Last year was when confectionery makers finally took the clean label message to heart. They gave artificial ingredients the boot and focused on simple, less processed ingredients.

Hershey announced early in 2015 that it would transition to “simple” and “easy-to-understand” ingredients and the company held to that by removing vanillin in its Kisses and chocolate bars before year end.  Nestlé USA also announced the removal of artificial flavors and FDA-certified colors from more than 250 of its products by the end of 2015.

These announcements set the tone for an active year in new products.  Innovation in “better for you” offerings picked up with more focus on real fruit, nuts, and even ancient grains.  Mars’ Dove brand went the fruit route with Dove Dark Chocolate Fruit in Blueberries, Cherries, and Cranberries varieties.  Mars also tabbed nuts for its Snickers Mixed Nuts Chocolate Bar combining hazelnuts, almonds, and peanuts –with the usual milk chocolate, caramel and nougat. Hershey opted for hazelnuts for its Hershey’s Kisses Deluxe in a new Milk Chocolate with Hazelnut Center flavor.

Hazelnut is a nut on the rise, but has a ways to go to catch up with more popular nuts like almonds.  According to a 2014 Canadean flavor survey, 32% of US consumers said that almond was the top “nutty” flavor in chocolate, followed by peanut butter at 23% and hazelnut at 14%.

Ancient grains have hit the food industry like a tsunami recently, and they surfaced in confectionery products in 2015.  Quinoa was the favored ancient grain, popping up in the Hu Almond Butter & Puffed Quinoa Chocolate Bar and Unreal 100% Real Candy Dark Chocolate Crispy Quinoa Peanut Butter Cups. 

Why is quinoa trending as an inclusion?  Scott Schiffres, COO of Unreal Inc. says “it’s all about the texture,” which means that quinoa is showing up for the same reason that crisped rice has been a fixture in chocolate bars for decades.

New inclusions are adding flavor and fun to chocolate.  Pretzels added crunch to the Palmer Milk Chocolate Flavored Pretzel Bits Bar while Chuao Chocolatier added crushed cinnamon toast cereal to its Cinnamon Cereal Smooch bar and crunchy waffles to its Strawberry Waffle Wild milk chocolate bar.

Last year also saw manufacturers take a more “functional” approach to chocolate.  Innocent Chocolate Bar claimed to be the “world’s first dark chocolate (with) zero net effective calories and zero net effective carbs.”  The bar blocks sugar and absorbs fat with sucrase- and amylase inhibitors (sugar blockers) plus fat binding complexes.

Lavle Belgian Dark Chocolate picked up where Mars’ CocoaVia left off more than a decade ago. Lavle Belgian Dark Chocolate offers “a daily guilt free indulgence rich in taste and flavanols.” Each 10g bar has 200mg of flavanols, a daily dose.  Cocoa flavanols have potential as a functional ingredient, but have yet to break through. Maybe this launch will change the dynamic.

The whole point of chocolate, though, is indulgence. This is where most innovation came from in 2015.  Dessert-inspired flavors were especially trendy in 2015 based on the thinking that consumers can enjoy the decadence of dessert without all the calories.  Classic desserts inspired Hammond’s Candies’ Bourbon Pecan Pie and Grasshopper Pie bars.  Lindt Creation Milk Chocolate added trendy Crème Brulee and Molten Lava Cake flavors for its chocolate bars. 

Caramel and S’mores were other “go to” flavors.  Some companies even combined the two.  Mars’ Milky Way Marshmallow with Caramel Candy Bar did so as a “limited edition” bar.  “Fancy yes, costly no” was the tagline for Hershey’s Caramels, a bag and bar line marrying Hershey’s chocolate with caramel.  The launch provides a “decadent chocolate experience at an everyday affordable price,” according to Michael Rabinovitz, brand manager for Hershey’s Caramels.

Chewy caramels were hot in 2015. Big Picture Farm, Townshend, Vt., won two Specialty Food Association Sofi awards in 2015 for its Raspberry Rhubarb Goat Milk Caramels and Chai Goat Milk Caramels.  Likewise, Olive & Sinclair Chocolate, Nashville, Tenn., made a flavor statement with Sea Salt & Vinegar Caramels pairing the taste of caramel with tart and tangy salt and vinegar.

“New to the world” innovation is rare in chocolate, but 2015 had pair of innovations from the same company.  Kansas City, MO-based Russell Stover Candies’ Freeze-It is a Mint Chocolate Chip or Vanilla Bean-flavored candy bar intended to be placed in the freezer 30 minutes before consumption to mimic an ice cream bar, sidestepping chocolate’s issues with hot weather.  Russell Stover Dip-It Rabbit Milk Chocolate Rabbit with Skippy Singles tweaked the milk chocolate Easter bunny concept by adding a cup of peanut butter for a dip-in treat.

