At the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago in May, there were numerous innovative products on display from the top confectionery companies in North America. Mars Chocolate North America was showing off a new M&M Bar -- a simple chocolate bar impregnated with fairy-sized whole M&Ms. Chicago's Ferrara Candy Co. was introducing a Trolli-branded gummy candy called Evil Twins. The pieces are shaped like two little boys joined at the hip -- one polite-looking and sweet, the other rowdy and sour.
Many attendees were scrambling to sample the Nestle's Crunch Girl Scout Cookie Bars, chocolate covered wafers that evoke three popular Girl Scout Cookie flavors: Thin Mints, Caramel and Coconut, and Peanut Butter Creme. Those cookies aren't new, but they are seasonal, and so are the candies. This summer the candy bars are hitting store shelves for the second year in a row. And like the cookies that inspired them, they are in demand.
Converting the flavors and textures of a cookie into a candy -- well that's either some sort of magic or an accomplishment of modern ingredient technology. Nestle USA officials would only say that it is proprietary. What it really comes down to is a creative innovation process involving a highly capable research and development team assisted by ongoing innovation from ingredient suppliers.
Confections are the ultimate expression of the consumer's attraction to sweet flavors and satisfying textures. And to some extent, confections are a fairly simple proposition involving sugars, chocolates and vanillas combined with the textural satisfaction provided by gums and other base ingredients. Of course the business of making and selling food is never simple.
Without innovation, sales will be as flat as a Hershey bar and profits as thin as a Necco Wafer. So candy makers referencing classic cookies, toying with tart flavors and boasting of more healthful, pure, and responsibly sourced ingredients. And with the availability of new high-intensity sweeteners, a myriad array of cocoas and vanilla extracts, and new technologies in gums and texturants and colors, there are plenty of opportunities for innovation.
Chocolate and vanilla
"The trends are toward innovation and all-natural," says Dan Fox, director of sales at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, Waukegan, Ill. "You don't see as much 'me-too' product development now as you might have a few years ago."
While economic forces might have restrained innovation until recently, things like bean-to-bar chocolate and high cocoa chocolates have weathered the recession and emerged with a foothold, Fox says.
At the other end of the spectrum, demographically, candies aimed at kids offer more visual appeal thanks to improved color technologies, bolder flavors and better textures, as candy makers continue to add brand appeal and interactive elements.
Nielsen-Massey sources and sells a full array of vanilla products that are used in the manufacture of numerous kinds of confections. Vanilla provides soft, round flavor notes and earthy, woody flavors.
Vanilla is a cultivated product extracted from the seeds of a particular orchid tree. It is grown in tropic regions around the world and subject to the weather forces that affect those equatorial and tropic regions. For this reason, prices of pure vanilla tend to fluctuate. Vanilla can be expensive even in good seasons, so formulators can be tempted to cut corners.
But Fox says the reality is that sugar has a much more substantial impact on the bottom line and that companies producing high-quality candies realize that relying on substitute products, such as imitation vanilla, might save themselves some money in the short term, but cost more in quality in the long run.
Cocoa, which is derived from the cacao bean, is similar to vanilla in many respects. It too is grown in the tropical band on multiple continents. It is available in a wide range of quality, and the degree to which it is used in formulation can make the difference between a commodity confection and a premium product that can be sold at three or four times the price of the commodity.
However, the commodity product itself is in danger of becoming rare. "At current growth rates, the supply of coca will not be able to keep up with increased global demand," Matt Biggins, Nestle's Crunch brand manager, said at the Sweets & Snacks Expo. "Worldwide cocoa consumption is increasing each year, and cocoa farmers are struggling to produce more cocoa from the same land."
As a result, Nestle and other cocoa users are working to grow the supply of cocoa, and to do so in ecologically sustainable and fair-labor ways. At least some consumers increasingly are looking for such certifications on their chocolate purchases.
"We see a lot of new product innovation in chocolate," says Frank Calabro, a confections technologist with David Michael, Philadelphia. "It's happening with things like the new flavored truffles from Godiva."
From another angle, nostalgia can sometimes be just as important as creativity in candy, Calabro says, noting that many of the top candy bar brands have been popular for decades. Either way, there are new ingredient technologies that respond to or even anticipate trends, Calabro says.
"For instance there are new compound coatings that provide additional protein," he says. "We are seeing a lot of yogurt flavors now. Yogurt has really worked its way into confections."
In addition, masking flavors give confectioners room to add nutritional ingredients, knowing that they can adjust if there are negative impacts on flavor.
Cargill, Minneapolis, also is giving the candy formulator more tools to work with in the form of a broader range of certified, sustainable cocoa and chocolate products that were introduced just last month.
The company says growing consumer demand regarding the origin of chocolate products led to the introduction of products available with certification options. Gerkens cocoa powders and Cargill's Peter's, Wilbur and Veliche chocolate brands are available with certifications from UTZ, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade.
"It means manufacturers will be able to offer products to their consumers with greater reassurance they have been produced sustainably and that they are making a positive difference to small-holder cocoa farmers," said Bryan Wurscher, president of Cargill's cocoa and chocolate business in North America.
