Clean-label confectionery sounds somewhat like a contradiction in terms. The ‘clean label’ is associated with all-natural goodness – the promise that a product doesn’t contain any undesirable or untrustworthy ingredients – and these ideals don’t exactly match up with the confectionery segment. Consumers might be looking for health benefits and natural nourishment when running through the rest of their shopping list, certainly, but when it comes to items made to be indulgent, surely all bets are off.

It might have come as a surprise, then, when Nestlé USA announced in February 2015 that it would remove all artificial flavours and colours from its chocolate products by the end of the year. Its reformulated products were due to hit shelves – complete with ‘no artificial flavours or colours’ printed on the packaging – in the middle of 2015, with 250 products and ten brands set to undergo a change.

This followed a similar move by Nestlé UK in 2012, when the manufacturer became the only major confectionery company in the country to remove artificial preservatives, flavours and colours across its portfolio. Its Smarties brand eliminated artificial colourings from its casings as early as 2006, following consumer concerns about the effects on children’s health. Nestlé USA’s changes, which it says will not affect the taste or price, involve replacing artificial vanillin with natural vanilla, for instance, and eliminating FDA-certified colours such as Red 40 and Yellow 5.

"When making these changes, to more than 75 recipes, maintaining the great taste and appearance consumers expect from the chocolate brands they know and love is our first priority," says Leslie Mohr, nutrition, health and wellness manager of Nestlé Confections & Snacks. "We conducted consumer testing to ensure the new recipe delivers on our high standards for taste and appearance."

Rival The Hershey Company has committed to the cause too, stating that it would begin transitioning to simple and easy-to-understand ingredients such as milk from local farms, roasted California almonds, cocoa beans and sugar. This means bidding goodbye to genetically modified sugar and milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormones. The popular brand Hershey’s Kisses will transition to natural flavourings, while the new Brookside Bars will not contain any high-fructose corn syrup, or artificial flavours or colours.

John Bilbrey, Hershey president and CEO, made the announcement to the consumer analyst group of New York, stating that consumers want to recognise all the ingredients in the products they consume, and know that "what they are consuming is made with the fewest ingredients possible".

With these two major announcements, the industry had to take note. After all, if one US confectionery giant moves towards clean labels, that’s a bold move; if two do, that’s a trend.

Consumers are the boss

A number of manufacturers have since followed suit, including Mars, which has pledged to phase out all artificial colours from its global food and beverage portfolio over the next five years. "Our consumers are the boss, and we hear them," says Grant F Reid, president and CEO.

It seems clear that even in a segment that makes no pretensions towards health, the clean label is now seen as essential to marketability. Nobody buys a bag of M&Ms for its health benefits, but equally, in a world where an online petition titled ‘M&M’s candies: stop using artificial dyes linked to hyperactivity’ can gain over 200,000 signatures, there is a lot to be gained from alleviating consumer panic.

According to a Datamonitor Consumer survey, 38% of American consumers try to choose natural food or drink products all or most of the time. Perhaps the proportion would be even higher if asked about their children, who are, after all, major consumers of confectionery. A survey by natural-colour manufacturer GNT found that 82% of parents place great value on natural food and drinks, compared with 67% of child-free respondents.

In fact, confectionery companies have been wise to this state of affairs for a while. According to Innova Market Insights, nearly 9.5% of all confectionery launches in the 12 months preceding September 2012 used natural or additive-free claims, rising to 16% and 15% in the US and Western Europe respectively.

The pressure is on, and changes are under way for the confectionery segment to reap the benefits of clean label without skimping on taste. Recently, a number of manufacturers of speciality ingredients created natural product lines for confectionery companies, allowing them to meet their clean-label needs.

An example of this is Avebe, which extracts starch and proteins from potatoes for use across a wide range of sectors. Within the confectionery segment, it has developed a number of special starches suitable for jellies and fruit chews. The resulting sweets are not just clean label – they’re also gelatin-free.

"A leading demand seems to be ‘free from’: no allergens and no animal components," says Christer Andersson, market manager of food at Avebe. "The main drive comes from consumers, and the vegetarian claim on consumer packages is still very strong. We have a wide range of products that can fulfil these demands as well as many more ‘free-from’ claims. Besides that, we don’t give in on taste and texture."

It’s in the texture

Andersson says that clean-label confectionery does present challenges, especially when it comes to finding clean-label solutions that fulfil the industry’s processing and textural needs.

"The texturising properties of the starches are crucial," he says. "Popular confectionery relies heavily on its texture and it’s important that texture for processing and the final shape of the confection is good. However, work has been done in this field and the first results are positive."

Confectionery coatings are also being given the clean-label treatment, with rice starch becoming a popular alternative to titanium dioxide. Beneo, for instance, describes its rice starch as "all natural, no additives, no preservatives, organic" : all the right buzzwords to catch consumers’ attention these days. It adds that the rice starch ‘contributes to a high level of clean-label whiteness in many kinds of confectionery coatings’.

Perhaps most notably, the rising popularity of Stevia has led to various natural confectionery products that contain no added sugar. While Stevia’s clean-label credentials have been challenged – not least because it has an E number in Europe – it is arguably more natural than substitutes such as aspartame and acesulfame-K. Manufacturers can, therefore, tick two boxes: clean label and sugar free. According to Innova Market Insights, only 1% of new confectionery products in 2014 featured Stevia as an ingredient; but as concern mounts surrounding sugar’s impact on health, we might expect its market penetration to grow.

"Formulation problems and the bitter aftertaste of Stevia are felt to have held back product activity in some instances," explains Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights. "But some sectors have found this less of an issue, particularly for liquorice sweets and medicated confectionery, and improved formulations are now being introduced to allow more products in other areas."

The trend seems clear: clean label is making itself felt even in this most indulgent food and beverage categories. With the world’s biggest confectionery manufacturers switching to ‘natural’ ingredients, we can expect to see many subtly reformulated recipes that cut out any perceived nasties while keeping taste, aroma and texture intact.