Sweet Sensations

Sugar confectionery and chewing gum sectors also were active in 2015. Of the two, Canadean projects that the compound annual growth rate of sugar confectionery will easily best that of chewing gum. Canadean puts the CAGR for sugar confectionery at 4.5% for 2014-2019 versus the 0.8% expected for gum.  Both sectors found new ways to add fun in 2015.

Stuff’n Mallows Stuffed Marshmallows put fun on the front burner with a chocolate stuffed marshmallow that melts while the marshmallow is heated – a “two in one” self-contained S’mores.  Peppermint Chocolate Chip is one available flavor. 

Interactivity came from Squeeze Play Squeeze Candy, a novelty candy from Foreign Candy Company with liquid candy in three separate compartments so kids can enjoy one, two, or all three at the same time.  Juicy Drop Gummies Candy from Bazooka Candy Brands consists of chewy gummy candies and a plastic pen, which is filled with sour gel that kids can use to add flavor to the gummy candies.

Continuing the fun, Ferrero USA’s new Tic Tac Mixers change flavor during consumption.  The Peach – Lemonade flavor starts out peach and ends as a lemonade flavor.  Flavor surprises also came from Wrigley’s 5 Mystery Mint Maze Gum.  Though mint flavored, the specific flavor is a mystery until you try it. Nestlé USA chimed in with its Wonka Randoms Gummy Candy in an Endless Gummy variety with “millions of gummy combinations in a variety of flavors, textures, and shapes.”

Nobody expects sugar confectionery to be health food, but health was an innovation direction in 2015.  Wolfgang Greek Style Yogurt Treats used Greek yogurt and real fruit pieces to make a wafer-shaped confection in flavors like Blood Orange & Mango.  Wrigley’s Starburst Fruit Chews debuted in Superfruit flavors such as pomegranate and blueberry acai, putting a healthy spin on a sweet treat, though the chews contain no actual superfruits.

Sugar got a pink slip from Perferti Van Melle USA’s Mentos NOWmints Sugarfree Mints, which are sweetened with xylitol instead of sugar. Protein landed in sugar confectionery with RAP Protein gummies which use whey protein isolate to deliver 10g of protein per serving.

Chewing gum has been in a funk for a while, though not for lack of innovation. Wrigley looked to sour flavors to spark sales with Green Sour Apple Extra Sugarfree Gum and Sour Strawberry Flood 5 Sugarfree Gum. Others looked for brand help outside of gum. Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum debuted in Starburst flavors such as Strawberry; while Mondelez leaned on the Swedish Fish brand with Trident Layers Swedish Fish Berry + Lemon Sugar Free Gum.

Seasonal flavors were a bigger factor in 2015.  From Mars Chocolate North America’s M&M’s Pumpkin Spice Latte Chocolate Candies to Mondelez’s Candy Cane-flavored Trident Layers Sugar Free Gum, candy makers of all sizes are now chasing the seasonal candy opportunity.

Snack Attack

Savory snack innovation went in numerous directions in 2015 with meat snacks, vegetable-based snacks, air-filled snacks, tiny popcorn, snack/dip combos, sweet snacks and seaweed snacks among the highlights.

Meat snacks have been on a tear with Canadean projecting US sales will increase by a CAGR of 10.3% between 2014 and 2019; nearly double the 5.9% rate for popcorn, the second-fastest growing savory snack category.

Meat snacks went upscale in 2015. Lawless Jerky 100% Grass-Fed Beef Jerky is hand-crafted with 100% grass-fed beef and ethnic flavors like Pho and Japanese Curry.  Meat snack innovation even spilled into adjacent categories.  Wilde Slow-Baked Bar introduced the world’s first “slow-baked” lean meat snack bar, a bar blurring the line between jerky and snack bars by blending shelf-stable meat with ancient grains, seeds, superfruits and vegetables.  The bar was so unique that the USDA required validation of the bar’s novel slow-baked production process.

Vegetables as a snack took off in 2015, helped by the Paleo diet trend.  Rhythm Superfoods’ Broccoli Bites takes broccoli florets, adds a light dressing and dehydrates the florets for an on-the-go snack in flavors such as Garden Ranch. 

Peeled Snacks Peas Please is a baked organic crunchy snack made with green pea and brown rice powder and sold in flavors like Garden Herb.  Tender Grown Raw Leaf Cauliflower Crisps—in flavors such as Chili Lime—uses cauliflower that is gently dehydrated at low temperature to preserve naturally occurring enzymes.

 Other vegetable-based snacks replaced staple ingredients like potatoes and corn. 

Mediterranean Snacks Bean Stalks used pinto beans, cannellini beans, and green peas for a tube-shaped crunchy puffed snack with 4g of protein and half the fat of potato chips. Yuca blended with corn flour make Yucatilla Yuca Tortilla Chips with about 40% less fat than traditional fried potato chips.  Spinach, matcha tea and oat bran made novel ingredients for new Sexy Chips Kettle Potato Chips, a new line from SexyPop.

