How sweet it is

Thanks to a plethora of better-for-you cookies, candies and other treats, consumers are quickly learning that they can have their cake and eat it too.

People are living longer and taking aging seriously, looking at proactive ways to stay healthy—particularly via diet. This trend is fueling the demand for more nutritious and less processed foods, especially when it comes to tasty treats.

Consumers are reading treat labels carefully, paying close attention not only to what is in products, but—just as importantly—what is not. Mark Devencenzi, national sales director for SunRidge Farms, based in Royal Oaks, Calif., says if consumers have trouble pronouncing an ingredient or have to research what it is, they probably do not want to ingest it.

Industry observers say consumers are drawn to better-for-you treats because they are free of chemicals, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, artificial ingredients and the like. Many companies include non-GMO and Fair Trade ingredients when possible.

“Consumers are also looking for flavors that are real, such as strawberry licorice that actually tastes like strawberries, and are drawn to products with a sophisticated taste and texture,” says Mercedes Davidson, brand manager, Natural Vines, for the American Licorice Co., based in Bend, Ore. “These are more important purchase considerations than convenience or price.”

While the absence of certain ingredients is appealing, increasingly people are attracted to treats for what they do contain. “Consumers are looking for products that taste great and have nutritional benefits,” says Doon Wintz, president of Wholly Wholesome, based in Chester, N.J. He also says what constitutes a healthier-for-you product is a personal measurement and that can be a challenging obstacle for suppliers who do not clearly define their products. “People want to feel good about what they are eating—for some that comes down to calories and fat, for others it comes down to chemicals and additives and for still more it comes down to buying products from socially responsible companies. Other people look for value-added features such as antioxidants in dark chocolate or probiotics in frozen yogurt treats,” adds Wintz.

The Immaculate Baking Co. may have gotten its start making cookies, but today the company’s offerings also include ready-to-bake cookie dough, pie crusts, biscuits, scones, cinnamon rolls and crescent rolls. Its products feature unbleached, untreated flour, pure cane sugar, aluminum-free baking powder and other simple, natural ingredients that consumers can use at home when baking from scratch.

“Today’s consumers are seeking better-for-you options without sacrificing taste,” says Paul Nardone, CEO for the Wakefield, Mass.-based company. “Wholesome and natural ingredients along with ingredient simplicity is something we see consumers eagerly responding to.”

For the premium and natural candy category, quality­—not quantity—defines value, say observers. For example, according to Devencenzi, there are significant ingredient differences in SunRidge Farms milk chocolate almonds compared to conventional products. “Traditional products are usually made with a chemically pasteurized almond and a chocolate coating with refined sweeteners, artificial flavors and milk that is from cows treated with rBST,” he says. SunRidge Farms milk chocolate almonds contain steam-pasteurized almonds and a chocolate coating sweetened with evaporated cane juice, real vanilla and milk from cows not treated with rBST.

American Licorice’s premium Natural Vines brand was initially created for the licorice connoisseur—a consumer that enjoyed licorice and was looking for a gourmet product that had a sophisticated taste, texture and flavor profile, and one that was made with quality ingredients. “Our target consumer demographic originally was adults, with generally higher income and education levels, and who didn’t resist a higher price-point,” says Davidson. Instead, what company officials discovered was that the product appealed to both adults and children of various socio-economic backgrounds. “We found that purchasers weren’t buying one package of licorice for themselves and a different brand for their kids—instead they were making a single purchase for their entire family,” she adds.

Davidson describes Natural Vines as a low-calorie, all-natural, bite-sized licorice treat packaged in a resealable bag. Since the product’s launch, she says it has been interesting to see the appeal it has with older customers as well. “They are looking for products and brands that reflect their attitude toward food and are gravitating toward brands that match or reflect their lifestyle,” says Davidson.

Naturally good candy
As a parent concerned with all of the artificial ingredients in conventional candy, Rob Wunder set out to find a better-for-you solution so that his kids could enjoy a treat now and then. When he came up empty the only logical solution was to create his own line of candy. Wunder co-founded Ridgewood, N.J.-based YummyEarth, maker of organic candy featuring handcrafted flavors and real fruit extracts. “Consumers everywhere, especially moms, are looking for items that taste good and are good for you to place in their grocery cart,” says Wunder, adding that his products are also free of the common allergens like gluten, dairy and nuts and do not contain MSG or high fructose corn syrup.

Inspired by his children, Wunder says the company recently launched YumEarth Naturals Sour Beans. “Our kids begged us to make allergy-friendly jelly beans the YummyEarth way, using real fruit juice, fruit extracts, natural ingredients and no artificial dyes or MSG, and so far they haven’t steered us wrong,” he says.

Bert Cohen, president and founder of TruSweets, based in Wheeling, Ill., says his company has seen a growing interest from families looking to incorporate more better-for-you products that taste good and represent a good value, including candy. “Consumers are seeking to move away from ingredients typically found in conventional candies such as artificial ingredients and refined, GMO-derived sweeteners toward healthier options,” he says.

Under its Surf Sweets brand, TruSweets recently launched three seasonal offerings. These include Organic Fruity Hearts for Valentine’s Day, an 8-ounce Organic Spring Mix Jelly Beans for Easter and Spooky Spiders for Halloween. These products are all-natural, made with organic sweeteners, GMO-free and free of the 10 most common allergens.

Within the sweet bakery category, as companies reduce pack sizes or net weight to hold a specific price-point, consumers are focusing on product quality and value, something that also extends to the better-for-you segment, say observers.

Getting the formula right
Binh Hoang, associate brand manager at Dawn Foods, based in Jackson, Mich., says while conventional packaged sweet baked goods are often purchased with the entire family in mind, better-for-you purchases are primarily directed toward an individual adult or adults in the household, so the economic tradeoffs are even more of a consideration. “That’s why we place a strong emphasis on product formulation and taste experience for our  product line to further enhance our products’ value,” he says.

Dawn Foods relaunched its Weight Watchers Blueberry and Double Chocolate muffins earlier this year to provide an even greater value to shoppers. Based on consumer feedback, company officials decided to increase the item count per pack from three to four muffins, improve the nutritional profile and make significant improvements to the taste and quality through the addition of more wild blueberries, larger chocolate chips and a coarse sugar topping. The change allowed the company to maintain a consistent price-point.

SunRidge Farms has several new items available this year, including All Natural Double Chocolate Coconut Chews covered with 61% dark chocolate, All Natural Lemon Almonds and All Natural Rainbow Drops—a colorful blend of milk chocolate, real vanilla centers and a thin sugar shell in seven authentic rainbow colors.

Wholly Wholesome will be introducing a gluten-free pie crust this year, a launch Wintz describes as a labor of love. “It took us longer to come out with this than initially planned because we wanted to get it right,” he says. To Wholly Wholesome, this meant that the product needed to be produced in a dedicated gluten-free environment and earn gluten-free certification. “It was also our mission to launch an item with significant improvement in taste and texture compared to similar products and one that could hold up throughout the supply chain,” says Wintz.

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