food

M&M's newest flavor: Birthday cake?

March 28, 2014: 1:06 PM ET

The growing cake-flavored food fad helps you celebrate your birthday every day, but without the candles.

By Erika Fry, reporter

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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."

MORE: How the Cupcake ATM became a $9 million chain

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.

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