New Shapes, Options

The absence of specific ingredients can make a health statement.  Air is calorie-free and can displace ingredients like wheat to reduce calories and gluten.  That was the idea with Snyder’s of Hanover Pretzel Poppers Pretzel Shells, a Cinnamon Sugar-flavored “airy & crunchy” snack with the crunch of pretzels without the dense filling.  Pretzel Budz Flavored Baked Pretzel Balls is a similar concept, though is pea sized, potentially opening up new consumption occasions when served with soup, salad and ice cream.

Ball-shaped snacks picked up momentum in 2015, perhaps because the shape is ideal for snacking. Skippy P.B. Bites, a “portable, pop-able snack” with a pretzel center and peanut butter coating, represented the genre.

Snack giants warmed up to puffed snacks in 2015 with Frito-Lay’s Doritos Jacked 3D Tortilla Snacks.  This triangle-shaped puffed tortilla snack evokes visions of a 3D printer dispensing unique snack shapes.  Kellogg’s Sunshine Biscuits unit extended its Cheez-It brand into puffed snacks with Cheez-It Crunch’D Baked Cheese Snack, a puffed snack that looks like a puffy Cheez-It cracker on steroids.

Popcorn got smaller in 2015 with a wave of diminutive popcorns offering a more refined snacking experience.  Pipcorn Mini Popcorn ready-to-eat popcorn is more delicate than ordinary popcorn, and is nearly hulless so it is easier on the teeth.  Tiny But Mighty Popcorn Ancient Heirloom Popcorn unpopped kernels made similar claims.

Additional popcorn innovation revolved around health and flavor.  Snacks 101 claimed to have The First Baked Popcorn, using a preparation method closely identified with potato chips.  Baking is said to seal in flavor with less oil.

Popcorn flavor innovation was indulgent in 2015. Frito-Lay added a Holiday Sugar Cookie flavor of Cracker Jack Popcorn at year end while a Cinnamon Brown Sugar flavor was added to the Smartfood line.  Trader Joe’s had Baconesque White Cheddar Popcorn which tastes like bacon, but actually contains no bacon.  Trader Joe’s also launched Partially Popped Popcorn, which delivers crunch in every kernel, “but no fluff.”

Dip and snack combinations were led by chocolate dips.  Ferrero Nutella & Go! Hazelnut Spread with Pretzel Sticks elevated the Nutella brand into the on-the-go space.  Hershey did the same with Reese’s Spread Snacksters Peanut Butter Chocolate Spread with Graham Dippers.

Sweet snacks were hot in 2015 with savory snack makers angling to pick up sales from confectionery and dessert products. Kraft Foods Group’s Planters Mix in dessert-inspired flavors like Banana Sundae with chocolate-covered peanuts doubled as an ice cream topping and a hand-to-mouth snack. Liquor Nuts Sweetened Kettle Cooked Peanuts debuted liquor-inspired flavors such as Whiskey and Irish Stout.

Sweet flavors like maple trended in savory snacks, as shown by Snyder’s of Hanover Sweet & Salty Pretzel Pieces. Cinnamon Sugar was the go-to choice for Frito-Lay and its Cheetos Sweetos puffed snack.  Chocolate is penetrating more snack mixes, with Hershey’s and Reese’s branded Snack Mix blurring the line between snack and confection.

Seaweed snacks have become a surprise snack hit. 2015 was the year that seaweed snacks became more mainstream and chip-like.  Annie Chun’s Seaweed Brown Rice Crisps take roasted seaweed and layer it over crunchy brown rice chips. GimMe Chips had the same idea with Seaweed Rice Chips resembling tortilla chips and made with brown rice, seaweed and lentils.

The rise of coconut oil was big news in potato chips in 2015.  Jackson’s Honest Potato Chips credit coconut oil with bringing out the earthy, balanced flavor of potato.  Boulder Canyon Coconut Oil Kettle Cooked Potato Chips also leveraged interest in coconut oil.

Frito-Lay once again touted its “Do Us a Flavor” contest with Southern Biscuits & Gravy beating out Wavy West Coast Truffle Fries, Kettle Cooked Greektown Gyro and New York Reuben.  Frito-Lay’s Doritos brand went with surprise for Doritos Roulette, a spicy chip with especially hot chips mixed in with the rest for an unexpected jolt.

Protein’s footprint expanded in 2015 with snack mixes joining in the fun.  Cracker Jack’D Protein Snack Mix delivered 7g of protein per serving. As the year ended, processed cheese and meat makers cashed in on the protein trend with newcomers like Sargento Balanced Breaks Snack, a refrigerated snack with cheese, nuts and fruit (raisins, cranberries).  Hillshire Snacking Small Plates, a refrigerated “kit” marrying crackers with cheese and meat toppers like Wine-Infused Salame, targeted the same opportunity.


Originally appeared in the March, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Healthy Indulgence.