It's never a bad idea to remove some of the guilt associated with sweet indulgences if the taste doesn't suffer as a result. Confection manufacturers have spent the past few years learning they can deliver confections that are visually alluring and delightful to eat yet don't break the calorie bank.
Today, they are facing yet another challenge within the same category, that of avoiding chemicals and preservatives consumers have been shunning.
Whether the subject is artificial colors, fake flavors or sweeteners with names torn from chemistry texts, consumers seeking pure indulgence want just that: a pure indulgence, one with a clean label and a hint — just a hint, mind you — of health.
Although many manufacturers would rather not think about this, those who can pull off this triple play have a good shot at gaining home base with a loyal audience. They know they'll have a winner.
Case in point: Belgian chocolate manufacturer Cavalier Chocolatiers (www.cavalier.be), Eeklo, Belgium, offers an extensive selection of milk and dark chocolates that are sugar-free and include healthy mix-ins such as crisped barley, freeze-dried fruits, flax and whole grains.
Cavalier's sugar-free formulation now comes via stevia, and the company is one of the first in the EU to get approval to use the naturally derived sweetener in confections – it was just approved by the European Commission last November.
As with many chocolate products, the company's products are textured with soy lecithin but also include soluble fibers like inulin. The chocolates can claim a good complement of antioxidants from chocolate and some of the other ingredients, such as the fruits.
This type of sweet is right on target with the current general perception of consumer desires in a dessert or sweet snack. Research from the Mintel Group (www.mintel.com), New York, shows that, despite obesity concerns, healthier chocolates with "low-in …" claims are likely to remain niche. This is because chocolate is a classic, affordable and appealing treat. People are more likely to cut back on total consumption than turn to healthier variants that can fall short on taste.
Starting in the 2000s, this made strategies like portion control, lighter formats via aeration and even chocolate-coated nuts or seeds important to building healthier confections. While these remain successful, of the chocolate confectionary products launched on the past six months in North America, only 15 percent carried natural or health/wellness claims, according to Mintel. The most dominant claims were "seasonal" and "Kosher." Of the ones that did have health/wellness claims, "no additives/preservatives," "organic" and "Kosher" topped the list.
Now that stevia has become pure enough — and familiar enough — to consumers as a "friendly" sugar substitute, a floodgate of low- or no-sugar confections might be about to open.
"As the first all-natural, zero calorie sweetener, stevia is a healthier alternative to highly caloric sucrose or undesired artificial sweeteners," says James Kempland, vice president of Sweet Green Fields LLC (www.sweetgreenfields.com), Bellingham, Wash.
"There are a number of high-quality substitutes the confectionary industry has been using for some time with very successful results," he continues. "A number of gums, mints, soft and hard candies and chocolates that use stevia in their formulations are currently available, and more are in development, to respond to the growing consumer demand for healthier, lower calorie, natural products."