Free-from desserts offer an alternative to traditonal confectionary

Alternative desserts are a veritable goldmine, bringing a taste of indulgence to those with restricted diets. Ceri Jones looks into the growing popularity of luxury, free-from confections


Image: An increasingly health-consious market has led to a rise in alternative desserts. Photo: courtesy of Booja-Booja


Public perception of the old-fashioned ‘faddy’ foodie has transformed so that buzzwords such as raw, organic and gluten and dairy-free today represent an aspirational lifestyle choice. According to Mintel research, although food allergies and intolerances are definitely on the rise, the main cause of this shift is the pursuit of healthy lifestyles among millenials.

Mintel’s report shows that 39% of households include at least one member that opts for free-from products and that, of these, over half are making the switch for health reasons. This trend fuels Mintel’s forecast that the alternative foods sector will double in value between 2014 and 2019, reaching £637m. For desserts, one benefit of tapping into the alternative trend is accessing the broader audience by embracing those with ingredient intolerances and so gaining a higher number of consumption occasions. Clean-label, free-from products are seen as being better for you and remove the guilt associated with treats while retaining the high quality and indulgence you expect from a premium dessert.

Firmly set on the high-end of the confection spectrum is non-dairy ice cream, with a plethora of new products entering the market. UK company Booja-Booja is a flagship of this movement, producing vegan ice creams and truffles so delectable they’ve won over a whole host of celebrity fans.

The rise of dairy, gluten, barley and sugar-free food trends

"Dairy, gluten, barley and sugar-free foods are gaining momentum"

“We have always wanted the business to be as benign as possible in all regards,” says Louise Truswell, marketing communications manager at Booja-Booja. Making vegan and organic products was an easy choice when, after two years of research, “we discovered how to make incredibly delicious truffles and ice cream that do not require dairy”. She adds that the decision came with far-reaching benefits because “as well as being gentler on our planet, being dairy-free (and gluten-free) they are also more supportive of our consumers’ well-being”.

Dairy, gluten, barley and sugar-free foods are gaining momentum, in part, due to peoples’ willingness to experiment with unconventional ingredients to make non-dairy milk products. As more people are turning away from soy and embracing nut and rice-derived milks, it’s becoming easier to create vegan ‘dairy’ items that can then be used for cooking. For instance, US company Veggemo has launched a original milk-alternative made from vegetables: peas provide protein and sweetness, while the potato and tapioca imbue that familiar, full, creamy texture.

It’s hard to imagine, but Booja-Booja dairy-free ice creams are nut-derived. Cashew nuts blended with water and agave syrup form the body, then natural flavourings such as cocoa, coconut, ginger, vanilla or maple are added – and that’s it. “We use the minimal number of organic ingredients (typically four or five), sourced from around the world.  We don’t use any preservatives or other additives,” explains Truswell. And it’s this back-to-basics, simple approach that garners consumer trust.

Alternative ice creams are big business and it’s not only Booja-Booja that’s carving out a successful niche; Perfect World also uses a nut-based recipe, while NanaNiceCream gets its consistency from whipping banana and avocado, while Frill offers up a frozen fruit smoothie that can be left out of the freezer to double as a chilled mousse.

The clean eating trend is changing the market

"It’s this back-to-basics, simple approach that garners consumer trust"

The eating experience is rapidly becoming one of quality and novelty. The wider availability of foods and the boom of social media have enabled people to pursue cleaner ways of eating and returning to making foods from scratch.

Alternative foodie Audrey Snowe, otherwise known as The Unconventional Baker, pins eating for wellness down to the extra properties of the ingredients used, saying, “Those who enjoy free-from recipes for fitness purposes do so because many alternative recipes are much more densely packed with nutrients and calories to meet their exercise/health goals.”

Motivated by her own food sensitivities, Snowe helps readers go beyond following recipes to update their knowledge and skills; teaching them how to make nut milk and cream, and to understand which foods can be used as effective substitutes and in what quantities.

Even considering this, Snowe believes baking alternative desserts is relatively simple: “You just need to familiarise yourself with, not only your constraints, but also the ingredients you can work with. And once you understand some basics and try out some recipes to familiarise yourself with a few techniques, you can go on to create beautiful recipes and never feel like you’re ‘missing out’ again.”

Aesthetic appeal of alternative desserts

"Many alternative recipes are much more densely packed with nutrients and calories"

The exquisite finishings of The Unconventional Baker desserts may be the signature style but they’re also essential for seducing the viewer. When presenting a bake “I want the dessert to do all the talking”, Snowe explains. “I don’t mention whether it’s raw, vegan, gluten-free, etc. because I find these concepts cloud people’s perception straight away without giving things a fair chance.”

“And I also know that many of my readers want to make desserts to impress their family or friends – showing them that it’s possible to make something wholesome, delicious, allergy-friendly, and beautiful at home can be quite motivating, not to mention it helps to dispel the notion you only eat boring foods,” she adds.

Desserts, cakes, ice creams and confectionary are bad for us, containing large amounts of butter, sugar, cream and fat – which is what makes them so enticing as a ‘treat’. Alternatives recreate that ‘treat’ feeling by providing the same level of indulgence and luxury as a conventional dessert, but having good fats and being low in cholesterol and sugar, with no allergens. As Snowe says, “You just feel good eating them.”

Overcoming obstacles in the alternative food market

With the best intentions, there are still perceived barriers preventing some from trying alternative products. For instance, in general, organic and independently sourced products are more expensive than those in supermarkets, which Snowe deems reasonable as, “Having the experience of growing and sourcing some of my own food I can completely understand why the prices are the way they are... But ultimately, it’s my health I’m investing in, so I don’t mind spending the extra dollar on that if I can manage.”

The extra dollar may not be an option for everyone; however, this could change in-line with the expanding market for natural healthy produce.

As Mintel reports, the number of new products launched with low/no/reduced allergen ingredients rocketed from 2.5% to 13% over the last decade, and that non-dairy products accounted for around 45% of the milk market’s new product launches last year. Clearly, consumer confidence in the alternative food market is only getting stronger.

Snowe says, “I think we’re lucky to have so many options, and the more people vote with their dollars and buy alternative foods and health related products, well, the marketplace is going to respond to that.”