Clean label Wrigley Doublemint Perfectly Sweet gum
Wrigley recently unveiled Doublemint Perfectly Sweet, a gum sweetened only with real sugar.

CHICAGO — In an industry associated with vibrant hues and whimsical flavors, confectionery companies are strategically assessing how to respond to increasing consumer demand for transparency and simple ingredients. Clean label was a hot topic at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 24-26 in Chicago, where many players touted initiatives and innovations that eliminate the use of artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors and preservatives.

The William Wrigley Jr. Co., a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., unveiled Doublemint Perfectly Sweet, a gum that is sweetened only with real sugar.

“It’s a simpler profile, more simple sweetening element, and we think this will invite more chewers into the category,” Michelle Green, marketing communications manager for Wrigley, told Food Business News. “Maybe there are people who aren’t chewing gum because they don’t see a product that meets their needs. This hopefully will open that door for more chewers.”

The product underpins a five-year effort Mars announced this past February to remove colors from artificial sources across its portfolio. Many of the company’s products already are free of artificial colors, but the company said it is broadening the scope of the effort in response to a growing demand for ingredients perceived as natural.

Skittles and Starburst
Shifting away from artificial ingredients in colorful candy brands as Skittles and Starburst may be no easy feat.

But with such colorful candy brands as Skittles, Starburst and M&M’s, the initiative may be no easy feat. In the case of Skittles, will consumers still be able to “taste the rainbow”?

“It’s a multi-year commitment because first and foremost taste and quality are our top concerns,” Ms. Green said. “Even when consumers say they’re looking for certain elements, they are not willing to compromise taste and what makes a Skittle and Skittle. So that will be an interesting code to crack, and different colors have different profiles and timelines, so that’s something that we’ll be working on over the next few years. But the commitment … it has to taste like a Skittle and look like a Skittle.”

Same goes for M&M’s, said Jess Greco, assistant public relations manager at Mars Chocolate.

Mars Chocolate is seeking the right combination of natural colors to maintain the fun feel and flavor of M&Ms.

“Scientists much smarter than myself are figuring out what is the right combination of natural colors to make sure we’re not losing the flavor and overall fun feel of M&M’s,” she said. “The product wouldn’t quite feel the same.”

And then there’s the cost issue associated with clean label. Certain igredients perceived as natural may be a particularly hefty investment for small and mid-size companies, such as Just Born Quality Confections, the Bethlehem, Pa.-based maker of Peeps, Hot Tamales and Mike and Ike candies. Just Born recently relaunched its corporate web site with a focus on transparency, including a list of its most commonly questioned ingredients; however, the company currently has no plans to reformulate its popular candy products sold in the United States, said Matthew Pye, vice-president of trade relations and corporate affairs, in an interview with Food Business News.

“We really believe that there’s nothing wrong with the ingredients we have, and certainly as the industry moves in the direction of non-G.M.O. and natural ingredients, as a mid-size candy company, making those moves ourselves is a very expensive proposition,” Mr. Pye said. “Same thing with natural colors and flavors. We have done that in the past for our products in Europe, so we know how to do that, but to do it here in the U.S. market, again, it’s an expensive proposition.

Just Born Confections ingredients list
Just Born recently posted a list of its most commonly questioned ingredients on its web site.

“So we’re more likely to be a follower because, let’s face it, if the consumer is going to demand it, we’re going to go there, but at the same time, there is nothing wrong with artificial colors or flavors or G.M.O. ingredients. If that’s what the consumer wants, we’re going to go that way. But for now, we’re still doing very well with what we’re selling.”

New products from Nestle USA featured at the show demonstrate the company’s progress in a pledge announced last year to eliminate the use of artificial colors and flavors from both its chocolate and non-chocolate confections, including Butterfinger, SweeTarts and Laffy Taffy.

Nestle clean label SweeTarts, Laffy Taffy, Butterfinger
Nestle showcased its new Butterfinger, SweeTarts and Laffy Taffy made with no artificial flavors.

The Hershey Co. also displayed innovation eschewing artificial ingredients, including Hershey’s Simply 5 chocolate syrup, made only with cocoa, water, vanilla, pure cane sugar and organic invert cane syrup; and new Brookside yogurt flavored fruit and nut bars, which are marketed as non-G.M.O. with no artificial flavors. Since last year, the company said it has transitioned more than 500 product stock-keeping units, including Hershey’s Kisses and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars as part of its commitment to simple ingredients. Hershey also is adding to more products the SmartLabel, a QR code on packaging that delivers ingredient and nutritional information, said Anna Lingeris, senior manager of communications.

“Anecdotally, what we know is it’s exactly what consumers are looking for,” Ms. Lingeris told Food Business News. “The comments we’re receiving on social media and the feedback has been absolutely wonderful. We’re being incredibly transparent. We’re delivering something they know and love. We’re using simple, easy-to-understand ingredients, which is what the consumer wants to hear.”

Hershey clean label Brookside yogurt bars and Simply 5 syrup
Hershey unveiled its new Hershey’s Simply 5 chocolate syrup, made only with cocoa, water, vanilla, pure cane sugar and organic invert cane syrup; and Brookside yogurt flavored fruit and nut bars, which are marketed as non-G.M.O. with no artificial flavors.

And in the past decade, more and more consumers are seeking such promises on food packages, said Maryellen Molyneaux, president and managing partner of the Natural Marketing Institute, during a presentation on transparency at the Sweets & Snacks Expo.

“From 2006 to 2015, this idea of clean label has moved up,” Ms. Molyneaux said. “Sixty-five per cent now, up from 47%, say they want minimally processed foods, and 54%, up from 33%, are looking for food and beverages with a short list of recognizable ingredients.”

Still, while the notion of simple ingredients is becoming more important to consumers, the most critical attribute of any food or beverage product is taste, she said.

“Taste is more important,” Ms. Molyneaux said. “Don’t forget it.”