Famous cartoonist Charles Schulz once said: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.”

Well, sometimes all you need is a great-tasting dairy product. And if it happens to contain a little bit of chocolate, that certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

Chocolate and cocoa can add a bit of decadent deliciousness to ice cream and frozen novelties, dairy-based beverages, and more. What’s more, “chocolate is a proven way to drive excitement — and sales — in the dairy case,” says Gretchen Hadden, marketing manager for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Minneapolis.

She adds that today’s consumers are seeking out “permissible indulgences,” and chocolate fits the bill. In fact, Cargill’s recent ChocoLogic survey revealed that at least half of the time, 72% of consumers opt for ice cream containing chocolate.

Mind the trends

Today’s consumers don’t want any old chocolate or cocoa added to their dairy products, however. First and foremost, they want it to be real.

“Our proprietary research found the top claim consumers sought out across applications was ‘made with real chocolate,’” notes Hadden.

In line with the trend toward “real” is Cargill’s Wilbur Chocolate Duet, which she says marries cocoa powder with chocolate liquor. It allows dairy processor customers to make “impactful claims” such as “made with real chocolate.” Delivering a strong chocolate flavor, the product also helps dairy brands meet consumer expectations tied to indulgence.

“Unlike traditional chocolate liquors, Wilbur Duet handles like cocoa powder, making it easy to incorporate into ice creams, as well as dairy and dairy alternative beverages,” Hadden adds.

Speaking of indulgence, An Ho, R&D director for Fenton, Mo.-based International Food Products Corp. (IFPC), points to that, combined with premium, as another ongoing trend within the chocolate and cocoa space. Here, dessert applications are finding their way into beverages. She calls out offerings such as chocolate cheesecake milk, chocolate melt-away shakes, and German chocolate cake milk as examples, adding that “chocolate has become quite the blank slate when it comes to flavors,” and the potential flavor combinations are “nearly limitless.”

However, consumers don’t necessarily have to feel guilty consuming such indulgent offerings. Dairy processors could address the trend toward health and wellness at the same time as the trend toward indulgence, Ho suggests.

“Chocolate and cocoa have always been known for their antioxidant and mood-improving attributes, but [they] can be easily enhanced with plant-based fats for creaminess, protein, fiber, vitamins or minerals,” she points out. “It does not always have to be reduced or free of its standard ingredients like sugar or fat as we typically see. Instead, having health and value to it will make it enjoyable as well.”   

Indeed, many chocolate marketers are offering new products that tap into better-for-you food trends as more consumers are seeking out healthier snacks that still provide indulgence, according to “Chocolate Candy: U.S. Market Trends and Opportunities,” a 2021 report from the Packaged Facts division of Rockville, Md.-based Market Research Group LLC.

“Opportunities continue to expand in the better-for-you chocolate market, with clean-label, vegan/plant-based, low-carb, organic, and no-sugar-added versions appealing more to consumers,” the report states.

Yet another trend is consumers’ desire to know the story behind today’s products. That trend actually extends from the ongoing, complementary “made with real chocolate” and premiumization/label-friendly trends, Hadden says.

She points to a 2020 Innova Market Insights survey that found more than half of global consumers — 56% — say their purchase decisions are influenced by brand-related narratives. Above all, they want to hear the story of where their food is sourced and how it is made.

“Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen heightened interest in cocoa powder with organic and single-origin claims,” Hadden says. “These claims around production practices and provenance declarations offer consumers a window into how and where their cocoa products were made and lend a premium halo to the resulting finished products. For brands eyeing claims around provenance, Cargill offers a number of single-origin cocoa powders, perfect for premium ice creams looking to create a compelling story.”

Cargill also has organic cocoa powders that can meet the needs of customers that are focused on specific label-friendly attributes, she adds.

Check out what’s new

New products from cocoa and chocolate processors also can help dairy processors stay on-trend.

For its part, Cargill continues to add to its Gerkens organic cocoa powder lineup, Hadden says, most recently debuting Gerkens Organic Red. It has an appealing red-brown color, a pH range between 7.5 and 7.9, and is suitable for many applications, including chocolate milk, protein beverages, and ice cream.

“Not only is taste essential to the consumer experience — for chocolate-flavored products, having an intense and appetizing color is key to success,” she says. “Cargill’s organic certified line of cocoa powders now has a spectrum of colors available ranging from non-alkalized light brown cocoa powder to our highly alkalized red-brown cocoa powder.”

In addition, IFPC recently released the Legacy Sweet assortment of sweetener ingredient blends, which includes sugar replacers, sucralose, and sugar reducers, says Renee Famula, marketing manager. The blends can help cocoa- and chocolate-containing dairy products meet better-for-you trends.

