Even in today’s hyper health-conscious world, there’s no denying the enduring appeal of indulgent foods. Consumers have become increasingly knowledgeable and deliberate in the quality of the foods they eat, but that does not preclude certain extravagances in their diets—especially when eating out.

“They want something that feels celebrative, fun, and tastes delicious,” says Pam Smith, a registered nutritionist who works on menu development with national brands. Incorporating tasty treats into a menu can also stave off any would-be backlash against farm-to-table, clean eating, and other healthy movements.

Ten or 20 years ago, an icon indicating a healthier dish could be the kiss of death because customers knew it would taste bad, Smith says. So instead, consumers swung the other way: toward the rich, flavorful, and unhealthy.

Today, newly rolled-out FDA menu-labeling regulations may change customers’ perceptions of their favorite dishes. Customers are more health-conscious, aware of food allergies and intolerances, and likely to adopt restrictive diets. So to avoid backlash and ensure that customers seeking different levels of healthfulness have something to enjoy, many brands are figuring out how to incorporate some sinful elements into healthier items.

Hummus & Pita Co., a New York City–based fast casual, has taken an especially innovative approach; the brand’s Hummus Sweets put a decadent spin on a nutritious classic. The results are creamy, sweet hummus varieties flavored with chocolate, cake batter, and cookie dough.

Founder Dave Pesso created these flavors to provide treats for his young daughter, as well as vegans and customers with allergies. “I needed to create something that is both crazy delicious and had nutritional benefits,” Pesso says. Adding chocolate and other sweeteners allowed customers to have the best of both worlds.

Indeed, Smith says that adding—rather than subtracting—ingredients can be key to product success. Traditionally, product developers focused on what to take out. “Take out the sugar, take out the salt, take out the fat, take out the calories, and what they were left with was pretty much sawdust,” she says.

Sonic Drive-In was determined not to succumb to that pitfall when developing its new, better-for-you slider, the Slinger. The new menu item incorporates reductions, as a quarter of the beef is removed and replaced with mushrooms, but it also maintains a traditional burger taste.

“The beauty of the Slinger is that it isn’t just a cheeseburger where we ripped off the cheese and said, ‘Voila, here’s a burger under 350 calories,’” says Scott Uehlein, vice president of innovation and development at Sonic. “It’s actually built so it tastes amazing and the secret is the mushrooms. … You end up with a really delicious, juicy burger, which, by the way, has health benefits, too.”

Options like the Hummus Sweets and the Slinger burger appeal to customers who exist in what Smith calls the “messy middle.” Some are so concerned with health that they’re willing to sacrifice taste; others run away from anything that hints at healthfulness. But most Americans fall somewhere in between, and factors like flavor, quality of ingredients, time of day, and day of the week can determine what they want.

Those in the messy middle are also likely to appreciate unconventional dishes, like Hummus & Pita Co.’s Hummus Shake. Made with hummus, tahini, bananas, dates, and almond milk, “it’s a foodie’s dream … rich, creamy, sweet,” Pesso says. “The nutritional benefits are an added bonus.”

For its part, Sonic takes what Uehlein calls the “barbell approach.” On one end, smaller sizes, like the Slinger, appeal to the health-conscious customers. On the other, extravagant offerings like the new Cookie Jar shakes—which mix popular branded cookies like Oreo and Chips Ahoy into ice cream—are ideal for customers craving a treat that holds nothing back. Most customers rotate back and forth on that barbell depending on the occasion.

When customers decide to treat themselves, it’s important that brands provide them with treats they can feel good about—something made even trickier by the new calorie-labeling requirements.

“Seeing those calories can cause a sticker shock that can cause them to go somewhere else on the menu or still order the same thing and then not feel so good about going back to the restaurant,” Smith says. Ensuring high quality is one way to curb this threat. Quality may take the form of clean labels, customization, ethical or local sourcing, or creative recipes.

Specializing in super-premium ice cream and gourmet baked goods has enabled ice cream sandwich brand CREAM to succeed—even in health-conscious Berkeley, California. Legally, super-premium ice cream must have a certain percentage of butterfat, says president and cofounder Gus Shamieh. “Customers aren’t always aware of that, but they can taste the difference. They know that CREAM represents quality. When a customer walks in our doors, they’ve made the decision to really indulge, and they want to enjoy every bite and make every calorie worth it,” he adds. That also goes for guests who may have dietary restrictions, as the brand offers dairy- and gluten-free options.

CREAM’s creative recipes can also help customers feel that their dietary extravagance is worth it. Ice cream tacos and the Do’sant (a croissant-doughnut hybrid) ice cream sandwich are fun and perfect for Instagram, which contributes to the celebratory experience customers seek when eating out—and indulging.

But at the end of the day, people want great food whether they are indulging or not, Smith says. And in the course of developing great menu items, there’s nothing extravagant about focusing on flavor.

Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Story