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Traditional Cookies with a TwistTraditional Cookies with a Twist

August 1, 2006

15 Min Read
Traditional Cookies with a Twist

Tried-and-true cookies have built-in consumer appeal, but generate little excitement. But clever product designers can flip the formula to come up with a winning number that offers the no-risk comfort of familiarity combined with a fresh, new spin.

Peruse the cookie aisle in any grocery store and the overriding trend is line extension gone mad. Take original Nabisco Chips Ahoy!®, a medium-sized, crispy, chocolate-chip cookie. Now, it’s hard to find the original among its offshoots and cousins, and some cousins distant at that: white fudge chunky, peanut butter, whole grain, chocolate chewy, candy blasts, reduced fat, thin crisps, soft-baked chunky chocolate, chunk chocolate chip and the mini chips in various packages.

New cookies today are not so much new as they are reworked and reformulated. Is it easier and more cost effective to extend a line, or does it cannibalize existing products? What new products on the market will likely become successful? What creative edge will capture the attention of consumers today?

Top cookies—but why?

The most-popular cookies change a little bit each year. The following, in some form, have appeared in the top 10 for years: Oreo®, Chips Ahoy!, Nilla Wafers® and Fig Newtons®, all manufactured by Nabisco, East Hanover, NJ, as well as Milano® from Pepperidge Farm, Norwalk, CT. Why do consumers continue to shop for these brands? The simple answer: Everyone knows them, grew up with them and identifies with them. But these cookies have changed since the 1970s.

“Cookies used to be a lot lower in sugar, and the choice of fat was lard,” says Jeff Zeak, pilot plant manager, AIB International (formerly American Institute of Baking), Manhattan, KS. “Things have evolved. Vegetable shortenings replaced lard. Americans’ sweet tooth started to grow and, as a result, we in the industry had to change our processing parameters and include inclusions that account for different textural considerations. Chewy cookies with big chunks of chocolate and nuts has traditionally been an American thing, but this taste is now spreading worldwide.”

Things are different overseas, where cookies, for the most part, resemble sweet crackers, though the market for American-style cookies continues to grow. “Cookies are known as ‘biscuits’ overseas, a sort of semisweet cracker similar to the sweetness of a graham cracker,” Zeak says. This style of cookie is showing up on American shelves more and more. But so far, Americans most often go for high-sugar, high-fat cookies—children and adults alike.

While children go for the popular mass-market sandwich and chocolate-chip cookies—and many adults, as well—adults have a high interest in premium cookies: the sort put out by Pepperidge Farm, high-end supermarket private labels and super-premium Euro-style cookies like those from Paris-based Groupe Danone’s LU brand.

Companies have addressed current trends to make sure people continue to eat cookies. The concern with obesity, especially in children, has spawned a whole new generation of products. Snackwells was one of the first on the market to address this idea with low-fat cookies. The now passé low-carb craze had cookie manufacturers running to formulate low-carb cookies. Some of those low-and no-sugar products are still around to also appeal to diabetics, and some have a good-enough taste profile to appeal to everyone.

Healthy consideration is just one aspect driving new products. Companies have found myriad ways to extend popular cookie lines.

Double stuffed and dipped 

Line extensions can undoubtedly help increase sales. But when does a new product start to cannibalize the original product’s sales and dilute the brand overall?

Take Oreos, the most-popular U.S. cookie. New products now on the shelf include double-stuffed Oreos, mint-chocolate and milk-chocolate covered Oreos, Sticks ’n Cream, thin crisps, bite-sized, and the reverse Uh-Oh Oreos, (chocolate filling and vanilla wafer). Did the brand gain market share with the new products, or did it just get customers who were buying traditional Oreos to buy new ones? “Many times, that’s what line extensions do, they shift people from, say, buying regular Oreos to maybe eating mint Oreos. But it does offer the consumer variety, and that keeps things interesting,” Zeak says.

From a manufacturing point of view, line extensions can be less risky and more cost effective. “In some cases, the line extension is simply using the same equipment and formulas and adding one element. And it’s using the same branding. There can be a lot of waste if you add a new product and it doesn’t take off. A line extension is less of an investment,” Zeak adds.

