Chocolate fusion

by Keith Nunes
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In late 2008 the National Confectioners Association embarked on a project to ascertain what trends would guide the confectionery industry in 2009 and beyond. The association selected 40 individuals with experience in production, manufacturing, retail, food service, consumer trends and other market segments to participate in the survey and provide their view of the future. In June, the N.C.A. unveiled the results of the project in its Industry Trend Report. A key highlight — chocolate will be a significant market driver.

Many of the professionals surveyed by the N.C.A. predicted consumers may expect to find chocolate and cocoa appearing more frequently as a key ingredient in main courses alongside salmon, chicken and steak. Not just for dinner, 38% said they are on the lookout for cocoa and chocolate in appetizers.

"Chocolate is a classic indulgence," said Susan Smith, senior vice-president of the N.C.A.’s Chocolate Council. "From its potential health benefits to its organic roots and inclusion as an ingredient in many types of sweet and savory foods, we have only begun to experience the versatility of chocolate."

Embracing versatility may mean more of an emphasis on global influences and flavor pairings, according to the survey. Forty-three per cent of experts said consumers are going to become more open to chocolate and flavor infusions that include spices, salt, herbs and floral flavors.

For example, fruit pairings such as mango will become more prominent and consumers will start to see ethnic flavors emerge in popularity with herbs being incorporated into chocolate dishes. Consumers also may expect to see sweet and savory combinations like chocolate and bacon, as well as chocolate and cheese duos.

At an event put on by the N.C.A., Ms. Smith said the chef made a salmon dish that featured cocoa nibs as the top layer of the salmon.

"It was delicious and a good example of chocolate’s versatility," she said.

Ms. Smith said consumer understanding and sophistication will help drive the trend of incorporating chocolate into menu items and retail products.

"In the past, the ratio of milk chocolate to dark chocolate products would have been 80:20," she said. "But, much like wine, consumers are learning more about different types of chocolate and are interested in trying different types and flavors."

Ms. Smith added that the trend does not mean milk chocolate is on the decline. Using the example of a symphony orchestra, she called milk chocolate the heart of the orchestra, much like the piccolo or flute, and dark chocolate would be more akin to the bass or cymbals.

One-third of the industry experts surveyed by the N.C.A. said consumers will continue to become more knowledgeable about the global origin of chocolate. Following the example of wine, they said embracing origins will allow consumers to break down cacao percentage and connect the provenance of the cocoa bean to the final product.

In conjunction with its international origin, 58% of those surveyed by the N.C.A. said international spices and ethnic flavors will have a large influence on new U.S. products and flavor development. While Asian and Latin flavors will serve as the biggest influences on U.S. product launches, the experts surveyed also pointed to Europe as a key driver.

Latin influences may include the fusion of chiles and other spices with chocolate, Ms. Smith said. Asian influences may include the incorporation of lavender or green tea, which connects with the health halo that is developing around cocoa.

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