Mars on a health mission

by Monica Watrous
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Mars is introducing a line of snack squares with whole nuts, fruit, toasted oats and dark chocolate.

CHICAGO — The trend of healthy eating has given way to a trend of healthy treating. Consumers are seeking what industry leaders call “permissible indulgence” in snacking, and several brands unveiled better-for-you options at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 19-21 in Chicago.

One such innovation comes from Mars Chocolate North America, Hackettstown, N.J. The maker of Snickers and M&M’s is introducing a line of snack squares made with whole nuts, fruit, toasted oats and dark chocolate. Divided into four two-bite squares per 150-calorie serving, goodnessknows Snack Squares contain no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners. The product was first introduced in test markets in 2010 and will roll out nationally in August. Varieties include cranberry almond dark chocolate, apple almond and peanut dark chocolate, and peach and cherry almond dark chocolate.

The product introduction represents Mars’ many efforts geared at health and wellness. The company said it was first in the industry to display calorie counts prominently on the front of all packaging. Mars also does not market to children under 12 and has reformulated products to remove trans fatty acids and reduce salt and saturated fats. Additionally, Mars has limited the calories in its global portfolio of chocolate and confection products to 250 or fewer per serving.

“Our products are meant to be treats, not something to be eaten every day,” said Mary Myers, director of product development for Mars Chocolate North America, during a panel discussion about health and wellness at the Sweets & Snacks Expo.

The message of the discussion was clear — the industry faces a daunting challenge to satisfy demand for taste, convenience and choice while tackling broader health concerns, such as sugar and fat consumption.

Recently, Mars announced its endorsement of recommendations from the world’s leading health authorities that consumers should limit intake of added sugars to no more than 10% of calories. The company also said it supports the proposed declaration of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Panel.

Mars said it was first in the industry to display calorie counts prominently on the front of all packaging.

The goodnessknows platform underscores Mars’ goal to empower and educate consumers to make healthy choices. The product line also leverages an increase in snacking. More than half of the U.S. population snacked three or more times per day in 2014, and the bar category represents a significant portion of the market, growing 8% year-over-year to $7.3 billion, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md.

Mars’ rival the Hershey Co. debuted a similar product at the expo. Also slated for an August launch, Brookside Fruit and Nut Bars contain fruit, whole roasted almonds, whole grain rolled oats and a layer of dark chocolate.

The dichotomy of health and indulgence was a hot topic at the expo, with several presentations focused on the issue and many new candy and snack products featuring attributes consumers associate with wellness, including simple ingredients, ancient grains and portion-controlled packaging.

“We know there are concerns around sugar, but there’s a time and place for those products,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for The NPD Group, Chicago, during a keynote speech at the show. “Consumers are increasingly looking for healthful reasons to enjoy a snack food.”

Mr. Seifer noted the consumption of sweet snacks has waned in recent years, down 6% since 2006 while better-for-you snacking has risen 14%.

“The times for when people are reaching for sweets is narrowing,” he said.

His advice to the industry?

“Focus on when consumers seek to treat themselves, and protect your brand equity,” Mr. Seifer urged. “Don’t go to reduced-sugar items to increase day part consumption. That’s not what your brand is about. They want true and pure candy because they love it.

“Be true to who you are.”

Other featured speakers reminded participants that candy is transparent, honest and labeled.

And David Freedman, a contributing writer for The Atlantic magazine, during a keynote session said the industry is positioned to overcome what he called the “tobaccoization” of big food companies.

“Keep selling foods Americans love, and slowly but surely make them healthier,” he suggested. “Tobacco companies weren’t able to make products healthier. That’s the luxury you have; you can engineer your foods to be healthier.”
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