Just like strawberry ice cream seems healthier than rocky road, candy that’s made with real fruit is perceived to be more wholesome — at least, that’s what Josh Reynolds of Gray & Co. Says.

That perception of “being healthier” is one of the main reasons candy consumers of fruit-laden confections seek those types of delights, says the president of the Hart, Mich., producer.

“Fruit is very complimentary to chocolate,” Reynolds continues. “It’s a natural combination.”

As one of the largest suppliers of maraschino cherries to U.S. grocers, Gary & Co. Also manufactures and supplies glace lemons, cherries, fruit mix, orange peels, green pineapples and apricots. They also offer a natural cherry without artificial coloring or preservatives for those who want to eliminate unnatural items from their diet.

Increasing the real fruit content in confections is definitely a trend, says Chris DiLorenzo, president and ceo of Pocantico Resources Inc., of Tarrytown, N.Y.

“It can, in some applications, allow for the reduction of sweeteners because Of the sweetness that’s inherent in the fruit itself,” he says.

Strawberries, for instance, are 80 to 90 percent of the confection, which means less chocolate and no sugar added, according to DiLorenzo. Although strawberries are a natural sugar, he notes, “natural sugars are healthier than other sugars.”

And just like everything else in the ingredient industry, having a simple, clean label is a trend, says Alan Sipole, co-owner of International Glace Inc. Traditionally, glace fruits were preserved with sulfur dioxide to maintain color. So his company eliminated this preservative in their diced orange and lemon peels to make them all natural.

The Spokane, Wash., company is celebrating its third year of manufacturing glace fruits in the United States. They had imported glace fruits from Australia to the United States for 25 years, but then lost their supplier and decided to duplicate that Australian way of doing glace in their Fresno facility using all U.S. fruit. Noting its biggest market is the chocolate industry; Sipole says International Glace offers apricots,Peaches, pears, lemons, oranges, pineapples and figs.

Chocolate-covered or partly-dipped glace fruit is a traditional item for most confectioners, Sipole continues. “One of the selling points is that it is a piece of fruit.”

When half-dipped, the customer actually sees the fruit, which is a nice Selling point, he adds. “Glace apricots are our No. 1 item.”

“One of the things that affects glace fruits — it’s still a very labor intensive business.” Adjusting the sugar levels in the fruit, taking the water out of the cell structures, manipulating the syrups, dehydrating the fruit, taking out the pits and packing by hand all increase the cost of the process, he notes.

The downfall of using real fruit is the expense, but “the mouth feel is far superior,” says Reynolds. Noting the increased varieties of fruit in grocery stores, he sees a trend toward a proliferation of items to follow in the candy aisle.

“People look for variety,” he says. “It seems like we have three times the amount of varieties (of fruit) in the grocery than we did years ago.” Customization is important as well. Gray & Co. Can customize a fruit for how it’s going to be applied in chocolate and yogurt. Using whole blueberries that have been candied, can have a very strong flavor because of that customization, he says.

There’s also a new innovation in processed fruit. Milne Fruit Products Inc., of Prosser, Wash., has launched a new dried fruit ingredient, called Milne MicroDried, that’s bigger, looks better and retains most of the fruit’s original size, according to company officials. “MicroDried fruits can Be produced at various moisture levels that can target specific water activities needed by the candy maker, rather than forcing the candy maker to adjust formulas for the fruit,” says Eric Johnson, research and development process manager at Milne Fruit Products. “All berries work well, in fact we haven’t found one of our fruits yet that doesn’t work well.”

Dried fruits and fruit granulates with less than 5 percent moisture will be crunchy in a fat-based confection, says DiLorenzo.

“Unique to fruit granulates, in a white confection, is that they do not bleed into the white mass,” he adds. “Typically 100 percent fruits bleed their color into white masses.”

Pocantico Resources, which offers whole, sliced, freeze-dried and powdered fruits in most varieties, also has 30 different fruit granulates, which are more of a puree.

These granulates are very flowable, have a unique, particle size and look like real fruit in a granola, DiLorenzo says.

Freeze-dried fruit can dust apart,He says, and can be hard to handle depending on the application. Noting how easily bananas ripen or may be too green, he says using a fruit granulate will provide for a more homogenous flavor.

Milne Fruit produces juices, concentrates and purees of more than 25 different fruits, as well, yet Johnson says raspberry and sweet cherry are the most popular requests from candy manufacturers with blueberries coming up fast. He sees a trend toward using concentrates as fruit centers.

“Several chocolate manufacturers are using fruit concentrates for this purpose,” he says. “Powders have been used for colors.”

“Real fruit does indeed taste more real!” he adds. “Fruit itself can have somewhat reserved notes, so we find that the addition of just a hint of a natural flavor with the fruit gives a very complex freshfruit flavor. The appearance of the fruit gives products a high-end, natural flair.”

There’s also a trend “to use exotic fruits or aronia, native to North America but mainly used in Europe, that are rediscovered for flavor, color and possible health benefits,” continues Johnson.

DiLorenzo notes there is also an upswing for mangos and papayas on the Latino side.

“More and more companies are looking for exotic fruits just for the flavor which that portion of the demographics are used to,” he says.