The good news surrounding chocolate was hard to avoid this year, as a number of studies promoted various healthful aspects of the treat. A team of researchers from Imperial College London (London), St. Bartholomew's Hospital (London), Chinoin Co. Ltd. (Budapest) and Royal Brompton Hospital (London) discovered that theobromine, a derivative found in cocoa, is nearly a third more effective in stopping persistent coughs than codeine, currently regarded among the best cough medicines. Furthermore, unlike standard cough treatments, theobromine has no adverse effects on the cardiovascular or central nervous systems.

While that may be all well and good for those suffering a coughing fit, what about chocolate's protective benefits? A study by the University of California (San Francisco) found that dark chocolate may protect the heart. The flavonoid-rich treat improved blood vessels' ability to dilate. Other good news for dark chocolate came from Athens Medical School (Athens, Greece), where a study found that consumption of the treat decreased artery stiffness and improved endothelial function.

All of which must have come as welcome news at Masterfoods (Hackettstown, N.J.). The chocolate giant launched Cocoa Via Crunch Bars and Chocolate Chews in 2003, both made from cocoa plant extracts proven to reduce cholesterol. While the U.S. did not see a new Cocoa Via product in 2004, U.K. consumers saw the name surface in a re-branding of the company's Positively Healthy cocoa drink. Re-christened Cocoa Via, the sterilized cocoa beverage is made with Cocoapro cocoa. Cocoapro is described as the company's promise that their cocoa beans have been handled carefully to preserve more of their natural goodness.

While the company had numerous other chocolate introductions in the U.S. in 2004, one of Masterfoods' more notable was the launch of the M-azing line. This candy bar combined milk chocolate and mini M&Ms in two varieties--peanut butter and crunchy--and served further notice that Masterfoods is perfectly willing to experiment with its strong confection brands.

One of the first examples of that experimentation was the “Cookies &” range, launched in 2002, and the company took the line into single-serve territory in 2003. In 2004, the line expanded further with a square-shaped version in a family pack. Sold in a plastic tray with an overwrap similar to many other cookies on store shelves, the family packs of cookie squares offer Twix, Twix with peanut butter, M&Ms, Milky Way and Snickers varieties.

The latter brand, Snickers, was the subject of a particularly high-profile launch this year, as Masterfoods brought the popular candy icon to the energy bar category. Consumers could choose from three different Snickers Marathon bars: the “long-lasting energy bar” boasted 16 vitamins and minerals, as well as a Quadratein blend of proteins (casein, peanut, soy and whey); the “low-carb lifestyle energy bar” also promised 16 vitamins and minerals but reduced net carbs to 3g; and the “protein performance bar” offered 20g-26g of proteins via the aforementioned Quadratein blend, as well as 5g of fiber.

Popping Up

Snickers also wound its way into a different category altogether in 2004 with the end-of-year launch of Snickers Popcorn, which coated popcorn with peanuts, caramel and milk chocolate. However, what could prove the bigger story long-term was a decision by the FDA regarding a potential ingredient in microwave popcorn.

The agency decided to allow Procter & Gamble (Cincinnati) to use the fat substitute olestra in microwave popcorn, the first time the ingredient has been allowed in ready-to-heat foods. The impact of the long-debated ingredient is yet to be seen, but it appears to be ready if the public returns to a low-fat lifestyle.

A more traditional popcorn introduction may not have been as potentially controversial, but it did mark a first. ConAgra's (Omaha, Neb.) Orville Redenbacher brand, previously only available unpopped, entered the prepared snack segment. Late 2003 saw the debut of Drizzlers--butter toffee popcorn drizzled with chocolate and mixed with nuts--which was joined shortly by Clusters mixed nuts and popcorn with a sweet glaze. Orville Redenbacher followed these in 2004 with a savory gourmet, cheese-flavored popcorn in two flavors--zesty cheddar butter and white cheddar.

However, what list of 2004 trends would be complete without mentioning low-carb? Even the popcorn category was not spared the call to cull. Lincoln Snacks (Lincoln, Neb.) answered with its Poppycock Butter Almond Pecan Popcorn Clusters, formulated to have 5g of impact carbohydrates per serving.

