Chocolate offers an opportunity to indulge, and especially in these trying times, comfort and nostalgia.

But that’s not all chocolate does, according to Gretchen Hadden, marketing communications manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, North America. Chocolate also serves as a palette for flavor innovation and offers an entry point into where and how cocoa is grown, harvested and processed.

Hadden recently spoke to Candy Industry about trends in the chocolate space, including premiumization, protein fortification and ethical buying.

CI: Generally speaking, what trends is Cargill seeing in the chocolate space?

GH: Chocolate is an indulgent treat for many consumers – one they savor. This may be why, similar to craft beer, wine and coffee, chocolate is becoming more of an experience. Whether it’s through the exploration of varying cacao levels or a heightened appreciation for how bean provenance can impact taste, more consumers are seeking an experience when purchasing chocolate today – most notably in premium chocolate tablets.

CI: How can manufacturers use chocolate to make their products more premium? How are creators of chocolate products making their products more premium?

GH: Premium can mean different things to different consumers – especially in today’s day and age. While premium may have once been synonymous with fancy packaging and better ingredients, today’s consumers place value on many different product attributes, making the notion of “premium” far more multi-faceted than it once was. 

Premium can come in the form of greater transparency around how a product was sourced or manufactured, a sustainable certification, a non-GMO or organic seal, or even a promise of a functional benefit – just to name a few. It’s more important than ever before for manufacturers to understand what will resonate with their end customer and work with their supplier to obtain a chocolate offering that meets their specifications.

Of course, there is also an expectation of an elevated sensory experience when it comes to premium chocolate. This can come in the form of unique colors, flavors and textures. We expect continued exploration of these sensory spaces as innovative chocolatiers push the boundaries with adventuresome flavor pairings, novel inclusions and fillings, and “Instagram-worthy” visual aesthetics.

CI: How are chocolate producers using flavor to create unique products? Do you have any examples?

GH: As consumer expectations for new and adventurous foods grow, we are seeing chocolatiers become increasingly creative, using white, milk and dark chocolate as a canvas to deliver novel flavors and inclusions. Whether it’s matcha and cayenne for a global experience or s’mores and PB&J for a taste of nostalgia, nothing is off limits! 

CI: Are there any flavors or inclusions you expect to become popular in the coming weeks and months?

GH: Chocolate pairings such as chocolate and peanut butter or chocolate and fruity flavors are classics for a reason. They pair perfectly with chocolate and they are a tried-and-true combination that consumers love. 

While those beloved duos aren’t going away anytime soon, what we can expect are adaptations of those pairings that fit today’s flavor trends. For example, instead of peanut butter, we may see chocolate paired with sun butter or almond butter. Instead of chocolate paired with raspberry, we may see a substitution of more exotic fruits such as acai or passionfruit.

CI: What solutions does Cargill offer for protein-fortified confections and snacks?

GH: Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate offers customized, protein-fortified products leveraging various protein sources from dairy to plant-based. Food manufacturers can leverage our compounds as a way to add delicious taste while also making enhanced protein claims on their applications that consumers today are often seeking.

CI: How can chocolate companies promote sustainability? What solutions does Cargill offer for manufacturers seeking sustainable chocolate?

GH: Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned and aware of issues surrounding sustainability, and are making values-based food decisions. They want to know where their food comes from and how it was grown or raised. 

Growth continues in chocolate product launches featuring an ethical human claim, such as Fair Trade certification or mentions of contributions to local community initiatives. Cargill is working to play a role in this by offering customers sustainability sourced cocoa and chocolate products and providing them with authentic and meaningful ways to contribute to cocoa sustainability at origin. 

We currently work with the three major and trusted independent certification programs: Fairtrade International, Fair Trade USA, Rainforest Alliance/UTZ. When customers and end consumers see these labels on products they buy, they can be confident they were produced under certain sustainable conditions as defined by the respective certification body.