticed by cookies that delivered that benefit. The company’s recent launch of a Keto Certified Net Carb Flour Blend for keto friendly and low net carb baked applications can replace conventional flour without compromising taste, texture or functionality. Its Sustagrain high-fiber barley, quinoa flour, chickpea flour and other pulse flours/blends help bakers meet higher fiber and plant-forward trends. 

The flexible better-for-you halo also extends to claims encompassing no additives and preservatives, GMO-free, gluten-free and more, according to Mckenna Mills, senior technical services specialist for bakery, Cargill, Minneapolis. Continuing popularity of keto and low-carb diets also create opportunities for reduced-sugar formulations such as Cargill’s ViaTech stevia sweetener, Zerose erythritol and Oliggo-Fiber chicory root fiber that helps brands achieve modest reductions of 15-20%, without impacting taste, texture and appearance. Indulgent cookie prototypes using pea and soy proteins appeal to consumers looking for nutrient-dense snacks.  

As the line blurs between indulgence and healthy eating, more customers are looking at protein as a desired ingredient for its excellent energy source, said Roger Daniels, vice president research, development, innovation and quality for Stratus Foods, Memphis, Tenn. Ingredients such as the company’s BBS, Primex and Golden Sweetex shortenings optimize the tenderizing needed in a cookie recipe to deliver the desired chewiness or crispness as defined by the bakers’ recipe and objective, Daniels said.  

“To achieve an optimal product, one needs to create a balance between softeners and tougheners,” he continued. “A baker working with our application team can ensure that the softeners, specifically the shortening, margarine and sugar, are appropriate in functionality and amount to achieve the desired cookie performance.”  

Formulation techniques help bakers bring a healthy halo and improved texture to cookies using nut-based meals and flour blends. The fine granulation of Blue Diamond’s almond flour and almond protein powder blend contributes to an appealing smooth mouthfeel in the finished product and helps achieve specific protein and fiber targets for strong front-of-label benefits, according to Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing, Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif. 

Wanting it both ways 

In the perimeter bakery, even an indulgent cookie can be perceived as healthier compared to cookies in the center aisle because of a shorter ingredient list. Serving as a treat both indulgent and creative, cookies are the perfect medium for experimentation with indulgent category innovations of high-cacao dark chocolate, double chocolate and ooey-gooey chocolate fillings that are creamer and more abundant.  

Anne Marie Halfmann, senior manager, channel marketing at Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., predicts an increase in cookies with dried herbs and flowers, along with spices not usually found in cookies like paprika and black pepper, as mentioned in the Food Network’s 2021 Food Trend Report. Other on-trend offerings such as fiber and prebiotic-packed Uplift Gut Happy Cookies are garnering attention along with center aisle LTO offerings like the hot pink Lady Gaga and Oreo collaboration.  

“Manufacturers have an opportunity to break down large audiences even further and tailor their product directly to a smaller segment,” said Matthew Schueller, director of marketing insights and analytics, Ardent Mills. “What’s healthy to one generation is totally different to another and what’s worthy of an indulgent treat also changes definition from group to group. Taking a close look at how different generations, and even groups within generations, perceive lifestyle choices, sustainability, indulgence and more will be key.”  

More is better 

Looking to satisfy the 73% of consumers looking for new and exciting cookie experiences, Barry Callebaut, Chicago, worked with Chocolate Academy North America chefs to create new cookies in its Cookies Crazed collaboration. Packed with inclusions, the cookie creations feature swirled Magical Morsels: Magical – pink and yellow and Monster – blue and green marshmallow-flavored inclusions from Gertrude Hawk, Dunmore, Penn. 

“Inclusions can have a huge influence on how consumers perceive a baked treat,” said Gretchen Hadden, marketing manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. “Irregular cut chunks imply an artisan’s touch, while a classic morsel offers more traditional, familiar appeal. A protein- or fiber-fortified chocolate inclusion can up the better-for-you position further, combining indulgent chocolate with the nutritional benefits many consumers actively seek.”  

The right inclusion can also transform a cookie into a premium product that’s visually appealing and better-tasting with an improved bite. All-natural inclusions of walnuts and almonds offer well-known nutritional benefits in a range of sizes from whole, pieces, slices and splits and nut meals, allowing the ability to tailor the perfect nutritious mouthfeel. Likewise, a slight nuance of using high-cacao chocolate chips offers a health halo through lower sugar content compared to a milk chocolate chip.  

Yet despite the creativity, innovation and excitement present in the category, chocolate chip cookies remain the standard-bearer, consistently ranking as the consumer favorite. Preferences for a chewy versus crisp cookie remain tied to demographics of age and region of the country.  

“When thinking about customization and inclusion, it’s important to look for ways to curate experiences or products that make a difference to your customers,” Halfmann said. “For cookies, supermarkets can create offerings that encourage self-expression such as cookie decorating kits or personalized cookie cake to celebrate each unique individual. By making offerings more customizable and inclusive, this encourages more involved buying behaviors and engagement from customers.” 

Share your story 

The ingredients making up cookies can also become fodder for storytelling, further enhancing cookies’ longstanding appeal. Ardent Mills shares the stories of its farmers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley who grow and source the company’s North American Colorado Quinoa through an exclusive partnership that supports local farmers and promotes water conservation, soil health and growth.  

“Storytelling is everything,” said Lindsey Morgan, head of product marketing, Ardent Mills. “It’s how we connect with our customers and in turn, how they can use that story to connect further with their consumers.” 

With increasing awareness of sustainability issues, this becomes a measuring stick for consumers looking to make values-based food decisions. This could include knowing where the chocolate comes from, understanding the benefits of fair-trade production, and how/if a product contributes to local community initiatives. 2020 data from HealthFocus International found 70% of global consumers prefer to buy food or beverages when they know where it was grown or produced.  

Cargill’s Sustainable Cookie concept brings sustainable sourcing to life. The cookie is made with RSPO-certified palm oil, responsibly sourced chocolate chips, sustainably produced stevia, traceable pea protein and pastry flour that implements stewardship practices from field to bakery, showcasing Cargill’s sustainability capabilities across ingredients and supply chains, according to Jamie Mavec, marketing manager, Cargill. 

California almond cooperative Blue Diamond shares its commitment to the values of partnership, quality, innovation and integrity at every stage of almond production and distribution, working with its 3,000+ grower-owners, who integrate proven farming practices and the newest technologies to produce world-class almonds.  

The ability to tell such stories will continue to grow in importance as consumers once again begin to gather, with cookies likely earning a front-row seat at these celebrations. Purchased in single or in bulk for sharing, in large and mini/bite sizes, cookies are the perfect tool for reconnecting over a treat that continues to be cherished across all generations.  

“As things return to ‘normal,’ I think the winning trend in the cookie category will borrow attributes from both healthy and indulgent eating and will manifest itself in premium cookies that are made with all-natural, familiar ingredients that deliver nutritious value,” Williams said.