As billions of people worldwide had to cope with an unprecedented sense of uncertainty and anxiety brought by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, a still undefined ‘new normal’ made of extended sheltering at home and intermittent lockdowns reshaped consumer preferences about food. Restrictions on social life urged people to redefine their values and priorities on food and counteract the hardships caused by an unstable situation. An opportunity to stay connected more online from their home’s safety allowed buyers to educate themselves about specific food products and elevate the experience with them. Under such a favorable scenario for food brands focusing their marketing strategies on social media and blogs, shoppers developed a greater appreciation for specialty food products like bean-to-bar craft chocolate.
Being positively propelled by COVID-19, the demand for premium and fine-quality chocolate products just kept growing, with market insights forecasting a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 10% by 2024. A set of drivers guided by an increasingly conscious consumer matched exciting options available on the chocolate market. What precisely are the main chocolate industry trends that have attracted more educated consumers to seek and stick with higher-end chocolate items during COVID-19?
1) Immune System Health through Plant-Based, Sugar-Free, & Health-Halo Chocolate
Growing consumer interest in healthy living stimulated demand for high-quality chocolate products as never before. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the impact of food on their health and wellness. The COVID-19 situation made consumers even more quality- and health-oriented, driving up the demand for organic and natural options, which will likely continue in the next years.
Particularly during COVID-19, the strong consumer interest in clean-label attributes expanded to broader aspects regarding dark chocolate’s health benefits for being the highest in cacao solids. Additionally, suppose dark chocolate uses great quality cacao. In that case, it will mean that less sugar is needed, as the natural flavor profile of specialty cacao can make up for the need to turn to cheap ingredients to cover faults and defects in the chocolate process and product.
The focus on dark chocolate due to its high flavonoid content is not new, as cacao contains flavonoids associated with health benefits such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improved blood vessel health, and energized mood. However, health benefits rhymed well not only with traditional dark chocolate in COVID-19 times. The undervalued milk and white chocolate types too started seeing a surge of healthier alternatives, made from plant-based ‘milks’ functioning as dairy substitutes for vegans.
Furthermore, some consumers were more worried about sugar intake. Others looked for health-halo ingredients as an additional value to fulfill chocolate craves with products containing natural sweeteners replacing sugar, and a countless variety of herbals, fruits, and seeds enhancing the natural health halo of specialty chocolate.
2) Mental Wellbeing, Indulgence & Escapism through Exciting Flavors, Textures, & Ingredients
As people continue to focus on holistic health and wellness, they are gravitating toward flavors that signal coziness and remind child memories. The concept of physical health then blends with a novel one concerning the mental wellbeing and mood boost. Through exciting flavors and textures, people can perceive a sense of comforting indulgence and safe escapism when the COVID-19 penalizes travels and movements.
Some significant trends in chocolate flavors that accommodated consumer holistic aspects during COVID-19 were tropical and citrus fruits, coffee/mocha, spiced tea, heirloom dairy milk, honey, salted caramel, barrel-aged, and even umami flavors juxtaposed with sweet ingredients. Texture contrasts in specialty and fine chocolate products also played their role in adding an element of surprise to chocolate’s conventional character. For example, cacao nibs, coffee beans, nuts, bread crumbs, crisps/chips, and sea salt are inclusions conferring a pleasure to slowly bite and savor in chocolate usually associated with just meltiness and smoothness in the human mind.
Lastly, the most exciting trend in specialty chocolate during COVID-19 was probably the opportunity to see cacao fruit ingredients going more center stage in integrating the chocolate equation. The dawn of the industrial era associated chocolate with cacao mass, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and refined sugar. The concept that chocolate derives from a fruit called cacao and that fruit contains a flavorful white pulp usually discarded for chocolate making comes as an eye-opening revelation for global consumers. The newly-explored cacao fruit economy is just the tip of the iceberg opening the specialty food market to unprecedented possibilities for consumers and brands such as sugar-free chocolate sweetened with cacao pulp and also fine beverages like cacao juice.
3) Connection to Origin & Sustainability through Engaging Storytelling & Industry Education
The growing adoption of lifestyle diets during COVID-19 is linked to deeper motivations beyond holistic health and comforting indulgence, embracing even ethical and environmental sustainability matters. Sustainability issues have arisen consumer concerns about the mass-produced chocolate industry in recent years due to long-known problems like low wages, child labor, and extensive deforestation. Specialty cacao suppliers and chocolate makers are showing through engaging storytelling and accessible education how their supply chain is different and positively sustains both farmers and the environment.
Demand for high-quality fine flavor cacao and single-origin chocolates puts the power of storytelling in a favorable position to attract and educate conscious consumers to enjoy and support better products. As people want to know the story behind a food product, content linking to the traceability of ingredients and the work of people behind them thrives exceptionally on social media and blogs. By telling an appealing story that resonates with the consumer power to impact the global sustainability effects through an individual choice, suppliers and makers in the specialty chocolate industry can connect consumers to a specific cacao origin and its producers, thus adding value to the final chocolate product.
For small businesses caring for quality and sustainability, the trend of engaging storytelling and education focused on how the industry of high-quality chocolate works will only grow and be a crucial asset to invest in marketing efforts, considered the augmented online connectivity during COVID-19.
What chocolate industry trends are you picking up for 2021? Which one was the most exciting to discover or better appreciate during COVID-19?