Healthy indulgence, sugar reduction and sustainability drive innovation


01 Feb 2023 — Healthy indulgence is pushing the boundaries in chocolate innovation as consumer preferences for health and wellness reign supreme. Chocolate cravings remain as strong as ever, so balancing the sweet spot for offerings that hit sustainability credentials, satisfy on taste and demonstrate better-for-you characteristics is a top challenge facing the industry.

However, chocolate and cocoa players are galvanizing efforts toward sustainability and developing solutions that hit the healthy indulgence mark.

On top of this, through good storytelling, the industry is letting consumers know where their products come from and that human rights conditions and the environment are being taken care of and no harm is being caused.

FoodIngredientsFirst speaks with some of them to learn more.

Chocolate and cocoa players are galvanizing efforts toward sustainability and developing solutions that hit the healthy indulgence mark.Combining naturalness with intense indulgence
Philippe Bernay, commercial marketing lead for cocoa & chocolate, Europe, at Cargill, explains how the company’s annual holistic review of the trends impacting the cocoa and chocolate space identified nostalgic flavors, conscious consumption, healthy indulgence, and the alignment between gourmet and industrial sectors as key influences in the marketplace.

“Health and wellness remain a priority for many consumers, and the desire for healthy indulgence shows no sign of waning. Lighter textures and formats, such as aerated chocolate inclusions, are one way to offer consumers more permissible options. We also see heightened interest in plant-based innovations, especially those that avoid allergens and are made with label-friendly ingredients,” he says.

“Advances such as our Gerkens Sweety cocoa powder, which enables up to 30% sugar reduction in chocolate beverages in a natural way, and our ExtraVeganza range of plant-based chocolate are two examples of how we’re helping brands bring permissible indulgence to their product innovations.” 

Cargill’s Gerkens Sweety cocoa powder was named Sensory Innovation Award winner at last December’s Fi Europe 2022 expo.

While there will always be a need for intense indulging chocolate moments, cocoa and chocolate giant Barry Callebaut expects more consumers to adopt a “soft health” approach to life. Increasing the desire to mindfully indulge.”

“Healthy Indulgence is a trend to watch within the confectionery segment in the years to come,” Bas Smit, global VP of marketing at the Barry Callebaut Group, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.  

He points to the company’s recent introduction of the “second generation of chocolate,” which puts ‘cocoa first, sugar last.’ Unveiled in Venice last October. The new product design forced Barry Callebaut to redefine chocolate making, including redefining the cocoa bean’s farming, fermenting and roasting protocols. 

“As a result, the second-generation chocolate contains only two (dark) or three (milk) ingredients – and with a sugar reduction of 50%. However, this innovation did not come overnight. Some of the knowledge crucial for this breakthrough was discovered by us about 20 years ago,” Smit adds.

The “clean label” trend is stronger than ever, driven by the distaste for unnatural ingredients or additives.Clean label
Olga Halme, customer development manager at Valio, agrees that consumers have never been more health-conscious than today. They have changed their behavior toward a healthier diet further still after the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“The “clean label” trend is stronger than ever, driven by the distaste for unnatural ingredients or additives. Consumers are balancing pleasure with healthier features. Snacks are no longer deemed an occasional moment of indulgence, where only a little attention is paid to nutritional intake. Instead, people are very interested in the ingredients and evaluating the healthiness of the products to which they turn. More than half of global consumers say that high protein claims make a snack healthy,” she tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

“But in addition to healthiness, consumers are seeking snacks that are guilt-free. The taste of sugar and the craving for sugar is quite widely enjoyed. At the same time, the negative health effects of sugar are well known, and it is considered the biggest baddie in the food game.”

“For example, sugar is perceived to be negative when chocolate is eaten in a hurry or as a snack, as it’s seen as an indicator of an unbalanced lifestyle. In addition to the perceived benefits like high protein content, a low amount of sugar and digestive wellness, consumers are looking for products that taste great. Delicacies especially must meet the “healthy indulgence” criterion, as taste is the top priority in these products,” Halme notes.

Less sugar, a clean label, and “natural” is what consumers want.Sugar reduction
Some of Valio’s latest innovations target sugar reduction, with Halme noting that less sugar, a clean label, and “natural” is what consumers want.  

