Crushing on better-for-you confections – article

Research suggests many consumers want sweets with added functional ingredients and clean labels. Learn about innovations to help meet those demands.

June 17, 2024

7 Min Read
Crushing on better-for-you confections

When you’re a kid, there’s nothing better than sharing a candy treat with your best friend on a summer afternoon. No guilt, just bliss. But as you get older, food indulgences — like eating too much or enjoying a favorite confection — can have a big impact. Striking a balance between indulging in a favorite treat and meeting wellness goals is gaining relevance for consumers.

As a result, U.S. adults are taking a more mindful approach to eating by making deliberate and informed choices about the foods they eat. This is reflected by the 66% of consumers who now say they are following some kind of diet, an increase of five points since 2022, according to data from Cargill’s proprietary IngredienTracker. While no particular diet is prominent these days, watching sugar content in foods is the most common.

In our post-pandemic world, however, consumers can also see the value of an occasional indulgence. In fact, 1 in 2 consumers now consider indulgent foods and beverages to be an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. That said, the definition of "indulgence" varies. While 33% indulge by choosing products that are perceived as less healthy, almost as many now seek treats that are perceived as better for them — such as indulgent foods with functional benefits.

“One of the big themes across the food and beverage landscape is the idea of ‘better-for-you’ indulgence… and its influence extends to sugar confectionery, too,” confirmed Jennifer Berndt, associate marketing manager, sugar confectionery, at Cargill. “Reduced sugar and no-sugar-added are the big plays, but we’ve also seen brands add functional ingredients and lean into plant-based formulations to appeal to this consumer base.”

There’s a simple reason for all the health-focused innovation: consumers are buying it, Berndt added. “According to Nielsen confectionery sales data, products with a health claim are growing faster than conventional confectionery. The plant-based trend is catching fire in the sugar-confectionery space, too.”

But mindful choice is a tricky territory, especially in confections. Cargill proprietary research finds that taste is, by far, the most important aspect of enjoyment. “Sweet is the sweet spot!" Berndt explained. “In our often-harried world, we know consumers are looking for moments of happiness and simple pleasures. Sweet confections can be that reward.”

The research also suggests that many consumers still want to be mindful of health when eating an indulgent treat. For some, that might mean choosing a sweet with added ingredients that confer health benefits. But an even larger percentage say “mindfulness” is enjoying a treat in the moment and being more careful later or indulging in a smaller portion.


Meeting consumers where they are

Consumers may well be looking for a healthier path, but they still want an indulgent experience, Berndt cautioned. “Our 'Sweet Delight — Decoding Consumer Confectionery Decisions' research really crystallized the importance of delivering on both points. Consumers indicated that one of their top unmet needs in confectionery is that it tastes good and is healthier.”

For product developers, striking a balance between taste and health is a good blueprint. The Cargill research noted several strategies, including using ingredients that are naturally healthy, avoiding those perceived as unhealthy, and adding ingredients with health benefits or added value.

Label-friendly ingredients are also part of the equation. Nearly half of U.S. consumers are now interested in “clean” eating, a nine-point increase from 2018. Insights from Cargill’s IngredienTracker data reiterate that “clean-label" behaviors are on the rise. Oftentimes consumers avoid artificial ingredients or processed food and seek products with non-GMO* or organic ingredients as a shortcut to "cleaner” eating.


Confectionery conundrum

All this presents interesting innovation opportunities for brands and product developers. But finding that sweet spot is easier said than done, according to Berndt. “Confections present a high bar for taste, texture and visual appeal,” she said. “If products don’t taste great and deliver a satisfying eating experience, they won’t find their way back into shoppers’ grocery carts.”

Sugar reduction can be especially tricky in confections. “Beyond sweet taste, sugar contributes bulk and influences texture, shelf life and food safety. For brands to create a successful reduced-sugar sweet, they’ll need to replace all that functionality, too,” Berndt noted.

Though the focus is often on taste, texture is another critical component, she continued. “Our proprietary study exploring consumers’ preferences for gummy and chewy candies illustrated this well. Gummies come in a wide range of textures, from soft, to hard, to stick-to-your-teeth. We found that texture had a significant impact on purchase intent, and many consumers had a clear preference for gummies made with pectin, which resulted in a softer, smoother bite versus those made with gelatin, starch or carrageenan. As a bonus, formulating with pectin also aligns with today’s plant-based trends.”

Finding the sweet spot

In reduced-sugar confectionery, it can be difficult to get all the sensory characteristics right. A good first step is to assess the formula to understand what type of format is needed to fulfill sugar’s functions — liquid, powder or a combination, Berndt explained. “Liquid options include sorbitol and maltitol; powdered options include Zerose® erythritol, isomalt and maltitol. However, when working with powdered polyols, the trick is managing crystallization. Because these ingredients are less soluble than sugar, formulators may need to use powdered solutions at lower levels.”

All these options pair well with high-intensity sweeteners like stevia, which can help build back missing sweetness. Cargill’s portfolio includes ViaTech® stevia leaf extract, EverSweet® stevia sweetener and EverSweet® stevia sweetener + ClearFlo™ natural flavor, options that deliver excellent sweetness quality — a must for the confectionery space.

“Ultimately, when it comes to sugar reduction, there’s no single silver bullet,” Berndt said. “It will likely take a blend of ingredients to replace sugar’s bulk, texture and other functional properties. Working with a knowledgeable supplier can help brands find a sweetening solution that delivers the right balance of sweet taste and functionality, plus calorie and sugar reduction to meet product development goals.”

Plant-based possibilities

Using plant-based ingredients presents its own challenges. For plant-based gummies and chewy candies, pectin is a great alternative to animal-sourced gelatin, Berndt added. Derived from apple pomace and citrus peels, pectin is an exceptional gelling agent that offers its own unique organoleptic properties.

“Where gelatin combines a tough first bite with an elastic, highly chewable texture, pectin offers a much-cleaner, shorter bite, with little chewiness or elasticity,” Berndt noted. “Pectin also comes with a higher melting point than gelatin, increasing the heat stability of the finished confection. This is especially noticeable in warmer climates, where pectin-based gummies will be more heat-resistant in transportation and storage.”

Additionally, pectin pairs well with fruit flavors. It has a clean flavor, and the high-methoxyl (HM) pectin used for candies requires acidification to set, which can also help with the candy's flavor delivery. From a processing standpoint, Berndt added, “some pectin variations can set rapidly, making the use of reusable molds (non-starch-based) feasible.”


Beyond providing function and healthfulness to a product, better-for-you ingredients can also help craft its image and support marketing. Successful products now allow consumers to indulge without guilt. “Nomenclature that hints at an ingredient’s origin, whether it’s sea salt or cane sugar, typically scores higher with consumers,” Berndt added. “Ditto for package claims. Those that imply ‘natural’ tend to have the greatest influence on purchase decisions. Our recent ClaimTracker consumer research found ‘naturally sweetened’ and ‘no artificial ingredients’ are some of the most influential claims for sugar confectionery. Clearly, the "clean-label" trend is alive and well throughout the confectionery aisle.”

Although indulgence will always be a big driver in confectionery, there is white space for products that can combine indulgence with a better-for-you twist.

* There is no single definition of “non-GMO” in the USA. Contact Cargill for source and processing information.

1 HealthFocus International. Global Trends Report (U.S. 2022).

2 The Hartman Group. "Guilty Pleasure: The Balance Between Indulgence and Wellness." July 31, 2023.

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