Some of the most-popular ways to extend a cookie line today include: covering cookies with chocolate (milk, dark, white or mint chocolate), doubling the filling in sandwich cookies, increasing the size of chocolate or nut chunks, creating a soft version of a crisp cookie, adding whole grain, adding candy, and miniaturizing cookies. Packaging is another way to extend a line. Cookies now come in resealable packages, to-go packs, 100-calorie packs and cups that fit into car cup holders.

Health can also factor into line extensions. “Often, a base formula is utilized to change the nutritional profile of an existing product,” says Adam Synoground, product development scientist, ADM, Decatur, IL. “This route sometimes leads to quick success in the market place, but occasionally can lead to failure. If the improved formula does not meet the expectations of the consumer, the product will be doomed for a quick failure. Making alterations to an existing production formula does allow for the quickest development time.” For example, dietary soluble fiber can boost fiber content. Also, many whole-grain applications are making use of whole-grain white-wheat flour, notes Synoground. Phytosterols can also be incorporated to promote heart health.

“Consumers are tuned into health concerns, such as the need for fiber, calcium, enrichments, restricting saturated fats and cholesterol, and reducing sugars,” he continues.

A healthful cookie?

The newest thing to happen to cookies overall is the push to create better-for-you cookies. Cookie companies are introducing whole-grain, trans-fat-free or reduced-trans, and cholesterol-friendly products, in addition to those that contain omega-3 fatty acids and are sugar free. Organic products are also coming more into focus, and not just for the health conscious. When an organization as powerful as Wal-Mart wants to add a wealth of organic products, companies are bound to manufacture cookies that fit that bill.

The biggest and most-pressing change in cookies is the type of fat used. As of Jan. 1, 2006, FDA requires all products to disclose trans-fat content in a separate line on the nutrition label. The regulations say that products that contain a small amount of trans fat—less than 0.5 grams can claim 0 grams of trans on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Eliminating or reducing trans fat is complicated. In some products, it’s easy to take a hydrogenated shortening out and plug in oil. But it’s more difficult for cookies, since shortening’s functionality in cookies cannot be replaced by liquid oil. So, manufacturers started looking at other fats that would stay solid at room temperature, like palm kernel oil and coconut oil. These worked exceptionally well in cookie formulas, lending mouthfeel and a sharp melting point. But in the 1990s, these products were demonized due to their high saturated-fat content. So many manufacturers took the tropical oils out of products and switched to soy fats. Many of these required hydrogenation to mimic the characteristics of the more-stable, more solid saturates, which is why these appear so often in baked goods.

Manufacturers can now process fats in a couple of ways that make them suitable for cookie formulations. They can fractionate the fat and come up with a reduced-trans-fat product; they can use more-saturated tropical oils that aren’t hydrogenated; or they can use interesterification, a process that rearranges the fatty acids without producing trans fats, but increases saturation, so they are stable in food applications. So far, these interesterified fats have not been shown to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels, though their long-term risk and benefits are unknown at this time. “There’s always lard, too, but then you have the cholesterol issue. It’s not a double-edged sword ... it’s a triple-edged sword,” adds Zeak.

Better-for-you benefits 

Trans-fat-free products are hardly the only types that fit into the new “healthy cookie” category. Whole-grain products have increased overall, and the cookie category is part of that trend. Whole-grain products are here to stay, thanks to the new Dietary Guidelines, which encourage whole-grain consumption. Adding whole grains to cookies contributes fiber and protein, and allows companies to showcase products as more-healthful.

Right Direction Cookies™, Kennilworth, NJ, developed by Wendy Miller, R.D., and Norman Null, R.D., take the healthy-cookie profile to the next level. The cookies are real chocolate chip made from a family recipe, but they also have the addition of cholesterol-fighting soluble fiber and plant sterols. Two Right Direction cookies contain 10 grams of dietary fiber, including 8 grams of soluble fiber and 2.6 grams of plant sterols.