“The trend of sugar avoidance sets a challenge for confectionery manufacturers, as sugar is the main component in creating the sweet taste of chocolate. Sugar also enhances the texture and prolongs the shelf life of chocolate and confectionery products,” Halme says. 

Valio Bettersweet is a milk powder solution that enables natural sugar reduction in milk chocolate by using the proteins in milk, reducing the need for added sugar. Sugar in chocolate is commonly reduced by using either polyols, also known as sugar alcohols, or by adding fiber.

“While the ‘30% less sugar’ health claim can be achieved by both methods, there are also downsides to consider. Polyols can cause digestive discomfort if consumed in excess and require a warning label about laxative effects to be placed on product packaging. With Valio’s solution, no such warning is necessary. Valio Bettersweet offers permissible indulgence with better nutrition: natural milk minerals, proteins and vitamins and also digestive comfort: no laxative effects, no lactose,” Halme says.

When the sugar reduction is achieved by polyols or fibers, the chocolate can sometimes have a sandy or hard consistency. By using Valio ingredients, both are easily avoided. With our milk-based protein, confectionery manufacturers can reduce sugar levels without compromising important product qualities such as taste and texture. All this without adding anything that isn’t already in milk chocolate enabling ‘Reduced sugar’ or ‘30% less sugar’ package claims,” she says.

Barry Callebaut says it’s crucial for industry and consumers to show the company improves and makes an impact.Building in nutrition
Lesya Melechyn, chocolate & confectionery innovation category lead at ofi (olam food ingredients), says that whether it is looking for plant-based and keto alternatives to lower sugar intake, high fiber options, or high protein snacks that boost energy levels, the company is seeing increased demand for products that complement lifestyle and health choices. 

“In the past, chocolate was often seen purely as an indulgence. Today, consumers are demanding more from their confectionery – seeking out both nutritious and delicious products,” she says. 

“The demand for plant-based alternatives is no longer limited to meat and dairy alternatives, with consumers now seeking out plant-based options in the bakery, chocolate, and confectionery sectors. And consumers want improved tastes and textures at the same time as positive nutrition metrics and sustainability impact. It means we’ve seen launches of products with plant-based claims grow exponentially over the past few years. In response, we’ve been focusing our efforts on how we can support our customers in their plant-based innovations.” 

Susanne Spiller, category director of confectionery EAME, also stresses that consumers are looking for taste and indulgence in chocolate and chocolate products. “This includes great tasting flavor pairings and multisensory experiences, combining intense and interesting flavors and flavor combinations with great textual innovations like crunchies, popping ingredients, or fruity pieces,” she says. 

But there are many other key consumer trends influencing the chocolate space right now and driving innovation.

Social and environmental considerations
Symrise is witnessing increasing awareness of raw materials in chocolate, e.g., alternatives to cocoa/cocoa-free chocolate, as well as awareness of production and working conditions in the chocolate industry.

Spiller notes how chocolate, especially cocoa raw materials, has always led corporate social responsibility (CSR) topics, as the industry needed to take care of topics like children’s rights and fair pay. 

“Producers need to bear this in mind when offering sustainable products. It definitely requires a holistic approach toward sustainability, taking cocoa raw materials and also other ingredients like flavors and packaging into account. An open and transparent dialogue among all shareholders can contribute to trust-building and value for all stakeholders in the value chain.” 

Ofi echoes that consumers are more mindful of the food they buy and its impact on the communities and landscapes it comes from. 

“They (consumers) are also wary of companies making bold sustainability claims, without clear action plans and the evidence to support progress.”

Ofi’s “Cocoa Compass,” a sustainability ambition for the future of cocoa, sets measurable targets in areas like empowering communities to grow by putting children first, supporting farmers to prosper, and protecting the natural world by investing in nature. 

It draws on nearly two decades of experience supporting cocoa farmers on the ground through sustainability programs across nine different countries. 

“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made so far, whether that’s 100% traceability back to the farm or community for the cocoa we source directly, rolling out child labor monitoring and remediation to 218,000 households, or enhancing the accuracy of our deforestation monitoring by polygon mapping two-thirds of our sustainability programs,” Melechyn says.

