Back in 1997 The Spice Girls sang Spice up your Life! The message still rings true as bakers and manufacturers spruce up sweet goods with traditionally savoury ingredients.

Sugar and spice and all things nice – that’s what sweet treats are made of. And there’s an emphasis on the spice. From a fiery chilli and chocolate torte to an earthy matcha doughnut, Brits are seeking more excitement from their baked goods.

While spices are nothing new in sweet goods – think hot cross buns or mince pies packed with cinnamon, mixed spice and cloves – savoury flavours are making inroads. So, how can bakers spice things up and which savoury herbs and spices work with a sweeter taste profile?

“Herbs and spices can help enhance the other flavours in baked sweet goods,” says McCormick executive chef Kevan Vetter. “They can add a hint of heat and smokiness, offering consumers the bigger, bolder flavours they want. New flavour combinations make people feel more adventurous and exotic.”

Bakers should invest in a selection of spices, believes EHL Ingredients, such as cardamom, aniseed, caraway seeds and chilli. “These all work well in sweet loaves, brioches, cupcakes, muffins, biscuits, cakes and cookies,” says joint managing director Tasneem Backhouse. “Dried spices remain stable under high temperatures, retain their flavour and visual appearance and are versatile… used for toppings or flavourings, and for European-style products such as Polish poppy seed cake (Makowiec).”

Turmeric, a savoury spice that has been adopted across traditionally sweet goods, has “grown in popularity across a range of categories from cakes and biscuits to coffee and smoothies”, says Natalie Drake, category manager at Synergy Flavours.

Interesting flavour pairings created by Synergy’s applications team include a delicate rose and turmeric dessert, as well as adding vanilla to a turmeric biscuit creating a “subtle warming spice and bright yellow colour”. As with any recipe, balancing flavours is essential, notes Drake.

“Having a harmony between the savoury and sweet notes of the finished product is key to success. Pairings we have become familiar with in recent years have included chilli and chocolate, strawberry and basil and raspberry and rosemary,” she adds.

Potential combinations to look out for this year include lemon and thyme, Thai-inspired coconut and lemongrass, and chipotle and chocolate, which offers a spin on the classic chilli and chocolate.

“Flavours like pink peppercorn are trending in sweet products and earthy and herby flavours like kombucha and matcha are also popular this year,” says Anna Massie, senior category marketing manager at Scottish ingredients firm Macphie.

The former, which has a sweetness and mild peppery bite, pairs well with sweeter flavours such as white chocolate, raspberry and rhubarb, particularly when used in cakes or brownies. Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain, for example, pairs a pineapple and pink peppercorn jam with sweet scones.

Certain flavours, however, are best to avoid as they don’t lend themselves to sweet goods. “Examples include flavours that are simply too savoury in nature and have connotations with savoury dishes, such as mustard, dill or coriander,” says Drake.

Massie advises caution when embracing floral flavours – a trend quickly gaining popularity as the royal wedding, complete with lemon and elderflower cake, draws near. “The leaves and flowers of herbs like rosemary and lavender, in small quantities, can add a distinctive note to recipes for shortbread, biscuits, jellies, ice cream and custard. But use them sparingly, otherwise the end result can be bitter,” she says.

So, be it turmeric, chilli or even pepper, it’s essential to find the balance between sugar and spice and all things nice.

Bringing bold colours to bakes, naturally

The unicorn trend is making waves in bakery, from multi-coloured bagels to rainbow cakes. However, away from Instagram, it seems consumers prefer their baked goods au naturel.

“‘Natural’ is now a given for any bakery supplier,” believes Jacqui Passmore, marketing manager UK & Ireland at Dawn Foods. “Natural flavours and colours have never been more important as consumers become more interested in the provenance of their food, as well as health concerns.”

Going au naturel doesn’t mean shoppers are willing to compromise on looks, or taste, when it comes to sweet treats. This is leading many bakers to look for bold colours in nature. Beetroot, for one, is growing in popularity, as is Japan’s matcha tea, which provides a vibrant green colour. Pomegranate, mango, passion fruit and blueberry, meanwhile, are staple flavours and colours in patisserie.

But using natural colours, particularly in longer-life products, can create technical challenges.

“Natural colours can give bright shades, but tend to be more sensitive to heat, oxidative stress and processing conditions,” says Gary Augustine, executive director, market development at Kalsec.

Passmore adds: “Achieving red colours that are natural, vegetarian, and halal-suitable are still the most challenging in bakery products, such as red velvet."

It can be done – Dawn, for one, offers a red velvet mix using natural colours. Notably, colours don’t have to be used in their pure form either, with compounds and concentrates from natural sources providing bakers with the vibrancy they’re looking for.

Taking down the sugar

One benefit of spicing up sweet goods is the potential for sugar reduction that comes with the use of strong flavours.

“By carefully balancing the sugar and the spice in traditionally sweet baked goods, food manufacturers are able to introduce consumers to new flavour sensations that not only broaden the collective palate, but also help to achieve the government’s goal of reducing sugar and calorie intake,” says Natalie Drake, category manager at Synergy Flavours.

“Consumers in the UK are becoming more engaged with the need to reduce the intake of sugar and excessive calories and this is definitely having a positive effect on the trend for less sweet flavours,” she adds, noting 64% of consumers would like to buy cakes with sweet and savoury flavours.