The recession changed consumer shopping habits, forcing many to tighten their pocketbooks while sharpening their scrutiny. But it’s not just about being more price-conscious. Value rules, particularly when all natural flavors are touted.

All natural. It’s a term even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has difficulty defining. Actually, it doesn’t. Rather, it focuses on defining what it’s not: namely, “a product that does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.”

In most cases, the FDA would prefer that manufacturers stay away from using the all natural claim, particularly since all natural tends to be a cerebral term that’s much more open to interpretation than, say, organic.

But flash the words “all natural” at a consumer, and there’s no interpretation needed. After all, the phrase literally screams “better-for-you,” regardless if that’s truly the case or not.

Confectionery manufacturers are beginning to take note. As Cindy Cosmos, senior flavor chemist, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, affirms, there’s been an uptick toward natural flavors, specifically in categories such as chocolate, organic, some hard candy, licorice and gummies.

“This is becoming very important if the confection contains a nutraceutical or has been marketed with health benefits,” she says. “Consumers have responded to the continuous negative information concerning China and their lack of QC/QA that all natural makes them feel more comfortable.”

Cosmos cites several recent examples of confectionery products touting all natural ingredients: American Licorice’s newNatural Vines, which features strawberry and black licorice flavors; Jelly Belly’s new line of fruit snacks with natural ingredients as well as its Superfruit jelly beans, which feature superfruits, juices, purees and natural flavors; and Necco’s all natural wafer line with chocolate, cinnamon, clove, lemon, licorice, orange and wintergreen flavors.

This return to natural flavors reflects a new “go-to-strategy,” explains Chuck Dodson, director of consumer insights & marketing at A.M. Todd Ingredients and Flavors. He says that there’s been an “upswelling” of requests recently for natural flavor samples.

Although the interest doesn’t quite match the surge of new product introductions that peaked in 2007, many of which touted natural or organic flavors and ingredients, it’s certainly a prevalent theme in the development of new product concepts, Dodson says.

Keep in mind that the most recent recession forced many manufacturers to shift gears, he says, prompting R&D technologists to look at reducing costs, not enhancing flavor options. Consumers, who were forced to make more discriminating choices during the most recent downturn based on shrunken pocketbooks, are, nevertheless, continuing to evolve their shopping habits as the recession eases.

Value-conscious, however, doesn’t simply mean price-conscious. It also carries a “best buy” imprimatur, one that delivers better quality for a good price. In this sense, an all natural claim sends “a stronger marketing message,” Dodson points out. The words “all natural” connote a high quality level for consumers as well as the perceived value of the product, he says.  

Still, there are some issues involved in switching from artificial flavors to natural flavors. First is cost. Natural flavors typically cost more than artificial flavors. They also lack some of the intensity that artificial flavors can deliver as part of the chemistry. In the end, manufacturers may have to use more of a natural flavor than an artificial flavor to attain a certain flavor level, which also increases costs.

Still, Dodson definitely sees a crossover from the products being launched in the beverage industry to the confectionery side.

“The beverage industry has been more aggressive in new product launches within the juice and soda categories, pushing such flavors as superfruits, peach and pomegranate,” says Dodson. “But we’re seeing it in gradually appear in the confectionery side.”

Citing the health/wellness trend that’s affecting all food categories, confectioners see all natural flavors as particularly appealing for certain demographics, especially children 5-12.

Mothers are always looking for healthier options for their children, even with sweets.

As a result, there’s also a movement by some confectioners in reformulating high fructose corn syrup out of formulas and replacing it with other natural sweeteners such as cane sugar or stevia, he adds.

Adults, on the other hand, are opting for more exotic flavors, experiences even. As Cosmos notes, chocolate has proved to be an excellent venue for natural and exotic flavors.

“Vosges has been key in Chicago regarding the ‘fried bacon’ trend in their dark chocolate bar along with their curry, paprika, wasabi and ginger truffles,” she says. “This ‘out-of-the-box’ concept is pushing traditional confectionery companies to provide more exotic flavors by using traditional flavors of other countries.”

“Mango, papaya, passion fruit have become the start of this exotic trend by being introduced as tropical,” Cosmos explains. “The United States is a melting pot of cultures, so the exotic is slowly being introduced via cross-fertilization. Flavor pairings are used to introduce new flavors until the ‘exotic’ flavor is accepted to stand on its own.”

As a result, new flavors that have surfaced in confections include blood orange, dragon fruit, acai, pomegranate, lemongrass and yuzu. Salt also has been an interesting savory item used in confections -- usually chocolate or caramels - to enhance nuttiness or spiciness of the flavor.

What lays ahead for natural flavors? Cosmos sees more types of citrus flavors that go well beyond the usual orange/tangerine.

“Yuzu, lemongrass, blood orange, sweetie, grapefruit, lulo,” she predicts. “The berry category contains more than the raspberry flavors with blackberry, gooseberry, lingenberry, blueberry, cranberry or white cranberry, acai berry.

“There still is a desire for the traditional flavor, but if you can provide a twist or sophistication of the norm it will be pursued,” Cosmo says. “Blends of a variety of fruits along with a superfruit twist are being evaluated by some clients we have.”

Fact is, more and more confectioners are evaluating a shift to natural flavors, be they exotic blends or merely replacements.