Kris Bronner and his brother, Nicky, co-founders of UNREAL chocolate snacks, know what it’s like to have parents who care about what their children eat.
The Bronners were so concerned, they used to give away Kris and Nicky’s Halloween candy, much to the dismay of their younger selves.
“My brother threw a temper tantrum, and we said, ‘Why are you taking away our Halloween candy? It’s not that bad for you,’ Kris said. “We did the research, and we had to tell them they were right for once.”
High fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors and high levels of sugar were among the Bronners’ concerns. It sent Kris and Nicky on a mission to “unjunk” their favorite treats and offer more options to health-conscious consumers, including “gatekeeper” parents like their own.
“Traditionally, you think of better-for-you and natural as not tasting as good, but when people are able to have an option not to sacrifice their health values and really enjoy the taste of what they’re used to in a similar product experience, it really gives them more freedom and the option to lead a healthier lifestyle,” Kris said.
Though more consumers are pursuing a healthy lifestyle, it won’t stop them from seeking indulgences that meet their needs, whether they’re based on health or ethical concerns. Sales of USDA-certified organic chocolate candy hit $68.2 million in the year ending Dec. 31, 2017, according to IRI, a Chicago-based data firm. Organic non-chocolate candy sales reached $33.5 million in the same period.
Sales for gluten-free chocolate candy totaled $112.1 million, while gluten-free non-chocolate candy reached $238.4 million. Non-GMO chocolate candy pulled in $85.5 million, while non-GMO non-chocolate candy brought in $30.8 million.
Those figures are not a surprise to Gary Ricco, president and ceo of Mount Franklin Foods.
“There is a greater awareness and understanding of these certifications among consumers – whether addressing specific allergy concerns or just a concerted effort to eat more clean-label, back-to-basics ingredients,” he said. “Consumers are looking for products with these certifications, even in their snacks and treats.”
Mount Franklin Foods launched the Sweet Valley Organics line last year with the goal of offering products that deliver on taste and satisfy consumers’ demand for organic snacks. It features on-trend fruits and nuts coated in FairTrade dark chocolate — Chewy Bananas, Cinnamon Praline Pecans, Sea Salt Caramel Cashews, Sea Salt Toffee Almonds and Tart Cherries.
Ricco pointed to the role dark chocolate, fruits and nuts play in better-for-you confections.
“There is a healthy halo around dark chocolate, whereas milk chocolate is more confectionery,” he said. “Nuts — and fruits as well — are under that same healthy halo. Consumers feel better about eating something that has potential health benefits, even though they realize they are eating a treat.”
At the same time, Mount Franklin Foods launched the Simply Sunrise line, featuring chewy and non-chocolate favorites such as gummy bears, gummy worms, peach rings and starlight peppermints — all without artificial colors and flavors.
And then there’s sugar. As consumers work to reduce their sugar consumption, some turn to sweets with natural, low-calorie sweeteners. Zolli Candy, for example, uses xylitol, erythritol and stevia in its hard candy, lollipops and taffy. As an added bonus, xylitol is said to help protect teeth.
“Everyone loves to give treats, but finding something that is delicious and that everyone can enjoy is not easy,” said Zolli Candy founder Alina Morse.
Mike and Jackie Nakamura, founders of Lovely Candy Co., understand that well. Since its start, the Algonquin, Ill.-based company has produced an array of sweets without artificial ingredients. However, Mike says the consumers who buy clean candy look for other food products with the same qualifications.
“If they are focused on clean ingredients then they will look for the same in every aisle of the store they shop,” he said. “These types of choices in the confection aisles are important so that confections remain relevant to consumers.”
While Lovely Candy Co. has been creating sweets free of gluten, high fructose corn syrup and GMO ingredients, earlier this year the company expanded its portfolio to include organic chocolate and non-chocolate items.
The OnOs line features organic milk and dark chocolate pieces in a candy shell, while on the sugar side, Lovely Candy introduced organic fruit chews, hard candies, lollipops and mints.
“We hope we have a product that everyone can enjoy, whether they are (in search of) gluten free, nut free, vegan, etc.,” Nakamura said.
UNREAL also offers cleaned up classics, including non-GMO and FairTrade-certified candy-coated gems and peanut butter cups. However, the company also offers a quinoa-crisp gem for crunch and a little fiber, as well as an almond butter cup for consumers seeking to avoid peanuts.
Kris Bronner said blending dark chocolate and almond butter wasn’t an easy feat.
“Almond does as well, but it’s a little bit more subtle in its flavor,” he said. “We’ve had to work really hard to find the right almond roast and to get the right chocolate balance to make sure the almond is not overwhelmed.”
Still, no matter what product it is or how many good-for-you boxes it checks, there is one quality that will always rise above the rest, Bronner says.
“People, first and foremost, will not eat any food if it doesn’t taste amazing,” he said.