What is dessert? That's a question consumers are answering more broadly than in years past, when dessert was largely defined as a sweet ending to the dinner meal. In fact, compared to two years ago, more of today's consumers tell Technomic that they're eating dessert items during both midmorning and midafternoon hours as both snacks and after meals.

All of this activity means that dessert consumption is on the rise: two-fifths of consumers (40%), up from 36% in 2010, report that they're eating desserts after a meal at least twice a week.

"Consumers aren't holding off on dessert until after dinner; instead, they're reaching for easily accessible, handheld and portable treats at just about any time of day," says Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President of Technomic, Inc. "Desserts are also functioning as snacks and even meal replacements. Operators will need to look at flavors, portion sizes and evolving needs to satisfy a broad range of consumers' dessert expectations and preferences."

To help foodservice executives understand the latest behaviors, preferences and attitudes of consumers regarding desserts, Technomic has published its 2013 Dessert Consumer Trend Report. Interesting findings include:

Emotions can drive dessert purchases: most consumers say they are more likely to eat dessert when they want to treat or reward themselves (78%) or are feeling happy (60%), suggesting the strong effect of mood on dessert consumption.

Dessert occasions are also influenced by the dining party: 44% of full-service desserts and 29% of limited-service desserts are shared.

Consumers want healthier desserts and smaller portions: consumer responses reveal demands for healthier desserts—especially low-calorie and sugar-free options—and 36% of consumers agree that they are more likely to order dessert if a mini portion is available.