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There aren’t many people who don’t love a sweet treat. From chocolate to cakes, sweets and other sugar-laced goods, the confectionery market is a multi-billion pound global business. According to market research firm IBISWorld, the UK chocolate and confectionery market is worth £3.8bn in 2022.
Our love of indulgent edible goods dates back centuries, and despite concerns that the cost-of-living crisis could see people cut back on their sweet treats, if the Covid pandemic is anything to go by, it’s likely that many of us will continue to turn to confectionery to get us through the tough times.
The idea of sweet stuff as a treat dates right back to medieval times, explains Dr Neil Buttery, food historian and author of The Dark History of Sugar. From the early days when sugar arrived in the UK, confectionery and sweet treats became commonplace at the dinner tables of kings and lords.
As well as being tasty, sugar was often seen as a demonstration of wealth, he told Confectionery & Chocolate Buyer, with Queen Elizabeth often having sugar banquets entirely consisting of sugar.
“Everything was sugar, including the cutlery and crockery. And she’d be eating sugar plums, candied fruits, that kind of thing.” Confectionery, in part, was the result of needing to mix expensive sugar with other ingredients to make a more affordable treat”, explains Buttery.
But later, as Europe started producing more sugar it became less expensive, making it accessible to the masses, and heralding the launch of some of our best-known big-name brands, from Rowntree’s to Cadbury and Fry, as well as the likes of Mars in the US. From there, it’s no secret that confectionery became big business, no longer symbolising wealth but instead meaning comfort and indulgence.
Even in the Boer War at the turn of the 20th Century, Buttery notes that Queen Victoria ordered Cadbury to send boxes of chocolates to soldiers at Christmas, explaining, “It wasn’t just a treat, it was a taste of home.”
Fast forward over 100 years, and during the Covid lockdowns, artisan confectioners and chocolatiers noticed that same desire to lift people’s spirits by sending them something sweet.
It’s something James Bridger, who founded Hastings-based Coastal Cocoa three years ago, noticed and says still hasn’t stopped – just now people have gone back to buying in person rather than online. Bridger started out focusing on truffles and bonbons, but soon realised that when it comes to indulgence, people don’t always need it to be innovative.
“In the chocolate world we all tend to focus a lot on innovation and coming up with things that are a little bit wild and out there. But I’ve got to say it’s the classics that pay the bills.
“We do try to innovate and come up with a new flavour each month to keep things interesting, but it’s those staples that people come back for again and again. Bars are a little bit less interesting to make but the truth is, people love chocolate bars. When you’re immersed in the chocolate world they may seem a little boring and traditional, but actually they’re classics for a good reason.”
The oldies may be the more favoured, but that doesn’t stop people experimenting, says Albert Chau, general manager of London-based Fifth Dimension Chocolates. “Flavour-wise, we’re seeing an increasing trend with Asian flavours and Nordic flavours – the latter could be due to more high quality Scandinavian bean-to-bar chocolate makers entering the market and their use of local ingredients.
“The Asian flavours seem to be led by a rise in interest in all things Japanese. Southeast Asian flavours are also on the rise – maybe consumers are seeking out the more exotic ingredients and flavours, especially with the lack of travel in the last two years.’
With artisan products across the board, changes in consumer preference are never just about flavour and taste. For many, health is a key driver – even in confectionery and chocolate. Bridger has seen an increase in the number of people interested in higher percentage chocolate and the accompanying lower sugar content.
“We get people come in and say they’re diabetic and they need something that can fit with their medical condition. But you also get people who are looking for the higher percentage because they’re aware that means it’s lower sugar. Up until now, I’ve only really been doing stuff up to around 70% dark chocolate, but I’m definitely looking at doing some bars up to 85%.”
Miss Macaroon, a Birmingham-based social enterprise set up in 2011 to provide opportunities for young people, has arguably been ahead of the game when it comes to ensuring its French macarons are inclusive in terms of dietary requirements.
As well as being the only company in the world that can Pantone-match its macarons to any colour, a large proportion of those are gluten-free. Founder Rosie Ginday MBE says this doesn’t mean they have to taste any less delicious.
“For us, it was really important that gluten-free didn’t mean it didn’t taste as good. I think with the rise of beautiful, delicious vegan treats, people haven’t lowered their expectations. So we still have to focus on quality and taste.”
While some in the sector might be nervously waiting to see whether the government’s new rules on advertising for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) products put a dent in their profits, Ginday thinks the changes aren’t likely to deter her customers, who are likely to be relatively moderate in their consumption of a luxury treat.
Equally, while the cost-of-living crisis means people might have less disposable income to spend on treats, the desire for indulgence isn’t going anywhere in her mind. “There’s a real desire for treating, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I think people will still want to treat, they might just do it fewer times.”
Chau too has noticed a rise in vegan and alternative products, but sees a difference between consumers looking for ‘healthier’ alternatives and those driven by taste and indulgence. “For artisan products, I think most people are still looking to ‘hit the spot’ because they want that indulgence, and they consider these as special treats rather than something they eat regularly, so they want to enjoy that experience. Often, they don’t want to compromise if they are looking for that occasional treat.
“But obviously some people have switched to plant-based/vegan diets or aim for a reduced-sugar/alternative sugar in their daily diet, and they are on the lookout for these more specialised products – for them it’s less about the health but more about not violating their lifestyle choice. Some will compromise on the taste aspect for a while but they are always on the lookout for the better products.” He, too, has noticed a trend for higher percentage cocoa as a way to reduce sugar intake.
Alongside rising health considerations, the desire to buy sustainable products includes confectionery and chocolate. “We get less people asking about this side of things than around low sugar,” says Bridger. “But we still get one or two people a week coming in and talking to us about supply chains.”
Chau agrees, saying provenance has become increasingly important in artisan chocolate. “Now a lot more customers are more informed, some of the buzzwords are no longer sufficient. Consumers want to know where the ingredients are from, so to differentiate themselves from competitors, producers are starting to be more specific and transparent.”
With changes already afoot, could we see confectionery and chocolate change beyond recognition, with indulgent treats replaced by healthy, sustainable snacks? “Artisan confectionery has been on a steady rise over the last decade, and the demand for speciality chocolate is now as high as ever,” says Andreas Diakou, founder of The Fine Harvest.
“Consumers continue to indulge in multisensorial chocolate experiences, and look towards discovering new flavours with multiple textures.”
In his view, while discerning customers are willing to spend a little more for quality and variation, innovation is necessary to attract new customers, which includes embracing the ongoing trend towards functional foods. “Combining tasty chocolate and healthy ingredients with an associated benefit will help brands remain current in a crowded marketplace,” he adds.
“Furthermore, a continued move towards sustainability will mean consumers will be ever more conscious about how their purchasing choices are impacting the environment, making this a key overall factor for the long-term success of artisan confectionery producers.”
Jennifer Earle, founder of Chocolate Ecstasy Tours and food consultant at The Next Delicious Thing, agrees. “From a premium category perspective I expect prices to rise and businesses to offer more high quality, high percentage bars, and bars with more unusual ingredients – both indulgent and ‘healthy’ – to be added,” she says.
“Premium companies will need these offerings to truly showcase the quality of their chocolate and what they can do for a less-price-sensitive audience.”