Chocolate makers looking for ways to attract health-conscious consumers are turning out smoother dark chocolate bars, protein bars with chocolate, sugar-free chocolate and single-origin chocolate, according to Reuters.
Nestle has set up "chocolatories" in London, Australia and Japan to produce special personalized KitKat bars, which customers can buy in more than 10 flavors. They are made from premium dark chocolate, milk chocolate and raw — or less-processed — chocolate. Customers also can have a message printed on white chocolate bars and wrapped in customized packaging, Reuters reported.
Critics say chocolate treats remain high in sugar and fat and that these innovative products are merely gimmicks to boost stagnant sales.
Growth in the U.S. chocolate market — driven by demand for premium varieties and sugar-free and dark chocolate products — is expected to surpass the $30 billion mark by 2021, according to a 2016 TechSci Research report. Consumers love chocolate and there is no shortage of products on the market to satisfy that indulgence.
For manufacturers, their growth has come from expanded distribution for both new and established products, along with innovations and the increased use of chocolate as an ingredient. In addition to premium chocolate, dark varieties provide unique opportunities for manufacturers. They can add it to a product positioned as healthy or better-for-you, while enabling consumers to indulge, which expands the reach of the item.
"It’s going to be very difficult to persuade consumers to buy more chocolate,” Wiebke Schoon, a Euromonitor food analyst, told Reuters. “But they are open to being convinced to have better chocolate, to spend more money on it."
There has been a host of studies in recent years extolling the health benefits of chocolate. With chocolate remaining one of the world’s favorite indulgent foods, it is no surprise that consumers are quick to embrace the positives. However, medical professionals note that chocolate is still a high-calorie food that should be eaten in moderation.
The largest players in the U.S. chocolate market — Hershey, Mars, Lindt/Ghirardelli/Russell Stover and Nestle — have been developing premium products to catch the consumer's attention and latch onto the latest trends.
Still, while these major companies innovate with premium chocolate products, they are also positioning themselves in the better-for-you category by investing in healthier sweet treats. Mars recently took a minority stake in KIND, known for its clean-label fruit and nut bars, and Hershey recently announced it would buy Amplify Snack Brands,a maker of Oatmega protein bars and cookies, among other trendy snacking products. These companies haven't given up on chocolate, but it's clear they are looking for other ways to grow.
Chocolate manufacturers have to balance the customers' desire for the occasional high-end indulgence they get from a premium product with their demand for healthier and transparent ingredients. Consumers tend to want both options at different times. On the plus side, the pricier and more upscale chocolate experience is translating to higher sales values, so even though the volume of chocolate sales remains static, Euromonitor reported values increased by 3.6% in 2016-2017, according to Reuters.
If chocolate makers can find ways to get more people to purchase the confection because of its health benefits, it could open up a large, lucrative market for the treat. That may be the sweetest news the chocolate industry has heard in a while.