Another new ingredient touted to boost dietary fiber intake is a mango extract, a rich source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, developed by scientists in Venezuela and Ecuador. The dietary fiber is extracted from unripe mangos and has a lipid content of 2.3%, making it suitable for use in “light” or “diet” products. “Mango fiber might be an alternative for development of products with balanced dietary fiber components and low glycemic responses,” says Nely Vergara-Valencia, Centro de Desarrollo de Productos Bióticos del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Yautepec, Mexico. The product was successfully tested in cookies where the soluble dietary fiber content was almost six times that of the control.

Another category in the health arena is sugar-free and low-sugar products. These are now easier to formulate because of crystalline maltitol, polydextrose and other products. “A number of years back, it wasn’t so easy to make an acceptable sugar-free product,” says Zeak. “When you add sucrose to a cookie, it adds sweetness, but it also adds spread. Sucrose gives the cookie certain textural properties, as well,” he adds. Before crystalline maltitol and improved polydextrose, it was difficult to come up with an acceptable sugar-free product that had the same characteristics as products made with sucrose. Maltitol gives the cookie good textural attributes, and then a high intensity sweetener like sucralose or aspartame is added to round out the sweetness.

Just introduced at the IFT Food Expo in Orlando in June is Beyond*Sugar™, manufactured by Quantum Food Design, Coral Gables, FL. The product, which works as a 1:1 replacement for sugar, is an all-natural, low-calorie, low-glycemic, fully functional disaccharide sugar sweetener. It contains no sugar alcohols or synthetic chemicals, and can be fortified. The company advertises it as the only all-natural nutritive with less than 5 calories per teaspoon.

Glycemic index is another hot topic. “There is a lot of discussion of what state of wholeness the grain is in relating to the health benefits derived from it,” says Zeak. Some suggest ground grains are still good for you, while others claim the grain needs to stay intact because the body will process it differently. “Grain processors will grind grains however manufacturers want them, but bakers often don’t want big chunks of grain in their flour. It’s all about finding a balance and pleasing everyone,” he says. There are also alternatives in terms of conditioning the grains: soaking them to soften them up and get more function in the dough, or steaming or treating them with infrared heat so the grain is ready to use right out of the bag.

Nut butters, whole nuts and nut flours are often now added to energy bars, and some cookies, to boost the protein content and flavor of cookies. New studies suggest even more benefit. Recent studies on almonds, for example, as presented at the Experimental Biology 2006 conference, support their role in a heart-healthy diet. One study measured almonds’ effect on blood sugar levels, demonstrating that almonds —a food that causes a minimal rise in blood sugar levels (low glycemic) and is rich in antioxidants—helped reduce the rise in blood sugar levels, insulin levels and the impact of damaging free-radical oxidative stress.

Whole-grain cookies used to be limited to oatmeal and other “crunchy-granola” style cookies. But now, common styles like chocolate chip and even rotary- molded sandwich cookies can jump on the whole-grain bandwagon. Companies have introduced white whole-grain flours that have similar characteristics to refined white flour and produce a similar finished product. The flour does have a slightly darker color and typically requires alterations in water amounts added to the dough and mixing times, because its composition differs from regular refined cookie flour.

“Some products are more wholegrain friendly than others,” says Harold Ward, manager of technical services, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. “You can hide a lot of things in chocolate, but if you’re looking at a sugar cookie, that’s a different story.” He says that products with a lighter color and flavor aren’t as easily adapted to a 100% substitution with the wholegrain flour, but work better with a partial replacement. Of course, with many healthy products, if you eliminate one element, you have to modify the formula to make an acceptable product. Products with less sugar might need higher fat contents and vice versa. If either the fat or the sugar is eliminated without compensating, the product then becomes a new entity altogether.

Some ingredients can provide multiple solutions while adding nutrition. “Dried plum powders, purées and juice concentrates give bakers a complete library of natural ingredients from which to select to improve the nutritional composition in multiple ways,” says James Degen, spokesperson for the California Dried Plum Board, Sacramento. A number of naturally occurring components make California dried plums an effective bakery ingredient, including: 7.5% fiber that attracts moisture; 15% sorbitol that holds in moisture and extends shelf life; reducing sugars, such as glucose and fructose, that contribute moisture retention as well as sweetness; and 1.5% malic acid that potentiates flavors, particularly in fat-reduced baked goods, and also inhibits mold development.

