Recently, a Financial Times article by Ralph Atkins — in timely seasonal fashion for Easter — suggested that Swiss chocolate, and chocolate consumption in general, may be losing its shine and, dare we say it, melting in popularity because of health concerns.
And although Atkins does quote several analysts and trots out dire statistics to make his case, this call to alarm could be called a bit of a stretch, somewhat akin to the sensational headlines last year indicating a looming chocolate shortage.
In this new era of opinionated reporting, stringing along several statistics and facts doesn’t always provide a complete picture. While recent reports do confirm a slowing in consumption, past history suggests this is a temporary holding pattern, one that will right itself as consumers determine which kinds of chocolate will meet their eating occasions and desires.
And it’s not as if cocoa and chocolate suppliers have buried their heads in banana leaves; they are very much attuned to current health trends affecting shopping cart decisions. Take sugar, for example, which continues to be “demonized” in the press and has become a major concern among certain shoppers, the demographics encompassing mothers and Millennials, Baby Boomers and bargain hunters.
As Mark Adriaenssens, v. p. of R&D for Barry Callebaut Americas, notes, the move toward less sugar hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Yes, our customers are inquiring about products with less sugar in them,” he says. “We can meet these requests by replacing part of the sugar with an alternative in an individual recipe or by replacing all the sugar entirely with a substitute. We see also a surge in demand for newly trending alternative sugars as maple and coconut sugar. However, taste still remains a top priority and with some sugar replacers, this can become a concern. Overall, our customers and end consumers do not want to sacrifice the indulgent taste of chocolate for less sugar.”
Rinus Hemskeerk, Olam International’s global head of innovation, concurs.
"Helping our customers keep pace with consumers’ changing tastes for healthier options is incredibly important, and something we are well positioned to do,” he says. “Equally important is that the product must taste great, which is exactly why our Cocoa Innovation Centres develop high quality, delicious products such as a dark cocoa powder without added sodium that our Latin American customers can use to reformulate their products. This provides our customers with a powder that has the same flavor and color impact, but which allows them to reduce sugar in their own recipe.”
But it’s not just about reducing sugar anymore; fat content has also entered the picture.
“Here different solutions are also possible for reducing the amount of fat; however, some fat reduction solutions can affect the ‘cleanliness’ of a product label, which is also important to keep in mind,” Adriaenssens says. “Fat also has an important function in melt, texture, and flavor delivery of the chocolate, and for an indulgent item like chocolate, consumers generally don't want to sacrifice taste for less fat.”
Moreover, with cocoa and chocolate there are several options to consider. Hemskeerk notes that Olam International produces a range of cocoa powders for its customers with varying levels of fat.
“As the level of fat required depends on what product is being produced, we leave the decision of what to use regarding their own formulations up to them,” he says. “However, as consumers are more health conscious, a driver for us is to make our products as ‘clean-labelled’ as possible. Here, our natural cocoa powders come to play; they are not alkalized, yet provide the same color, flavor and functionality in application.”
To address this niche, The Blommer Chocolate Co. developed the Wonder Line, indulgent and creamy white, milk, dark and yogurt coatings that have significantly reduced calories, fat and saturated fat. The reduction in calories ranges from 36-37 percent, the total fat is reduced by 60-63 percent and the total saturated fat is lowered by 63-66 percent, depending upon the type (i.e. white vs. dark).
According to the company, any number of claims may be made, depending on the application and what is being created. Low Fat, Reduced Calorie, Reduced Fat, Reduced Saturated Fat claims may be made depending on the application and usage level. It comes down to permissible indulgence.
That tact is key in approaching health and wellness as it applies to chocolate, Adriaenssens asserts.
“Health and wellness is not just about taking out the ‘bad’ anymore; it's about improving the overall health profile of a product,” he says. “It's about playing up the already present functional benefits and natural goodness of chocolate/cocoa-like flavanols and antioxidants. Balancing this with the ‘free from’ and simple ingredient decks is key. Pulling out sugar and fat and replacing with artificial chemicals is not going to meet these consumers’ needs anymore. Health-focused mix-ins in chocolate can help a consumer feel that a product is a permissible indulgence.”
Adriaenssens cites data from Mintel (Jenna McFarland, Consumer & Market Insight Manager) that confirms consumers are on board with the idea that dark chocolate is healthier — a whopping 73 percent believe that to be the case.
Moreover, alongside health and wellness, there’s the emergence of mainstream premium products.
“It’s clear that the premium trend has moved to the mainstream,” Adriaenssens says. “Consumers are expecting premium products and are generally willing to pay more for them. Premium can mean many different things to shoppers including high cocoa content, rare ingredients, exotic flavors, single-origin cocoa, attractive packaging, or small batch production.”
