Modern twists on traditional black licorice include all-natural and organic options, fruit-flavored varieties and softer chew styles.

Things aren’t always black and white, so to speak. Take licorice. Variations on the traditionally black confection have consumers seeing red, not to mention yellow, orange, purple … the list goes on. While some prefer the classic flavor combination created by licorice root and anise, others enjoy newer fruit-flavored offerings, in addition to the increasingly popular Australian- and Finnish-style options on the market, which provide a softer, juicier chew than most American brands.

In all of sugar confectionery, licorice accounts for nearly 10% of the market, according to research firm Mintel International. And although black licorice appeals mainly to older adults who grew up eating it, licorice as a whole boasts universal appeal for both kids and adults, given its flavorful low- or no-fat attributes.

The Hershey Co.’sTwizzlersbrand is the undisputed market leader in licorice, accounting for 72% of the category, Mintel reports. For the latest 52 weeks ending July 11, 2010,Twizzlers achieved $166.4 million in sales, tallies Information Resources, Inc. American Licorice’s regional Red Vines brand is a distant second at $43.7 million, but its followers are no less loyal. (See “Reading Between the Vines,” page RC3.)

Regardless of brand, ours is a nation of licorice lovers, including fans of the original flavor profile. Today, licorice comes in any number of flavors and formats, from strawberry, mango and mixed berry to ropes, twists and bite-size chews - takeTwizzlers, which are available in Twists, Pull ‘N Peel, Bites, Nibs and Strawz as well as Black, Strawberry, Cherry and Chocolate varieties.

Still, some consumers remain true to the confection on which they were raised.

Back in Black

The term “licorice” used to refer to the “black” kind, made with real licorice root and anise, and sold in hard bite-size buttons or drops. The traditional penny candy was sold in bulk and enjoyed by consumers of all ages, who may remember purchasing licorice laces, straps and pipes as well asCrowsandFisherman’s Friendbrands. It even was used for medicinal purposes, to cure stomachaches or heartburn.

“Licorice is naturally very high in calcium,” explains Ron Love, ceo of Molly Loves Candy, maker ofChateau D’LanzSwiss Licorice, adding that the root has been used to treat ailments for thousands of years and also is an aphrodisiac because the glyceric acid in the ingredient actually raises your blood pressure. According, it can help people to quit smoking, too, as licorice is a common ingredient in tobacco and, thus, a substitute for the taste of cigarettes users crave. The all-natural licorice drops are designed to be sucked on rather than chewed, the old-fashioned way.

Chateau D’Lanz- “Gourmet Licorice for Sophisticated Licorice Lovers” - originally was made from a syrupy flavor mixture. It’s now produced using a powder form of that formula with the following ingredients: real licorice root, beet sugar, anise, cassava root, low-fructose corn syrup and gum arabic - an expensive emulsifier once used to make winegum. The 25-year-old brand is handmade in Arlington, Wash., and sold in grocery and drug stores as well as hardware and gift stores along the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest, including Whole Foods; it’s even available in a couple of butcher shops, Love notes. Consumers recognize it by its shiny gold bag, designed to catch shoppers’ eyes, wherever it’s shelved.

Black licorice also is a staple for Gimbal’s Fine Candies of South San Francisco, whoseScottie Dogs contain real licorice root and pure anise. The hand-crafted, fat-free product contains no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, and is produced in small kettles to emanate the true flavor of licorice “for the real licorice lover.”

“We see consumers increasingly appreciating authentic all-natural licorice made without artificial flavors, colors or preservatives,” says Karin Vollrath, sales & marketing director, Gimbal’s Fine Candies. “The chewy texture, real licorice root and pure anise in All Natural LicoriceScottiescreate a well-rounded, satisfying flavor release and support the growing trend of bold flavor profiles.”

“There is a surging interest in licorice,” she continues. “Consumers are actively purchasing new brands of licorice in their search for the best-quality all-natural licorice they can find.”

All-Natural Innovations

Black licorice has long been a healthy snack. But an increasing number of all-natural, upscale varieties are giving consumers more options than ever before.

Take newNatural Vinesfrom Bend-Ore.-based American Licorice Co., which has been producing its signatureRed Vinesfor some 90 years. Made from all-natural ingredients,Natural Vinesare available in both black and strawberry varieties.

“The emergence of the premium segment has led to higher price points and higher price per ounce, smaller packages, different types of packages (more hanging bags and stand-up/gusseted bags), more natural/craft bags (like we have forNatural Vines), more diverse flavors (pomegranate, tangerine, mango), and more natural and more organic formulas,” notes Michael Kelly, consumer communications manager for American Licorice. To that end, he adds, “Natural Vinesare made with natural ingredients, ship in a smaller ‘craft’-like package that is resealable, gusseted to stand up on the shelf and has a hole to be peggable,”

Natural Vines are targeted at the discriminating consumer, generally higher educated, higher income, who is interested in an indulgent but healthier treat,” he continues. “In traditional licorice, our target consumers are primarily female, ages 13-45, often moms with kids or teens in the household.”

Meanwhile, Newman’s Own Organics, Aptos, Calif., recently launched the first licorice twist made with organic ingredients, certified by Oregon Tilth to meet organic standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Products Program. They are available in black and strawberry as well as two new fruit flavors, pomegranate and tangerine. The candy is low in fat and sodium, and free from trans fat and cholesterol.

According to ceo and co-founder Peter Meehan, Newman’s Own Organics had been wanting to get into the licorice category for some time, but had difficulty finding a partner that could be certified organic for production.

“It’s always challenging because our ingredient costs (for example: non-GMO corn syrup) are so much higher,” he explains. “Finally, with a lot of effort, we put a program together.”