However, the true impact of carb-cutting could be seen in the chips segment, where PepsiCo (Purchase, N.Y.) launched trend-following versions of a pair of its flagship brands. Tostitos and Doritos were introduced under the company's Edge banner, each with 6g of net carbs and 3g of fiber per serving. Not that PepsiCo was alone among carb-cutting chip makers; other such launches came from Hain Celestial Group (Uniondale, N.Y.) with Carb Fit Hain Pure Snax Tortilla Chips, promising 5g of net carbs; Cape Cod Potato Chip's (Hyannis, Mass.) Cape Cod Whole Earth Collection All-Natural Reduced-Carb Tortilla Chips, made with white corn, sesame, flax and sunflower seeds, boasting 9g of carbs; the 4-net-carb Crunchy Snack Chips under Unilever Bestfoods' (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.) Lawry's Carb Options brand; and a pair of carb-conscious introductions from CarbSense Foods (Hood River, Ore.)--MiniCarb Soy Cake Caramel Crisps with 5g of carbs and soy tortilla chips, which had a rather-eye-popping 12g of carbohydrates but also 5g of protein and 4g of fiber, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.

Lighting Up

Unlike many of these others, Pepsi's healthful efforts were not limited to the low-carb arena, as the company's Frito-Lay division re-introduced the Wow line of low-fat snack chips with a new name. In the wake of Edge's launches, however, the debut of the Light line received little fanfare. Admitting disappointment with Wow's sales, which had fallen from a high of $330 million to about $100 million a year, according to Information Resources Inc. (Chicago), Pepsi affixed the Light label to more-healthful and fat-free versions of Ruffles, Tostitos, Lay's potato chips and Doritos. The latter also launched under Frito-Lay's Natural line.

As mentioned in Prepared Foods' 2004 New Products Annual, PepsiCo did follow through with plans to label about 230 of its products with what the company termed the “Smart Spot.” The green labels went widespread in September and are part of the company's efforts to promote its more-healthful foods and beverages.

However, communicating to the chip consumer added a whole new aspect in 2004, thanks to Procter & Gamble. The company's Pringles Prints feature a unique design on every chip, made possible through a technology that can print words and images in a variety of colors directly on the chip. Currently, the words and images can be printed only on one side of the chip, right-side up, upside down and in blue or red. Printed using food coloring, the company assures it does not alter the taste of the snack.

The potato chip segment played host to one of the category's bigger business stories, as well, when Willis Stein & Partners (Chicago) acquired Jays Foods LLC (Chicago), including such brands as Jays Potato Chips, O-Ke-Doke popcorn and Krunchers, in addition to a variety of pretzels, tortilla chips and other snack foods. Jays and Lincoln Snacks, reportedly, are to operate as part of Willis Stein's new consumer products company headquartered in Chicago.

Departing the Windy City area, however, were the remnants of Keebler, as owner Kellogg Co. (Battle Creek, Mich.) decided to relocate its U.S. snacks business unit to Battle Creek. However, a pair of Chicago-based companies would top the year's acquisition headlines.

The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. (Chicago) purchased such confectionery icons as Life Savers, Creme Savers and Altoids from Kraft Foods (Northfield, Ill.) for $1.48 billion, immediately helping Wrigley to further diversify in mints and hard and chewy candy.

For its part, Kraft had more than just business deals to tout in 2004. The company joined the carb-cutting bandwagon by adding a “South Beach Diet Recommended” button to a variety of its products, but the biggest news may have been the company's abandoning of plans to reduce portion sizes. The decision came in the wake of consumer research which, according to Kraft, shows that shoppers prefer to have the choice of whether to go with smaller packages. For consumers seeking smaller sizes, Kraft launched a range of 100 Calorie Packs of such products as gummy snacks, Wheat Thins, Cheese Nips, Oreos and Chips Ahoy!, with the latter two proving most interesting.

Instead of packaging 100 calories worth of the usual versions of these products, Kraft created a new type of cookie for each. These Thin Crisps, as they are now known, essentially are cracker-type versions of the cookies. Chips Ahoy! are flat, crisp, chocolate chip cookies with small chocolate chips, while Oreo Thin Crisps are the chocolate portion of an Oreo cookie in a smaller, thinner form.

