By Erika Fry, reporter
FORTUNE -- Now you can have your cake and chew it too, thanks to birthday cake-flavored gum. Or drink it, with birthday cake batter white wine. Or add a birthday cake-flavored protein to a health shake.
Though it comes only once a year, an increasing number of food and beverage companies -- Kellogg's (K), Mars, Mondelez (MDLZ), and Diageo (DEO) among them -- are betting customers will buy birthday cake-flavored products year-round.
Mars' birthday cake M&Ms will officially hit stores in May. Oreo, a Mondelez brand, sells two cookies with a birthday cake-flavored filling. There are also party cake Peeps and iced cake-flavored Smirnoff vodka, and protein powders from Muscle Milk and Syntha-6.
"Every day there's a market of a million," says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president at NPD Group, who believes companies are banking on the reliable, people-celebrating-birthdays segment, and the fact that people like to jazz up the occasion with something special. "We like new experiences, we're all explorers."
Others, like Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at trend-tracking firm Mintel, say it's more about connecting with customers the other 364 days of the year, when they crave the birthday cake flavor or just want to try something new.
Whatever the case, food companies think they've hit a sweet spot. According to Dornblaser, the number of birthday cake-flavored products introduced to the market in the past three years has tripled. But at a time when many Americans are going gluten-free and organic, why has this classic, overly sugary flavor become so hot?
Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights, notes the market is growing but still tiny and says the cake flavor brings "an instant feeling of celebration and fun." But why this fun flavor has seized upon American palettes, or at least the food industry's imagination just now, remains, like most trends, a bit of a mystery.
Dornblaser says birthday cake has followed the typical trajectory of trendy flavors -- rising in popularity through oddball categories and niche brand products before being picked up by major food companies.
When Mintel first started tracking new products in 2002, most birthday cake items were not foods, but goods used in homecare and beauty, such as candles, air fresheners, and lip gloss.
MORE: Vodka's funky flavors
Ten years later and possibly helped along by the recent cupcake craze (red velvet is also trending with birthday cake, and both are available as Pop-Tart flavors), birthday cake has gained momentum. It was used in Wells Blue Bunny ice cream, which Dornblaser says was likely the flavor's breakthrough product. Birthday cake's success helped usher in a number of party cake-flavored frozen novelty products, and then baked goods, candy, and spirits. For what it's worth, in a release about the upcoming Birthday M&Ms product launch, Mars Inc. calls birthday cake the "hottest flavor craze on the market."
Though Dornblaser anticipates the flavor still has legs -- a Greek yogurt product would not surprise her -- she says trending flavors tend to peter out when they become widely, and too wildly used. She knew the low-carb craze was dead when she saw low-carb gummy products on the market and says birthday cake's moment will be over when it gets incorporated into savory foods.
Many food companies are hedging their bets by introducing birthday cake-flavored items as limited edition offerings that are often tied to a company event or anniversary. Oreo's products were initially launched in 2012 in celebration of the cookie's 100th birthday.
Short-term products have the benefit of buzz and cater to consumers that like to try new products and flavors twists, but are unlikely to make them a regular habit.
While the shelf life of birthday cake is still uncertain, for now the flavor is proving popular especially among women, says Dornblaser.
Tyler Merrick, the founder of Project 7, a gum and mint company that donates to social causes, has added a line of flavored products to jump on the trend and hopes to stand out in a declining gum market. Earlier this year he introduced a handful of non-traditional flavors. Among them: mint julep, coconut lime, and, of course, birthday cake.
A California baker joins the cupcake craze with a smart invention that feeds sweet-tooths 24 hours per day.
FORTUNE -- An ATM that spits out cupcakes instead of cash doesn't necessarily scream "genius business idea." Nevertheless, the quirky invention is now filling a popular demand in the American market: late-night cravings for freshly baked sweets.
In six cities across the country including Chicago, Atlanta, and most recently New York City, sugar addicts can now purchase a cupcake for $4.25 from an automated MORECaroline Fairchild - Mar 28, 2014 10:21 AM ET
The former Senate majority leader says government, corporations, non-profits (and the First Lady) all have a role in making America healthier.
FORTUNE -- Bill Frist, the heart surgeon turned Republican politician, had nothing but love for his former colleagues on the Hill, corporate America, First Lady Michelle Obama -- and even regulators! -- when Fortune caught up with him at the Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington on Thursday.
Frist, an MOREStephanie N. Mehta, Deputy Managing Editor - Mar 14, 2014 6:49 AM ET
Ali Partovi is one of Silicon Valley's most successful angel investors. In an exclusive interview, he explains why he's betting on vegan-friendly food company Hampton Creek.
By Beth Kowitt, writer
FORTUNE -- As an investor, Ali Partovi straddles two worlds. On one side is the passion for technology that led to him to be an early backer of companies such as Dropbox and Facebook (FB). And on the other is an intense interest in MOREFeb 19, 2014 12:08 PM ET
There are problems with GMOs, just as there are problems with high fructose corn syrup. But critics divert attention from them to make spurious health claims.
FORTUNE -- We can make fun of General Mills (GIS) for bragging that it will soon offer "GMO-free" Cheerios. It's an essentially meaningless marketing stunt. But we should also know that it is in part the actions of many critics of genetically modified crops that MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Jan 10, 2014 1:32 PM ET
Beyond meat closes in on the perfect fake chicken, turns heads, tastebuds.Oct 3, 2013 5:00 AM ET
How filled tortillas became the perfect global food. A review of Jeffrey M. Pilcher's Planet Taco.
By Ryan Bradley, senior editor
FORTUNE -- A taco can be many things. The first recorded use of the word wasn't even in Spanish, it was in French -- taco stood in for the cloth plug that held the spherical bullet of an arquebus. The year was 1607. By the 18th century, taco had migrated MORESep 28, 2012 8:46 AM ET
It's the fastest-growing food segment in the nation with many more spoons to fill.
By Beth Kowitt, writer
FORTUNE -- Any way you want it, that's the way they make it: Swiss, Greek, drinkable, probiotic, nonfat, cream top, crumble top. At McDonald's (MCD) it's served as a parfait, at the farmers' market it's made out of goat milk (from local goats, natch). Yogurt's growth has outpaced the rest of the U.S. MOREJul 17, 2012 5:00 AM ET
FORTUNE -- What started as a way to accommodate a rare food disease has blossomed into the latest food industry craze. Gluten is a protein that helps make wheat, barley, and other grains chewy. It also makes 0.05% of the population very sick. To address that, food producers started substituting corn, rice, and potatoes for wheat in bread and pasta. Last year $6.3 billion of such products were sold, up MOREJan 12, 2012 5:00 AM ET
|Internet giant Sina caught in China porn crackdown|
|Water becoming more valuable than gold|
|Russia stocks fall as Ukraine crisis intensifies|
|Don't assume you're safe from Heartbleed|
|Will 7 Apples a day keep the bears away? - The Buzz|