The company sought a twist that was soft and not solid, but strong in flavor, like European- and Australian-style offerings - something in betweenTwizzlersandRed Vines, Meehan describes. And it went with an old-fashioned look for its packaging - the kind you’d find in an apothecary or candy store, but in a recyclable cardboard tray to keep it modern.

“The brand seems to fit that style,” Meehan says, referencing the company’s American Gothic-theme logo. Now available in the candy section of natural foods stores,Newman’s Own Organics Licorice Twists eventually will hit the mainstream, but “we’ll take it slowly,” he notes.

In characterizing the brand’s core customer, Meehan says, “I don’t have to look much further than my business partner, Nell Newman. She is head of household. She votes with her dollars - every time she goes and shops, she makes a commitment to brands that do something for her and avoids brands that she feels don’t. There are many women and men out there like that. If we can be slightly more redeemable in our social activities, and we have a good-tasting product at a reasonable price, it’s been proven over 18 years that we have a good chance of succeeding.”

Molly Loves Candy is another company that’s made licorice its business. In addition to its traditionalChateau D’Lanz offering, it produces a line of Molly Loves Candy brand heart-shaped licorice buttons in flavors such as Ravishing Raspberry, Love-a-Licious Lemon and Mixed Berry Bliss. According to the company’s ceo, the licorice category has been growing across the United States rather dramatically for the last two or three years, “and that’s to our favor.” 

"People are really becoming label readers,” Love says, adding “my kids look at every label, and if they find ingredients they can’t pronounce, they don’t know what that ingredient is.” As a result, he says, “manufacturers like me are using all-natural type ingredients and trying to make their products as tasty as they can.”

Molly Loves Candyis not only all-natural, but gluten-free and vegan, and uses all-natural colors such as saffron instead of yellow dye No. 5. Like its sister brand, it also contains gum arabic and beet sugar.

Then there’sPanda Licorice of Finland, which is made from all-natural ingredients such as licorice extract. The fat-free product contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, or added salt, and is certified kosher and halal; it’s also suitable for vegetarians and vegans. “The secret of the uniquePandaflavor lies in the meticulous cooking process using only four selected raw ingredients: molasses, wheat flour, licorice extract and aniseed oil,” notes Arja Kastarinen, export director, Oy Panda Ab.

WhilePanda’soriginal black flavor remains its best-seller, “the new fruit flavors are helping to attract a younger consumer,” he says, adding that health-conscious consumers enjoy the low calorie content of the confectionery treat - especially mothers seeking healthy, natural snacks for their kids.Panda’s newest variety, cherry, comes in  bags/boxes or bars, the latter of which is just 100 calories.

Pandais continuously breathing new innovational life into licorice,” Kastarinen says, noting that the brand’s cherry and raspberry varieties are made with real raspberry and cherry puree “to deliver exquisite mouth-watering taste sensations.” Both are available in resealable bags for sharing, saving and portion-control.

“ThePanda all-natural soft-eating licorice range was introduced in the U.S. in 1977 and has grown to become the market leader in licorice in the natural food marketplace,” he asserts, adding that the brand has experienced “strong growth with the overall rise of the natural food business and, consequently, the distribution is also rapidly expanding into traditional grocery stores.”

Down-Under Achievers

Finland isn’t the only country successfully selling licorice to American consumers. Australian-style licorice or “liquorice” now can be enjoyed stateside, too, thanks to brands such asDarrell Lea, Lucky CountryandKookaburra.The thick, juicy chew of the product has garnered many fans since crossing our borders and can be found in leading drug stores, grocers and everywhere in between.

Darrell LeaSoft Eating Liquorice is relatively new to the United States, but has been a product of Sydney, Australia, since 1957. That said, it’s done well here in America. According to IRI data, the brand earned $4.1 million in sales for the latest 52 weeks ending July 11, 2010. The Australian import is available in four low-fat, naturally flavored varieties: original (black), strawberry, mango and green apple.

“As consumers’ love of chewy candy grows, they are enjoying a wider variety of flavors …” notes Carolyn Roberts, strategy & insights - senior manager, Green Seed Group North America, which handles the U.S. marketing ofDarrell Lea. “They are also seeking more premium, naturally flavored, soft-eating licorice brands, which are seeing faster growth than mainstream brands …”

“In addition to its launch of naturally flavored mango and green apple, Darrell Lea has spoken to licorice consumers about new flavors and is currently working on development of innovative flavors based on consumer input,” she continues. “Consumer perceptions of licorice are no longer limited to original black licorice. Lovers of fruit-flavored chewy candy are now exploring the licorice category and enjoying the sophisticated flavor profile that licorice offers.”

“Soft-eating licorice consumers tend to be heavy candy category users, buying premium Australian licorice for themselves and mainstream brands for their family,” Roberts describes. “The growth of Australian licorice has fostered category dollar growth and attracted new users to the category.”

Lucky Country Aussie Style Soft Gourmet Licorice is another Australian-owned brand with international reach, including a plant in Lincolnton, N.C. The product is available in the following varieties, all of which are 96-99% fat-free: black, strawberry, black cherry, apple, pineapple and its latest flavor, natural marionberry;Lucky Country also offers natural black and natural strawberry options.

According, the brand’s traditional licorice product is “still made the old-fashioned way, with all-natural ingredients, and is flavored with natural licorice extract, not aniseed oil.” Meanwhile, its natural products are produced using cane sugar and natural coconut oil. For its “red” licorice, “we take a little natural licorice extract and blend it with other fine ingredients,” the site notes.

Kookaburrais a well-known, family-owned Australian brand that’s also natural, sweetened with treacle or molasses. It is available in a variety of formats and flavors, including Allsorts, Shooters, Strawberry & Cream Bites and Twists.

Strawberry & Cream? Guess that means licorice is black, white and red all over. Just call it a natural progression.