Better-for-you centers like nuts and fruits remain popular in panned chocolates, but more exotic centers are making their appearance.

Chocolate is cleaning up its reputation, thanks to studies revealing some of its health benefits. And even kids are noticing.

“We find that a lot of kids now, because of how they’ve been brought up, are looking for healthier type product lines,” says Joseph Dutra, president and ceo of Reno, Nev.-based Kimmie Candy Co.

Whether it’s adults or children seeking out chocolate, panned chocolates are a great way to give people healthier confections, particularly when they contain nut or fruit centers.

Specializing in panned chocolates, Kimmie Candy offers Sunbursts (candy-coated, chocolate-covered sunflower kernels), ChocoRocks (candy-coated chocolate chunks), Fusion (yogurt-covered, fruit juice-infused raisins) and Bits (chocolate-covered caramel or cookie dough) lines. Expanding from the Bits line, Sparkle Bits contain the same caramel and cookie dough centers, but are coated in a metallic-looking candy shell –hence the name. But most recently, the company introduced natural and dark chocolate versions of its Sunbursts and ChocoRocks lines.

Additionally, this year Kimmie Candy introduced a dark chocolate version of its Fusion line, which uses thin-skinned strawberry- or orange-infused raisins for centers.

“I think these healthier and better-for-you items are going to be the future trends for almost all of these kinds of panned products,” Dutra says.

Not only are the trends moving toward healthier centers in the panned chocolates category, but they’re also aimed at exotic inclusions.

With panned chocolates, it’s common to see nut and fruit centers, but Greg Cater, v.p. sales and marketing at Sconza Candy Co., expects to see these centers turn more exotic. In the future, confectioners will be fusing flavors and using more uncommon nuts and fruits, like mango, along with spices, such as chili, ginger and citrus, he says.

Currently, the company offers a variety of treats, including chocolate-covered pistachios, walnuts, coffee beans, blueberries, apricots, cranberries and apples, along with more commonly seen centers like almonds, peanuts, and cherries. Sconza also features organic chocolate and 70% cacao dark chocolate in addition to its dark and milk chocolate coatings. Last month, the company introduced its Sunlights brand of chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.

And one important thing that keeps the category growing for Sconza is its ability to be flexible.

“We can change the look of the panned chocolate item with color, dusting or even with shapes,” explains Cater. “[Also, Sconza] can develop interesting texture experiences by combining creamy chocolate with different centers that are chewy, crunchy, etc. and [we] can create layers of different flavors in the panning process.”

For example, Sconza’s Chocolate Toffee Almonds start with an almond center, covered with a layer of toffee, then covered with chocolate.

And along with flexibility comes variety, which has many forms. In many confectioners’ cases, variety can mean flavors or centers. In Nestlé Canada’s case, it means color.

Just last month, Nestlé Canada announced its sugar-coated chocolate Smarties brand would no longer contain artificial colors. Instead, natural, pastel-like versions of the colors will be featured, excluding blue and green varieties.

“Smarties are a much-loved heritage brand, but we’re also in tune with evolving consumer attitudes,” says Kate Beresford, Smarties brand manager, Nestlé Canada, in the company’s announcement. “The move to no artificial colors fits with the healthier lifestyles trend and greater demand for fewer artificial ingredients.”

Following the healthier lifestyles trend, Nestlé USA offers chocolate-covered raisins under the Raisinets brand and chocolate-covered peanuts under the Goobers brand. In March of this year, the company introduced Raisinets 6-pack Snack Pack for portion control, back-to-school season and an on-the-go snack. Each 1.25-oz. box contains 30% less fat than the leading chocolate brands, according to the company. Next month, the brand will be shaking things up with the introduction of Cranberry Raisinets. The new treats feature a natural source of fruit antioxidants and come packaged in 100-calorie packs and 5.5-oz. resealable bags.

And although the better-for-you trend has taken over much of the confectionery industry, one shouldn’t forget about premiumization.

Known best for its M&M’S candies, Mars, Inc. introduced its panned chocolates to the premium sector last summer with M&M’S Premiums. The colorful, metallic-looking candies come in five flavors: Triple Chocolate (a combination of milk, white and dark chocolate), Chocolate Almond (a milk chocolate-covered almond), Mint Chocolate (a dark chocolate-covered white chocolate mint), Mocha (a mocha-flavored milk chocolate) and Raspberry Almond (a dark chocolate-covered raspberry-flavored white chocolate and almond). And this spring, Mars will introduce its Triple Chocolate flavor along with its new Dark Chocolate flavor of M&M’S Premiums in petite reclosable cartons, enhancing portion control and profitability.

“Consumers like to experiment and try different flavors,” says Ryan Bowling, spokesperson, Mars Snackfood US. “We’re indulging their senses with unique combinations, such as M&M’S Premiums chocolate candies in Raspberry Almond or Triple Chocolate and limited edition M&M’S Coconut chocolate candies.”

The limited edition M&M’S Coconut chocolate candies will be available in June/July 2009.

With the word “pan” in the company’s name, it’s no surprise that Forest Park, Ill.-based Ferrara Pan offers panned chocolates. In fact, one of the company’s first products was a sugar-coated candy almond.

Today, the company offers premium, panned chocolates under the Ferrara Chocolates brand, which made its debut at last year’s All Candy Expo show. The chocolates come in Dark Chocolate-Covered Almonds, Milk Chocolate-Covered Almonds, Milk and Dark Chocolate-Covered Mixed Nuts (macadamias, cashews and pistachios), Dark Chocolate-Covered Espresso Beans and Dark Chocolate-Covered Biscotti varieties.

In business for just over 100 years, Ferrara Pan notes that many companies are breaking away from the traditional panned nut centers. Although the company doesn’t currently offer fruit or nougat centers, Zel Peterson, brand manager, says “we’re definitely studying trends to see which would best complement our line.”

Around for 31 years and even featured in a motion picture (“ET”), Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces are still one of the company’s biggest panned chocolate brands. And from June through December 31, 2009, the company is launching its Reese’s Loves You Back promotion, giving away up to $2.5 million in cash prizes toward gas and groceries. The on-pack, instant-win promotions appear on Reese’s Pieces packs, amongst other Reese’s brands, and offer prizes in $10, $25 and $100 increments inside specially marked Reese’s products.

The company’s other panned chocolates include Hershey’s Kissables chocolate candies, Mauna Loa chocolate-covered macadamias, Milk Duds chocolate-covered caramels and Whoppers chocolate-covered malted milk balls.

“I think the variety of centers is always important to consumers,” says Anna Lingeris, public relations manager, The Hershey Co.

Camp Hill, Pa.-based The Warrell Corp. demonstrates its product variety through its contract manufacturing business, along with its Pennsylvania Dutch Candies and Katharine Beecher brands. Under the Pennsylvania Dutch Candies brand, the company offers chocolate-covered almonds and cashews. But the company features a much wider variety under its Katharine Beecher brand of bulk candies. The bulk brand’s product offerings range from chocolate-covered cappuccino cashews, pecans and an entire fruit line, including peaches, blueberries, strawberries, apricots, cherries and mixed fruit. And each of the fruit centers is covered in colored white chocolate to match the color of the fruit.

“Our customers are looking at higher end differentiation in the premium market,” says Kevin Silva, sr. v.p.

They’re also looking for more tropical fruit flavors, he adds. Under the Katharine Beecher bulk brand, the company offers such tropical flavors as mango, lime and piña colada. Other than fruit and nuts, the company is looking at cookie centers for the future.

“All in all, the panned category continues to be very strong,” Silva says.