“Blending at appropriate ratios to create harmony and eliminate off-notes, IFPC’s scientists work with flavors, markers, and texturizers to modify the taste,” she explains. “The sweetener systems use technology that makes products more appealing to the end consumer. The ingredients in the Legacy Sweet brand are designed to help manufacturers get new products to shelf faster, with greater ease, and are easily converted to a custom blend.”

Sustainability Matters

In addition to being on-trend when it comes to chocolate and cocoa ingredients, dairy processors will want to keep sustainability in mind when sourcing those ingredients. According to Ho, consumers are seeking transparency and want to purchase foods and beverages “that give them a feeling of accountability.”

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that on-pack sustainability-related ethical claims such as fair trade are on the rise globally.

“Ethical claims are the fastest-growing types of claims within the chocolate confectionery and chocolate spreads sectors,” notes Malmo, Sweden-based oil and fat producer AAK — citing data from the Global New Products Database of global market research firm Mintel that shows such claims increased by approximately 70% between 2016 and 2020.

For dairy processors, sustainable sourcing starts with gaining an understanding of the issues tied to cacao farming. And those issues are “numerous and varied,” taking in social, economic, and environmental challenges, explains Andrew Harner, vice president, sustainability for Blommer Chocolate Co., Chicago.

“The sector will need to evolve to provide a product free of the public concerns seen today while providing the clear business incentive for continued farming,” he says. “Industry, governments, and nonprofit organizations are committed to sustainability and pre-competitively collaborating to address the long-term sustainability of the cocoa sector. Ultimately, to be successful, we’ll need commitment beyond the cocoa/chocolate industry, including baking, dairy, and other players.”

Sustainability in action

For its part, Blommer Chocolate has been promoting sustainability initiatives in countries that produce cocoa for almost two decades, Harner notes.

“We have been active in Indonesia and Ecuador, with most of our efforts concentrated in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, which are the leading producers of cocoa,” he says. “We have a team on the ground in West Africa and are active with many partners, including local governments, manufacturers, exporters, NGOs, cooperatives, and village communities themselves. We are a founding member of World Cocoa Foundation and a signatory to CocoaAction.”

Blommer Chocolate also is a signatory and has been an active member of the Cocoa and Forest Initiative (CFI) since 2017, Harner says. And well before it became part of CFI, the company began to promote the planting of forest tree seedlings to support environmental conservation and restoration.

“We also provide farmers comprehensive training on good agricultural practices, with a focus on improving yields through improved soil fertility, tree maintenance, and disease and pest mitigation,” he notes.

What’s more, Blommer was one of the first companies to directly implement community development projects for the company and its Cote d’Ivoire customers, Harner says.

“These projects include community needs assessments, creating village savings and loans associations, child labor sensitization and remediation activities, capacity building of women groups, supporting agricultural Income Generating Activities and implementing literacy classes for women,” he explains.

Cargill, too, is actively involved in sustainability initiatives tied to the cocoa sector. According to Kate Clancy, sustainability manager for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, the company’s commitment to sustainability is built into its purpose: “to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.”

Cargill is keeping good on that promise by engaging in long-term partnerships with its customers, policymakers, NGOs, and farmer organizations.

“For example, through our decade-long work with CARE, we’ve reached more than a quarter-million people in 323 cocoa-farming communities,” she notes. “Guiding our efforts is the Cargill Cocoa Promise, our commitment to farmers and their communities, enabling them to achieve better incomes and living standards while growing cocoa sustainability.”

Through that promise, Cargill provides farmers with training, as well as individual coaching. It also works to construct “more resilient cocoa-farming communities” via initiatives to improve women’s economic opportunities, increase educational access and advance nutrition and health, Clancy says. The company is investing in “ground-breaking research,” too — for example, it formed a partnership with AeroFarms to improve cocoa bean yields and develop farming practices that are more climate-resilient.

“For our customers looking to provide consumers with reassurance that their dairy products were sourced sustainably, we offer third-party certification solutions such as Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade USA, and Fairtrade International,” she notes. “For those seeking greater visibility into where their cocoa comes from, we suggest our Promise Cocoa — sustainable beans sourced exclusively from known and trusted farmers within Cargill’s direct-sourced cocoa network.”

Sustainability is a major focus for IFPC, too. Ho notes that the company has been in the cocoa business for quite some time — and that sustainability is woven throughout its history.

“It only seems right that in 2020, [our] International Companies introduced a sister company, Greenfield Solutions, to focus on sustainability efforts.”

Charlie Hall, a food technologist with IFPC, says the company cares deeply “about providing quality, sustainable ingredients, and products.” Because most of IFPC’s ingredients consist of dry blends, the company is also able to reduce the expenses and impacts associated with road transport in comparison to those for liquid products.

“We also help dairy companies avoid throwing away ingredients that are close to expiration, with extensive testing to ensure each ingredient that is returned to the food supply chain is functional and safe,” he explains.