For a Limited Time

Unique takes on cookies were not solely the domain of Kraft in 2004, though. Hershey (Hershey, Pa.) added cookie bits to its plain chocolate bars in launching Cookies 'n' Chocolate and Cookies 'n' Mint. The former has chocolate cookie bits in milk chocolate, while the latter has the same cookie bits in mint milk chocolate. Both joined the growing number of limited edition items on store shelves.

The limited edition phenomenon has been fairly popular in Europe but has made its way stateside, particularly in the snacks category. For a while at different times throughout the year, consumers could find a Monterey Pepper Jack version of Lay's Stax; Black Pepper Jack Doritos; crushed pepper, jalapeño, or salt & pepper Pringles; a Summer Chex Mix from General Mills (Minneapolis); and a Winter Chex Mix in a “cocoa flavor.” In addition, Hershey augmented its limited-edition bars with white chocolate with almonds and cookies 'n' creme versions.

As part of the company's continued efforts to expand into different areas of the grocery, however, Hershey launched S'mores SnackBarz. The crispy graham rice bars with a marshmallow filling are dipped in Hershey's milk chocolate and promise seven essential vitamins, while claiming to be a good source of calcium and iron.

Furthermore, in what Hershey described as “the biggest candy breakthrough of the year,” the company launched Take5. The 1.5oz. bar has two rectangular pretzels in caramel, peanuts, peanut butter and milk chocolate.

The year was not without its sad news for Hershey consumers, though. The company announced an increase in the wholesale prices of approximately half of its domestic confectionery line. A 5.8% average increase will befall the company' standard bar, king-size bar, six-pack and vending lines, while the price of packaged chocolates will jump an average of 4.1%. While perhaps not expressly intended for the purpose, the increases certainly will not hurt the company's effort to expand into non-candy snacks. The company will pay $112.4 million and assume $17.6 million in debt to acquire Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp. (Hilo, Hawaii), a producer of nuts and cookies. In addition, Hershey's Mexico subsidiary also has a purchase in mind: Grupo Lorena, one of Mexico's top confectionery companies, among the leaders in Mexico's spicy candy market. The move is another of the company's efforts to appeal to the Latino market.

A number of other companies--in the snacks category and throughout the supermarket--have attempted to lure the Latin population with Spanish-language names and packaging, yet without creating new products or reformulating with different ingredients. Hershey opted to take a different approach, as the company launched a line of “Latin-inspired” candy, including a product with chili-based flavors, and entered into an agreement with Latina songstress Thalia Sodi to pitch its candies. The Latino La Dulceria Thalia line includes Cajeta Elegancita bar (crispy wafer sticks layered with cajeta-flavored creme and drizzled with milk chocolate), Dulce de Leche Kisses, Miniaturas Surtidas (chocolate cookie bits in milk and white chocolate) and Frutas Enchiladas Lollipops (spicy fruit and chile lollipops). Such aggressive marketing and formulation efforts may well prove beneficial in reaching this valuable demographic, which accounted for $531 billion in total consumer spending in 2002 and is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 9.1% through 2020.

Much of the product information in this article is courtesy of Mintel International's Global New Products Database,, 312-932-0400.

Sidebar: Going Global

America's major trend of 2004 has had little impact on the rest of the world as of yet, with the possible exception being the U.K., where Nestlé (York, U.K.) was the first English company to develop a low-carb version of a mainstream confectionery product. Low-carb versions of KitKat and Rolo will have 4g and 3.5g of net carbs, respectively.

Also, in the U.K., the Specials range of Kettle Chips (Kettle Foods, Norwich, U.K.) launched a chip with a root vegetable, but not the familiar potato. No, Golden Parsnips savory snacks were made with select parsnips, sunflower oil and sea salt. But, for a unique take on chips, it is always a safe bet to look to Japan.

There, Calbee Foods (Tokyo) presented Osaka Style Okonomiyaki potato chips, replicating the taste of Osakan-style pancakes, which are topped with cabbage, Welsh onions, pork and sauce/mayonnaise.

While Japanese tastes may differ from American, the two clearly mesh when it comes to convenience, with the Asian nation perhaps even more willing to snack on the go. For time-pressed consumers, Nakanippon Seika (Aichi, Japan) offers a pull-open Tropical Sorbet, a jelly that morphs into a sorbet when frozen. The round plastic containers have perforated lines in the middle so that they split open when the two rings attached to the container are pulled apart.