A renewed interest in single-origin chocolates also has enabled several smaller, artisanal chocolate makers to make a name for themselves. Not only does the single-origin moniker differentiate the chocolate maker from the multinationals, it also accents the “buy local” draw in a spectacular manner.
“There is a very clear consumer trend towards greater concern from where and how food has been grown, so the traceability of ingredients is increasingly important,” Hemskeerk says. “We love to help our customers tell that story, as we guarantee 100 percent traceability throughout our cocoa supply chain. Over the past six years, our flagship sustainability program the Olam Livelihood Charter (OLC) has supported our farmers to increase their yields, while practicing environmentally responsible methods that help develop micro climates and eradicate deforestation in the cocoa supply chain.”
So what role does sustainability actually play in consumer purchasing habits?
Opinions vary. And so do consumer types. According to a Kansas State University study — Millennials and chocolate product ethics: Saying one thing and doing another — conducted in 2016 and funded by a research grant from The Hershey Co., most of the participants didn’t really care about factors like organic, certified ethical sources and rainforest friendly. However, they did seem to show a preference for products with clean labels and they were more concerned with high levels of fat than sugar in their chocolates.
In short, “For most participants, their choice behavior reflected minimal concern for ethical factors whereas their public declarations in a focus group suggested otherwise,” the study concluded.
That said, sustainability remains critical to all involved in cocoa sourcing and processing, both for the short-term and the long term. The issues are enormous, from eliminating child labor, improving the quality of life for cocoa farmers, replacing aging trees with new seedlings, and teaching existing farmers good agricultural husbandry to building schools, hospitals and wells, while simultaneously retaining the next generation of farmers. Yes, the industry faces enormous challenges.
Recently, the World Cocoa Foundation — in an effort to coalesce numerous corporate, government and stakeholder sustainability programs into a united effort — established CocoaAction. In doing so, participating companies still retained their own programs while working together to accomplish common goals.
For example, Barry Callebaut recently launched its Chocolate Forever initiative, which sets a goal of eliminating child labor, reducing a carbon footprint and lifting farmers out of poverty by 2025. Ambitious to say the least.
That, of course, begs the question, are resources being diluted? No, Hemskeerk says.
“CocoaAction supports a precompetitive, holistic approach to tackling the cocoa supply chain, aligning the approach of major cocoa companies, governments and stakeholders,” he says. “By sharing knowledge pre-competitively, aligning longer term goals in cocoa sustainability, and sharing data at levels which have never been achieved previously, it can improve and align those individual programs, making them more impactful across the sector.
Nicko Debenham, Barry Callebaut’s head of sustainability and Biolands’ managing director, emphatically agreed.
“The programs of individual chocolate companies have adopted the methodology developed by Cocoa Action and as a result, many of those initiatives have moved to a much more impact driven approach,” he says. “Even if the programs are not declared under CocoaAction, CocoaAction has had a huge influence on the design and approach. Cocoa Action is helping to drive resources to achieve impact across the industry.”
But what happens when nature intervenes, in this case, timely rains and a bountiful harvest, all of which sent cocoa prices plummeting, causing a further strain on farmer incomes and sustainability programs? Oftentimes, it means stepping in and helping more.
“With the current downward adjustment, we are doubling down on supporting primary producers through our Olam Livelihood Charter, providing multiple services beyond price, including access to finance, seedlings and Good Agricultural Practice training,” Hemskeerk says. “Alongside that, we provide training in crop diversification to ensure our farmers, where possible, aren’t reliant on one single crop for their livelihoods, and therefore less at risk during fluctuations in commodity prices.”
As Debenham stresses, it is critically important to help farmers have diversified income to make them more price risk resilient. There’s not much suppliers can do about market swings and price speculators.
So what does the future hold? No easy answers regarding sustainability. Just continued perseverance and dogged pursuit of the stated goals.
And on the consumer side? Well, there’s another niche evolving: nutraceuticals. Chocolate has been deemed a good “carrier” for a variety of supplements, ranging from calcium to vitamins.
“Chocolate is indeed a very good carrier for a lot of supplements,” Adriaenssens says. “We do see some increased demand in requests for chocolates that contain certain supplements such as probiotics, for example. Chocolate is an ideal carrier for probiotics since it aids in probiotics’ survival in the digestive system.”
But that niche remains an evolving one, Hemskeerk adds. 
“We’re seeing two types of inquiries for healthier options, we call these: ‘chocolate plus,’ enriching the product with supplements and ‘chocolate minus,’ reducing ingredients such as sugar,” he says. “While we do both for our customers, the ‘chocolate plus’ route seems to have limited success, as consumers are looking for permissible indulgence and not necessarily food supplements.”
So no, chocolate’s future isn’t melting away; it’s just undergoing tempering.