Chocolate has always played the loveable rogue. No one ever really thought it was any good for them, but its irresistible taste justified the calories. However, with the UK's current focus on health and natural ingredients, chocolatiers are under pressure to reformulate their products or face media vilification.
Natural colours call
In a bid to appeal to mums, Nestlé has redeveloped Smarties to make the chocolate beans free from artificial colouring. "One issue is making confectionery permissible to buy for kids," says sales communication manager Graham Walker.
Last year, the company removed artificial colours and flavours from Rowntree fruit products and added real fruit juice. "Rowntree sales in the year to March 18 were up 9% on the previous year, so it just shows you what an impact this made," he says.
The new Smarties packs will draw attention to the formula change and, during the summer, the brand will receive £3M media support.
Confectionery and ingredients group Glisten has also been working hard to eliminate E-numbers. The company is introducing a range using colouring foodstuffs, instead of nature identical colours, but will continue its artificial colours range, because the market still exists, it claims.
"The problem with natural colours is mainly cosmetic - they'll always be a bit pasty," says technical manager Andy Baxendale. "If you keep the product in the dark it's OK, but if the packaging has display windows, then the colours are liable to fade."
Thorntons has been looking to get in on the act too, but has also struggled to find natural colours that are bright enough to use in its Christmas 2006 range. "There's not a natural pillar box red and we don't want Rudolph with a pink nose," says development manager Lee Statham. "We've searched all four corners of the globe, but there isn't anything out there. Up until 2006 we've used colour, but now we're just using milk, dark and white chocolate."
The company, which is a big supplier to Marks & Spencer (M&S), accepts that removing colour is risky. "The lack of colour may have a negative effect on sales - we won't know until after Christmas," says Statham.
Ta ta to trans fats
Thorntons has also just completed a two year project to remove hydrogenated fat from its products. " We briefed all our major fat suppliers and it was pretty new to them," adds Statham.
"We started making non-hydrogenated chocolate in November 2005 and we're still shelf-life testing it now," he says. "It's been a nightmare project, but we hope that people realise that Thorntons is ethically conscious."
As the world's largest confectioner, Cadbury is acutely aware of the bad press relating to trans fats and their inclusion in foods. While the firm claims it is impossible to reduce the levels of naturally occurring trans fats, it is working to reduce the level of total trans fats in products to less than 0.5g per single serving.
However, with many confectioners having already removed hydrogenated fats from their products, it is becoming less a point of differentiation and more a necessity. So how can individual companies shine against their rivals?
"The days of generating x thousand pound a year countlines [single packed chocolate products that traditionally sit on counters] are numbered," says Kinnerton Confectionery's development executive Julia Whiteside. A lot of companies get carried away with brand extensions, she observes. "Nestlé did Kit Kat Chunky - it was a success and they've gone mad on it. These days people don't buy the same thing every week and product life spans are short."
Kinnerton, a key chocolate supplier to M&S, has a highly seasonal product range and Whiteside is keen to increase the firm's non-seasonal offerings. She believes the latest trend is for confectionery to have a wholesome image as opposed to healthy. "Consumers are split between 'let's go mad with big chunks of oozy caramel and chocolate' and settling for something low in calories," she adds.
The company is looking to use more fruit and oats as it believes that these ingredients have healthier connotations. "We've launched 16g chocolate bars with freeze dried strawberries and we're looking to use linseed in future products," she says. "We're not looking to take on health bars though - the big boys are in there already," she adds.
Glisten's Baxendale believes that product enrichment is a growing trend. "Fortification is gradually creeping up on us. There's a lot of interest in omega-3, vitamins and minerals, energy boosting components and ingredients which promote joint health," he says.
However, many retailers remain sceptical as to whether consumers would buy into the idea of using confectionery to promote their health, he adds.
However, there may be a market for promoting chocolate's natural health benefits, says Alison Ward, director of communications at the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Association.
She believes that the success of functional products relies upon the format of their delivery, and claims that a growing number of consumers are eating one or two pieces of dark chocolate a day to gain the benefits of cocoa flavanols. These are naturally occurring anti-oxidants that are widely thought to help maintain cardiovascular health.
Chocs go gourmet
Ward also claims that consumers are acquiring a taste for continental trends. "Premiumisation is a real growth area. People like to know which estate their cocoa came from."
Whiteside also believes that consumers are increasingly looking outside of the milk chocolate scene and exploring other areas such as dark chocolate. "Consumers are starting to see themselves as connoisseurs of chocolate," she says. "The functional element will filter through, but there will still be a need for pure indulgence. People think 'to hell with all this - I want something that tastes nice!'"
Thorntons is hoping to capitalise on consumers' newfound interest in premium chocolate in September with the relaunch of its Origins chocolates. The box of five different single origin cocoa solids was initially launched two years ago using a range of fillings, such as praline and dark chocolate ganache. "First time round, Origins wasn't as successful as we'd hoped, so now we've changed the filling to a simple ganache," says Thorntons' Lee Statham.
Perhaps the fact that countlines are the fastest declining sector within confectionery, is a sign that consumers are becoming more adventurous with their tastes.
But whether Kit Kats will be succeeded by gourmet chocolate remains to be seen. Either way, it seems that confectioners will have to continue the health drive if chocolate is to stay in public favour.
Top 5 Confectionery Products (RETAIL sales)
1 Cadbury's Dairy Milk (umbrella brand)
5 Quality Street
Total confectionery market: £2.2bn (2.1%)
Countlines: £337.2M (-5.3%)
Boxed chocolates and assortments: £573.2M (8.6%)
Moulded chocolate bars: £282.2M (11.6%)
Seasonal novelties: £281.5M (-4%)
Miniature chocolate bars: £1.9M (-2.9%)
Year to Feb 27, 2006: TNS Worldpanel