BOSTON — When Nestle USA and the Hershey Co. recently announced initiatives to remove artificial ingredients from such candy brands as Butterfinger and Hershey’s Kisses, both companies said consumer demand for simple ingredients prompted the plans.
But only a couple of years before, a Boston-based confectionery company discovered the average candy consumer may not necessarily be seeking more virtuous options. Unreal, which makes better-for-you versions of popular products, including peanut butter cups and candy-coated milk chocolate, first debuted in mass retailers in 2012.
“The mission was always ‘unjunk’ and reinvent America’s favorites, but what we found is that our mass roll-out strategy didn’t align with our mission, didn’t align with our products, and more importantly didn’t align with our target customer,” said Amanda Reiss, chief marketing officer of Unreal.
The company has since homed in on the health-conscious shopper seeking such sweets instead of “trying to convert the person in the mass channel aisles of a convenience store who is A-OK with eating their standard desserts every day,” she said.
Unreal is currently re-launching its line of candy products in the natural channel with new flavors and revamped packaging. The products contain no bioengineered ingredients, gluten or soy. Ingredients include fair trade cacao, organic milk and colors sourced from vegetables.
Unreal products returned to distribution this past fall, debuting in Kroger stores in October and expanding to more stores this spring, including Whole Foods Market and Target stores as part of its Made to Matter collection of natural and organic products. The products now feature new ingredient twists, including crispy quinoa, coconut and almond butter.
“We also found that a lot of our products weren’t innovative enough, so while consumers were looking for better-for-you products, they don’t necessarily want just the same old milk chocolate peanut butter cup,” Ms. Reiss said. “So we started looking at how we can bring some more innovation into our products as well with new flavors and ingredients.”
Creating candy products with simple ingredients has its challenges. For example, using colors derived from beetroot or carrot juices doesn’t deliver the same vibrancy as an artificial dye. Unreal Gems, which are candy-coated milk chocolates in original and peanut varieties, have dull hues when compared with traditional candies.
“Initially, our concern was that our Gems may not be vibrant enough because people are used to more luscious colors, but the feedback we received recently at expos was really exciting and helpful to us,” Ms. Reiss said. “People were saying they liked the muted colors. I think what’s happening now is people may associate those bright colors with Yellow 3, so they see these and say they do feel more natural.
“It might be more of an issue in terms of appealing to kids, and we’re definitely going back and forth with this in looking at our colors and it’s a constant point of discussion.”
Another hurdle relates to sourcing costly organic and non-G.M.O. ingredients.
“When you’re offering better-for-you products, one of the biggest challenges is better-for-you ingredients are absolutely more expensive,” Ms. Reiss said. “And then once we have those ingredients set, all of the certifications are a challenge. We’ve had to change our suppliers, and once you do anything to change your ingredients, you have to go through the process again.
“People more and more will be looking more for these labels and for this validation that the products are legitimately non-G.M.O., for example, or fair trade.”
Unreal products are gluten-free, but the company has not achieved the certification because of potential cross-contamination from the machinery at the co-manufacturing plant. The dark chocolate varieties are dairy-free and vegan, and the candies and cups contain less sugar, gram-for-gram, than the conventional counterparts, according to the company.
“In terms of how we achieve less sugar, it’s really balancing out the sugar with more fiber and protein,” Ms. Reiss said. “Inulin adds more fiber and basically allows us to cut down on that sugar.”
With new products and a new approach, Unreal is confident in capturing more growth this time around. In addition to gaining broader distribution in the coming months in natural retailers, the company has launched an e-commerce platform at getunreal.com. Before, the company sold products on Amazon.com, but because of seasonal restrictions on candy on the site, Unreal moved its on-line selling in-house.
What’s next for Unreal?“Eventually, the plan is of course we’d love to unjunk America’s favorite snack foods as a whole,” Ms. Reiss said. “We’re not quite sure what those may be. We have some thoughts, but expanding beyond chocolate into non-chocolate candy, and then expanding beyond that into snack foods and drinks, potentially. Who knows? It’s a big world out there. And we’re trying to be focused and do it in the right way this time."