Candy Trends Thrive on Consumers' Need for Sweet

Consumer whims and nostalgia, more than major food trends, seem to push and pull at candy and confections.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief, and David Phillips, Technical Editor

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Butterfinger CupCandy and confections is a category that seems to ignore overarching food trends and thrive on consumer whims and nostalgia.

Health and wellness – seriously? Private label – not at all. Organic, natural, non-GMO? It seems people put their health concerns aside when they grab a treat -- although there are some strong and long-lived trends in the candy category that many companies are pursuing vigorously and successfully.

One is the power of brands, and often the more brands the better. Multibillion-dollar multinationals like Nestle, Mars and Hershey started out as candy companies (in Nestle's case, became one early on) and maintain their company names almost exclusively on confection products.

At the May Sweets & Snacks Expo, staged by the National Confectioners Association, a dizzying array of new products mixed familiar candy brands with familiar but far-afield food brands. In most cases, the co-brand helped to clearly deliver the novel flavor message. Consider:

  • Guinness Luxury Dark Chocolate Bar (made by LIR Chocolates)
  • Tabasco Chocolate (The Chocolate Traveler)
  • Klondike Chocolate Candies (Imaginings3 Inc.)
  • Ringling Bros. Gummis (Taylors Candy Inc.)
  • Dr Pepper, Orange Crush, A&W Root Beer and Hawaiian Punch Licorice Strips (KLN Family Brands)
  • Fla-Vor-Ice Cherry Bubble Gum (Ford Gum & Machine Co.)
  • Margaritaville Freezer Bars (Jel-Sert)
  • Old Bay Seasoning Peanuts (Warrell Corp.)

Some candy brands lend their names to non-candy products -- such as Almond Joy, Mounds and Hershey instant puddings by Jel-Sert, Icee Cake Bites by Swiss Colony and Affy Tapple Pretzel Bites from 21st Century Snack Foods.

Nostalgia abounds in this category. While some candies no longer sell what they once did or have lost national distribution, Easterners can still find Clark bars and NECCO wafers, Black Jack Gum apparently is produced occasionally by Mondelez and baby boomers can debate whether Mary Janes or Bit-O-Honey are the better nut and honey taffy.

Hershey's Krackel, a crisped rice candy bar that has only been available in the Hershey Miniatures variety pack, is full-size again for the first time in 20 years. One speaker at the Sweets & Snacks Expo noted the adulation he gets from suit-clad Gen X and Y business leaders when they learn he's associated with Sour Patch Kids.

Sour continues to be a popular trend, especially among younger consumers. Following that path to the bitter end are newcomers Mike and Ike Zours, WarHeads Jelly Beans and several Trolli gummis. Even marshmallow Peeps have debuted in a sour watermelon (and mini) version.

York MinisMinis are big. Milky Way, Snickers, Twix and 3 Musketeers, all from Mars, are not new inventions, but their poppable bite-sized versions are. So are Starburst Minis from Mars subsidiary Wrigley. Hershey's York Minis (small versions of the Peppermint Patties) was named most innovative new product at the show. In most cases, minis sold in multi-portion bags, which means maxi profits and volumes.

Energy, a trend in several food categories and especially in beverages, has some devotees in the candy category. Energems from NRG Innovations look like M&Ms but they contain caffeine, B vitamins and a "proprietary energy blend."

Healthy? Hershey had that in mind back in 2011 when it bought Brookside Foods, with its line of acai, goji and other "superfruit"-based chocolates. But the big chocolate company has been backing off the superfruit claim recently when it was shown those products were flavored to taste like acai, goji, etc., but contained little or none of the exotic superfruits. Mars made some substantial noise back in 2005 when it clinically proved the flavanols in especially darker chocolates had heart-healthy properties -- but that company, too, has muted that marketing message lately.

Responding to those trends sometimes means that adjustments need to be made to formulations of even popular candy products.

Creating confections that are lower in fats or sugar can be a challenge, especially when consumers expect those products to still taste great, says Aida Prenzno, director of technology, Gum Technology, Tucson, Ariz., a business unit of Penford Food Ingredients.

“Hydrocolloids provide texture in applications where fats or sugars are reduced,” Prenzno says. “They provide mouthfeel and help to create a confection that is pleasant to eat. In addition, most hydrocolloids have a clean label and are mainly composed of dietary fiber.

“In low-calorie confections, the texture that sugar and fat provide is often lacking. Incorporating a gum can help build the desired texture back. For example, carrageenan can be used in reduced-fat caramels to provide creamy mouthfeel and consistency. Gums are usually used at low levels and they do not mask flavors.”

The National Confectioners Association, which sponsors the Sweets and Snacks Expo, says attendance at the Chicago show hit a record level this year, more than 16,000 attendees. There were more than 650 exhibitors of candy, snack and gourmet products from 23 countries.

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