“All of this is underpinned by our sustainability insights platform, AtSource. Data is fed directly into the platform, so our customers can track and have confidence in the social, economic and environmental impact of their cocoa, from the farmer group to the factory gate.” 

Changing-making chocolate
Barry Callebaut says it’s crucial for industry and consumers to show the company improves and makes an impact, not just by making claims but by making change.

“By doing so, the claims follow on pack, which is very important for consumers to become aware of the difference between the various products on the market. These should and can only be made if they are authentic and falsifiable, which we, as a leading source of cocoa, can support food manufacturers with. Barry Callebaut is leading the industry with its Forever Chocolate program. Making sustainable chocolate the norm,” Smit continues.

Cargill points to an era of “Conscious Consumption,” where consumers view purchases as a reflection of their personal values and seek brands and products with a positive sustainability story.

“In response, we’re supporting brands with our Promise Cocoa portfolio of sustainable cocoa products sourced directly from known and trusted partner farmers and farmer organizations. Promise Cocoa not only offers a more sustainable cocoa supply chain, but it also provides full transparency to customers on the progress made on issues such as community well-being, farmer livelihoods and protection of the environment in their supply chain,” Bernay explains. 

Customers can also access metrics, mapped data points and storytelling materials, as well as insights into the carbon footprint of their products via Cargill’s CocoaWise digital platform.

Promise Cocoa products are also likely to have a lower carbon footprint than their non-Promise Cocoa alternatives – from a few percentage points up to 50% lower, depending on the cocoa content.

“Transparency, trust and authenticity are essential in today’s marketplace. Consumers want to know their chocolate was made in line with their values – reflecting both social and environmental considerations. That’s why we created the Cargill Cocoa Promise a decade ago as the cornerstone of our cocoa sustainability efforts in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, Indonesia, Brazil and more recently, Ecuador. Through the Cargill Cocoa Promise, we help farmers and their communities achieve better incomes and living standards while also growing cocoa sustainably,” Bernay adds.

What is coming next for the chocolate space? 
Cargill is working to bring even more advances to market through collaborations with universities and other external partners. For example, in partnership with vertical farming pioneer AeroFarms, it’s unlocking the cocoa bean’s full potential, fielding research that may lead to innovations that target factors such as faster tree growth and greater yields, accelerated development of varieties with enhanced pest and disease resistance, as well as offer sensory advances around flavor, color and more.

“In recent years, Cargill has laid a foundation for investment. This includes expanding plants in Belgium; making Mouscron ready to produce sugar-reduced chocolate; acquiring Smet – and building an additional product line in its factory – as well as Leman, and building the House of Chocolate – which opened in May 2022. But now we are taking the next step in our growth strategy. For example, we are adding 60% capacity to our chocolate coatings & fillings plant in Deventer, the Netherlands,” Bernay continues.

The upgraded facility will be designed with a dedicated nut-free compound line, separated from a line for products containing hazelnut. Both lines have been developed to maximize efficiency and increase production volumes. The facility can also produce sugar-free and palm-free coatings & fillings, he says. 

“On the sustainability front, the cocoa and chocolate value chains will be impacted by the upcoming new EU legislations around due diligence and deforestation. While the details of these legislative requirements are not fully known yet, Cargill is preparing to comply, building on the strong foundations of the Cargill Cocoa Promise.” 

Symrise notes how more plant-based alternatives will make their way onto supermarket shelves and more experiments with surprising flavor combinations.

Melechyn from ofi agrees that plant-based innovation will continue to grow but says the space will need to prove its worth as more than just a substitute. “Brands will need to work harder to show the value of being plant-based, in terms of taste and texture, as well as health and environmental benefits,” she says.

However, she notes that this year is expected to bring rising costs for both consumers and businesses – due to ongoing supply chain challenges and economic uncertainty – and this will have an impact.

“Where money is tight, quality and a sense of value for money will be key, and premium cocoa and nuts ingredients can help enhance this. Consumers will also be looking for innovations in flavors and ingredients that meet changing preferences,” she concludes.

Barry Callebaut believes mindful indulgence will continue to grow. “And healthy indulgence, a category that was a paradox a decade ago, will start to emerge,” Smit says.

By Gaynor Selby

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