Some of these characteristics come in handy for reduced-fat cookie formulations. “Multiple changes in a bakery formula can have a significant impact on the resulting sensory characteristics, particularly flavor,” explains Degen. “Yet consumers, food scientists and research chefs continue to rave about the final flavor of driedplum- enhanced baked goods. What we like to hear from consumers tasting baked goods containing dried plums is ‘I can’t taste the dried plums,’ which, of course, is the whole idea.”

Product designers can replace a portion of the butter, shortening or oil in bakery formulas using dried plums with little if any noticeable change in the sensory characteristics of the end product, according to the California Dried Plum Board. Functionally, dried plums’ soluble and insoluble fibers help form a stable film around air and leavening gas during mixing and bench time, similar to shortening’s action, which helps provide crumb structure. The cookies also gain a calorie reduction since the fat calories (9 per gram) are replaced with carbohydrate calories (4 per gram). Plus, the sugars in dried plums don’t create a rapid rise in blood sugar levels, making their glycemic index in the low range, approximately 29, due to the sugar profiles and fiber content.

Outside the cookie tin  

What is the next generation of cookies that will capture attention? Sometimes, extending a brand, as discussed before, opens the consumer mind to a new way of thinking about cookies. Simple changes such as adding a nut to a cookie or a different kind of nut; adding a new fruit filling, as was done with Strawberry Cheesecake Newtons; or modifying the flavor slightly, such as adding pure vanilla, lemon extract or mint, can create a whole new product and give the new cookie an upscale edge.

Resurrecting the past may be another way to generate interest. Many product formulations have changed over the years, often changing its flavor in the process, and people lose interest. “Let’s go back to the past and see what the formulation once was, then run it again. We may find that it’s really good and brings back a lost audience. Just like Coke Classic did,” says Zeak.

Many new cookie products straddle different categories. One of the most popular ways is to translate an existing noncookie brand into a cookie by maintaining popular flavors and other elements in cookie form.

Poore Brothers, Goodyear, AZ, manufactures three cookies under the Cinnabon trademark via a licensing agreement. The company took the popularity of the cinnamon bun and turned it into three varieties of cookie: a cinnamon- roll soft cookie, a cinnamon sandwich cookie and a crispy cinnamon-swirl cookie.

Hershey Foods Corporation, Hershey, PA, stepped into the cookie world with premium single-serve cookies based on popular candy classics: Reese’s, Hershey’s Almond Joy, Hershey’s with almonds and York. These cookies consist of layers of the candy and a cookie wafer enrobed in chocolate.

Chicago-based Quaker moved into the cookie category with two flavors of breakfast cookies, oatmeal raisin and apple cinnamon, sold in the breakfast-bar area of the supermarket. The wholegrain, soft, chewy cookies—sweet and nutritious—offer 5 grams of dietary fiber and are a good source of calcium and iron.

Borrowing ideas from other desserts is another way to go. How about Key lime cookies? Byrd Cookies, Savannah, GA, has a line of upscale small cookies dusted with flavored dextrose coating with names like Key Lime Cooler, Kona Coffee Cookies, Peach Cookies, Razzberry Tarts and Florida Orange Cookies.

Because of increasing Hispanic and Asian populations, product designers can incorporate flavors that are popular with these groups into American products, especially since American palates are becoming more sophisticated and adventuresome. Flavors such as dulce de leche, guava, coconut and green tea are already showing up in products geared toward those ethnic populations.

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has a new healthful profile, and consumers are willing to pay a premium price for good chocolate. But how about chocolate with chile pepper? Or, how about a hint of chile in a butter cookie, a nut cookie or a spicy chocolate macaroon? Other popular flavors that can add an exciting twist to cookies include cinnamon, cardamom, crystallized ginger, anise, chai, lavender, black pepper, sesame, caraway and pomegranate.

The cookie aisle doesn’t look anything like it did 20 years ago. Our job is to change its face again in the next 20 years.

Nancy Backas is a Chicago-based freelance writer and chef. She has been writing about the foodservice industry for more than 20 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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