Chocolate still hits the spot

by Allison Sebolt
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Despite the recession, consumers still want their chocolate, and they want dark varieties and the values of sustainability in their indulgent products.

"People want their chocolate," said Joan Steuer, president of Chocolate Marketing L.L.C. "We’re time strapped and money starved, and we are not going to give up certain things that are an affordable indulgence that make us feel good."

Information Resources, Inc., Chicago, said of the top 10 items where brand preference beats price as the most important influence for the consumer, chocolate candy is No. 1. Cookies and ice cream/sherbet also made the list.

According to Mintel International, Chicago, estimated 2008 sales of the chocolate confectionery market were $16.6 billion, up 2% from the previous year. Sales in 2009 are forecasted to reach $17 billion. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, there were 1,363 new chocolate products introduced during 2008, up from 1,338 in 2007. For the beginning of 2009 through May 28 there were 395 new chocolate products introduced.

During a presentation at the All Candy Expo in Chicago last month, Ms. Steuer, along with Mani Niall, executive chef with Just Desserts, identified some of the top chocolate trends for this year, with the top trend being chocolate with a purpose.

Ms. Steuer defined sustainability as an economic, social and environmental mission. She sees the movement as values based, and sees chocolate companies donating percentages of profits to sustainable agriculture and companies engaging in fund-raising efforts for various charities as a way of demonstrating their values. For example, World’s Finest Chocolate, Chicago, has a retail fund-raising program allowing for a retailer’s name on a chocolate bar as well as a designated charity or community organization the retailer will make a donation to for every bar sold.

Along with the concern of where the chocolate comes from, another trend is the popularity of micro-manufacturers and artisan manufacturers.

Hot chocolate also is picking up steam in the market. Ms. Steuer said the trend includes more than just cocoa powder, and includes ground and shaved chocolate as well. For the summer, she said companies may produce an ice-blended version or convert the concept into a smoothie.

"I think hot chocolate is becoming far less sweet and more flavorful," Ms. Steuer said. "There are single-origin entries that are coming in, too."

Salty caramels and sweet/salty mixes are another top trend. Ms. Steuer noted salty products always have some sugar and sugary products always have some salt.

"They are playing that up more because … when the economy tanks snacking goes way up," Ms. Steuer said. "The sweet and salty give you a whole different mouthfeel, flavor and addiction."

Chocolate products and snacks marketed as healthy is another noticeable avenue companies have been looking at for innovation. She said such products have opened the market to men more.

"Men aren’t sweets eaters traditionally," Ms. Steuer said. "If they think chocolate is healthy, it gives them more license to eat it. They are looking at these products as food, not candy."

Many of these products use superfruits, such as Nestle’s Cranberry Raisinets that are covered in chocolate.

Interest in dark chocolate continues with the latest wave of products hitting 80% to 90% cacao, and sales of dark chocolate is increasing. Many companies have introduced dark chocolate varieties of traditional products with Snickers and Reese’s having dark varieties.

Despite the popular interest in dark chocolate, Ms. Steuer said milk chocolate is still important for consumers, and as a culture consumers like more flavor than sweetness.

"There really still is a market for milk chocolate, although there is an occasion when we want to get our sugar fix, too," Ms. Steuer said.

Many new products at the All Candy Expo fit into the concept Ms. Steuer and Mr. Niall defined as "classic remix," or confectionery favorites taking on new tastes and flavor twists. Examples include the new limited edition coconut M&M’s, the Snickers Fudge variety, and Reese’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

There also has been an increased offering of gourmet chocolate and packaging at affordable prices for everyday indulgences. An example of this is the Dove Silky Smooth Chocolate with Peanut Butter.

Many consumers are looking to customize their chocolate, which may include allowing the consumer to choose the origin, cacao percentage, overall flavor profile or other features of their product. Ms. Steuer said this is easier for smaller companies to do as they are used to small runs. For the larger companies, she said this isn’t enough of a money maker yet to merit additional equipment.

"I think everybody wants to try something really innovative … the goal is to come up with something extremely different and yet really is based on a consumer need or want," Ms. Steuer said.

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