CHICAGO — Determining what better-for-you means in the confectionery space has become increasingly challenging as more shoppers look to improve their eating habits. Is it fewer calories? Less sugar? Does it refer to functional products featuring added vitamins or plant-based treats made without animal ingredients?

“Better-for-you can be a whole bunch of things,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, director of food and drink insights at Mintel, during a presentation at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 23-26 in Chicago. “It isn’t just about the ‘better’ part. The ‘you’ part is important because people are experimenting and customizing their diets. There are a lot of different views out there.”

Consumers are choosing from a range of better-for-you ingredients and products, including low-carb, high-protein, gluten-free, paleo and more, she added. Many are embracing flexitarian lifestyles. While 73% of consumers maintain that some animal products are important to a balanced diet, half believe plant-based foods are generally healthier.  

“Plant-based confectionery is out there, but more important is plant-based snacks,” Ms. Mogelonsky said. “What’s catching on — and slowly — is replacing dairy milk in milk chocolate with plant milk. We’ve seen it growing, especially with companies like Hershey launching oat-based chocolate.”

New plant-based chocolate products on display at the Sweets & Snacks expo include an oat milk chocolate bar from Lindt & Sprunglini and vegan chocolate-covered caramels from Ocho Candy, made with plant-based butter from Miyoko’s Creamery.

A transition to what Ms. Mogelonsky called “non-dairy 2.0” could bring more consumers into the plant-based chocolate fold.

“You have to find a way to convince more people to try it,” she said. “The way you do that is by ramping up the ingredients you use to make the chocolate more interesting. Think almond milk chocolate with almond butter or almond milk chocolate with real almonds. The next step we’re going to see is vegan chocolate with more inclusions that reinforce the non-dairy ingredient.”

Low- and no-sugar treating

Purchasing decisions increasingly are swayed by labels and ingredients. More than half (53%) of consumers check labels for total sugar when choosing a new food or beverage, according to Mintel. Forty-eight percent check the label for total calories.

Nutritional information may hold less sway in the chocolate and candy aisles. A quarter of candy eaters and 14% of chocolate eaters currently choose a product strictly because of its low- or no-sugar claim.

Nearly 80% of adults surveyed by the National Confectioners Association and 210 Analytics said it is “perfectly fine” to occasionally treat with chocolate or candy. Older adults in particular grant confectionery a high degree of permissibility. Nearly 90% of baby boomers said an occasional treat is acceptable compared to 62% of Gen Z consumers.

“Confectionery benefits from the perception that it is an honest treat,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics LLC. “Most candy contains sugar and consumers expect it to.”

Still, interest in low- or no-sugar confectionery grew 13% between 2020 and 2021, she said. Forty-four percent of shoppers would consider trying chocolate or candy that is reduced sugar or sugar-free, even if it remains a secondary or tertiary consideration. Motivations vary by age, but the primary reason cited was a desire to reduce overall sugar intake. Thirty-six percent of Gen Z consumers said they would be interested because they prefer the taste of low- and no-sugar items.

Feel-good falls under functional

Data from Mintel show 45% of shoppers are looking for foods that improve energy and 42% are seeking products that support their immune system. Four-in-ten look for calming or anti-anxiety benefits, while 35% are interested in products that promote better sleep.

“Consumers really want to feel better,” Ms. Mogelonsky said. “Not just physically, but emotionally, too. When they reach for candy or chocolate, they’re not just supporting their physical health. They’re also looking for that emotional element.”

Data from Mintel show 42% of consumers want food that contributes to both physical and mental health, and 34% are interested in products with mood-boosting ingredients.

New products showcased at Sweets & Snacks supported a range of specific need-states. Chicago-based startup The Functional Chocolate Co. offers a “Brainy Chocolate” bar formulated with ginkgo biloba, bacopa, rhodiola, amino acids, omega 3 fatty acids and Chocamine, a patented cocoa-based ingredient designed to improve cognitive function. Chewy candies from Quality Candy Co. LLC are packed with caffeine, amino acids and vitamins to support energy and concentration, while a new hard candy from Laki Naturals contains chamomile, lavender and hibiscus to promote relaxation.

Confectionery products may not need ingredients linked to specific outcomes to fall under the functional umbrella. Consumers are beginning to view indulgent treats that lift spirits after a hard day as better-for-you, too.

“Some people think there’s nothing like a bag of potato chips to make you feel better while others go to chocolate for that little boost,” Ms. Mogelonsky said. “Either way, everyone is looking for something they can hold up and say, ‘This is a better-for-you product because it makes me feel great.’ A lot of confectionery products provide a happy feeling and are fun to eat. That’s really where confectionery sits.”