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.