Colors go natural
Bright colors can be a warning or an attractant in nature, and they certainly make candies more attractive, especially to the youngest consumers. Today's confectioners have a broad menu of colors to choose from, but the kinds of colors used in candies are changing.
"Every day we see our natural color science quickly closing the gap with synthetic color technology, creating easy, compatible, turn-key color solutions to advance the natural colors market," says Gale Myers, technical manager with Sensient Colors LLC, St. Louis. "For customers who want to switch from certified lakes to natural colors, Sensient has developed an aluminum-free, plating grade natural color line called Microfine. Developed as a natural replacement for aluminum lakes, it is available in both powder and dispersion forms and can be used in applications such as compressed sweets, confectioneries and fat-coating systems."
Those Microfine shades include lemon yellow to burnt orange and strawberry red to berry purple, blue and brown. Colors of this type allow candy makers to avoid the Southampton Six colors, which have been linked in a UK study to increased hyperactivity in children. As a result, the European Union requires special warning labels on products that use those six colors.
The result has been a quickening of the shift toward natural colors. But not all natural colors are alike, says Doug Lynch, vice president at LycoRed, Orange, N.J. "There is very little that is indulgent or comforting about eating confections colored with carmine, once consumers actually find out that it is made from beetles," Lynch says. "That is why lycopene from tomatoes is a better proposition.
"But it's a very good point that confections can be more natural and better for you, provided that the manufacturers don't sacrifice what makes confections a pleasing experience. If the products taste poorly, consumers likely will choose not to eat them twice, and the visual appeal of a product directly impacts the way we taste our foods," he says.
Stefan Hake, CEO of GNT USA Inc. Tarrytown, N.Y., agrees that natural colors can help make candies attractive to children and parents alike.
"Bright colors will attract the child, but the ingredients will often determine if the parent feels good enough about the product to make the purchase," Hanke says. "Seeing 'fruit and vegetable juice, for color' on a candy label is pretty appealing to any parent facing this dilemma."
While inexpensive simple sugars are still the primary sweetener for most confections, high-intensity sweeteners are coming into play, particularly for chewing gums and mints.
Chewy and gooey
Confections offer very concentrated flavors, but textures are no less important. "As a company that does work on gums and gum systems, we see more appreciation for the role of texture as a key sensory factor in confections and other foods," says Michael Flemmens, R&D applications manager for TIC Gums, White Marsh, Md.
"Though the importance of texture is more recognized now than it was even two years ago, research is limited due in part to the technical challenges associated with it," he continues. "There is also a debate about what to measure and how to better define all the attributes that comprise texture. The perception of texture varies from person to person. Texture is a multi-sensory set of experiences that starts with vision through handling, chewing, swallowing and even after swallowing."
In many confections other than chocolates and caramels, hydrocolloids, gelatins and gum arabic are used to provide structure and texture., says Ana Maria Garavito, a food chemist with Gum Technology Corp., Tucson, Ariz.
"Gum arabic has excellent adhesion and film-forming properties," Garavito says. "These attributes have made it a key component of coating systems for panned candies and tablets. It also has been a predominant ingredient in the manufacturing of chewy type confections such as gummy candy or gumdrops, as it confers to these products their characteristic hard and rubbery texture."
Gelatin has been considered the gelling agent of preference for many years. It has been the primary ingredient of jelly candy; and has been used in combination with starch in chewy type confections. Gelatin imparts these confections with an elastic texture and clarity that not many other ingredients can provide on their own.
Moreover the unique whipping and foaming properties of gelatin make it an essential ingredient in the manufacturing of aerated confections such as marshmallows. While these structure-function characteristics are crucial, use of these ingredients still requires careful consideration, Garavito says.
"Health-conscious consumers are looking for products that are sugar-reduced, kosher or do not contain any animal source. Price increases in ingredients like gelatin are also pushing formulators to find alternatives," she says. "These consumer preferences and market trends have posed and continue posing big challenges to confection manufacturing."
While some texturant usage and applications are tried and true, there are ongoing innovations in both the ingredients and their applications.
"Hydrocolloids such as karaya gum or tragacanth gum and low-viscosity CMCs [carboxymethyl cellulose] are good alternatives to gelatin," Garavito notes. "These ingredients have proven to provide the right elastic texture and firmness. Moreover, these gums bind and organize water, helping to prevent cracking and producing less sticky products."
Nutraceutical products manufacturers are replacing conventional delivery systems (capsules and pills) by innovative delivery systems, which include soft chew candy, gummy candy, patches, lollipops and fast-dissolving strips. Hydrocolloids and gums are being put to use in those new delivery systems.
Hydrocolloid blends containing xanthan gum, tara gum and gum arabic produce suitable edible films that are flexible and dissolve uniformly in the mouth. Other hydrocolloids that are often used in these applications are hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC) and citrus fiber, which have film-forming and adhesion properties.
Flavor, texture, color and even place of origin can impact the popularity of candy, as long as the confectioner doesn't forget to have fun with all that technology.
This article originally appeared in our July issue of Food Processing magazine.