Food industry & nutrition

Change tastes sweet

While clean label has been high up the agenda for some time now, the confectionery segment is not an obvious place to find all-natural ingredients and health-oriented marketing claims. That said, with the world’s biggest confectionery manufacturers moving away from artificial flavourings, the tide could be set to turn. Ingredients Insight investigates a growing trend.

‘Clean label confectionery’ might sound like a contradiction in terms. While clean label is associated with all-natural goodness – the promise that a product doesn’t contain any undesirable or untrustworthy ingredients – confectionery may well be viewed as a segment where the usual rules don’t apply.

For sure, consumers might be looking for health benefits and natural nourishment when running through the rest of their shopping list. But when it comes to sweets, desserts and chocolate bars, items designed to be indulgent, surely all bets are off?

It may therefore have come as a surprise when, in February 2015, Nestlé USA announced it would remove all artificial flavours and colours from its chocolate products by the end of the year. Its reformulated products were due to hit shelves – complete with a ‘No Artificial Flavors or Colors’ on the packaging – from the middle of 2015, with 250 products and 10 brands set to undergo a change.

This followed a similar move by Nestlé UK in 2012, when the manufacturer became the only major confectionery company in the UK to have removed artificial preservatives, flavours and colours across its portfolio. One of its brands, Smarties, eliminated artificial colourings from its casings as early as 2006, following consumer concerns about the effects on children’s health.

Nestlé USA says its tweaks will not affect the taste or price. They involve, for instance, replacing artificial vanillin with natural vanilla, while eliminating FDA-certified colours such as Red 40 and Yellow 5.

“When making these changes to more than 75 recipes, maintaining the great taste and appearance consumers expect from the chocolate brands they know and love is our number one priority,” said Leslie Mohr, nutrition, health and wellness manager of Nestlé Confections & Snacks. “We conducted consumer testing to ensure the new recipe delivers on our high standards for taste and appearance.”

Just a day later, rival chocolate-maker Hershey laid out its own commitment to the cause. It stated it would begin transitioning to simple and easy-to-understand ingredients, such as milk from local farms, roasted California almonds, cocoa beans and sugar.

This will mean bidding goodbye to genetically-modified sugar, along with milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormones. One popular brand, Hershey’s Kisses, will transition to natural flavourings, while the new Brookside Dark Chocolate Fruit & Nut Bars will contain no high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors or artificial colours at all.

John Bilbrey, Hershey president and chief executive officer, made the announcement the Consumer Analyst Group of New York. “Consumers are telling all manufacturers that they want to recognize all of the ingredients in their food and that what they are consuming is made with the fewest ingredients possible,” he told investors.

With two major announcements in an as many days, the industry could not help but take note. After all, if one US confectionery giant moves towards clean label, that’s a bold move; if two do, that’s a trend.

Consumers are the boss

Since then, a number of manufacturers have followed suit, not least Mars, which has pledged to phase out all artificial colours from its global food and beverage portfolio over the next five years. “Our consumers are the boss and we hear them,” said president and CEO, Grant F Reid.

It seems clear that, even in a segment that makes no pretensions towards healthfulness, clean label is now seen as key to marketability. For sure, nobody buys a bag of M&Ms for its health benefits. But equally, in a world where the online petition ‘M&M’s Candies: Stop Using Artificial Dyes Linked To Hyperactivity’ can amass over 200,000 signatures, there is a lot to be gained from alleviating consumer panic.

According to a Datamonitor Consumer survey, 38% of American consumers try to choose natural food or drink products ‘all’ or ‘most of the time’. Perhaps the proportion would be even higher if asked about their children, who are, after all, major consumers of confectionery – a different survey by natural colour manufacturer GNT found that 82% of parents place great value on natural food and drinks, compared to just 67% of child-free respondents.

In fact, confectionery companies have been wise to this state of affairs for a while. According to Innova Market Insights, nearly 9.5% of all confectionery launches in the 12 months to the end of September 2012 used either natural or additive-free claims, rising to 16% and 15% in the US and Western Europe respectively.

So with the pressure on, and changes underway, how can the confectionery segment enjoy the benefits of clean label without skimping on taste? In recent years, a number of specialty ingredients manufacturers have created natural product lines for confectionery companies, allowing them to meet their clean label needs.

One example is Avebe, which extracts starch and proteins from potatoes for use across a wide range of sectors. Within the confectionery segment, it has developed a number of special starches suitable for jellies and fruit chews. The resulting sweets are not just clean label – they’re also gelatin-free.

“A leading demand seems to be “free from”: no allergens and no animal components,” Christer Andersson, Market Manager Food at Avebe, tells Ingredients Insight. “The main drive comes from consumers, and the vegetarian claim on consumer packages is still very strong. We have a wide range of products that can fulfil these demands as well as many more ‘free from’ claims. Besides that, we don’t give in on taste and texture.”

Andersson says that clean label confectionery does present comes challenges – especially when it comes to finding clean label solutions that fulfil the industry’s processing and textural needs.

“The texturising properties of the starches are crucial,” he says. “Popular confectionery relies heavily on its texture and it’s important that the property of the starches, e.g. texture for both processing and final shape of the confection, is good. However, work has been done in this field and the first results are positive.”

Confectionery coatings are also being given the clean label treatment, with rice starch becoming a popular alternative to titanium dioxide. Beneo, for instance, describes its rice starch as ‘all natural, no additives, no preservatives, organic… all the right buzzwords to catch consumers’ attention these days’. It adds that the rice starch ‘contributes to a high level of clean label whiteness in many kinds of confectionery coatings’.

Perhaps most notably, the rising popularity of stevia has led to a various ‘natural’ confectionery products that contain no added sugar. While stevia’s clean label credentials have been challenged (not least because it has an E-number in Europe), it is arguably more natural than substitutes such as aspartame and acesulfame-K. Manufacturers can therefore tick two boxes: clean label and sugar-free.

According to Innova Market Insights, only 1% of new confectionery products in 2014 featured stevia as an ingredient; however, as concern mounts surrounding sugar’s impact on health, we might expect its market penetration to grow.

“Formulation problems and the bitter after-taste of stevia are felt to have held back product activity in some instances,” said Lu Ann Williams, Director of Innovation at Innova Market Insights, “but some sectors have found this less of an issue, particularly licorice sweets and medicated confectionery, and improved formulations are now being introduced to allow more products in other areas.”

The trend seems clear: clean label is making itself felt, even in this most indulgent of food and beverage categories. With the world’s biggest confectionery manufacturers switching to ‘natural’ ingredients, we can expect to see many subtly reformulated recipes that cut out any perceived nasties while keeping taste, aroma and texture intact.

This article appears in the 2016 vol 1 edition of Ingredients Insight

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