While I’ve been writing blog-style articles for the past seven years, by my family’s standards I’m actually late to the game. Both of my two sisters as well as my father were all accomplished scribes long before I even entertained the notion of stepping on a soapbox.
As today is Valentine’s Day, it is my absolute delight to interview my sister Marcia, who happens to be director of insight for Mintel Food and Drink. With offices all over Europe, Asia and North America, Mintel is the world’s leading market intelligence agency, and my sister’s specific area of expertise happens to be chocolate.
What a delicious job! She’s here today to give us the inside scoop on all the latest trends and developments in this sweet industry so that you, as the ever-innovative hotelier, can find a way to use this decadent food to help differentiate your F&B offerings.
Tell us about how you became the foremost worldwide expert on chocolate.
First of all, I am certainly not the foremost worldwide expert on chocolate, but I do love the stuff!
Just a bit of brotherly boasting. Go on…
As part of my job, I focus on chocolate confectionery from many angles – from raw ingredient to finished product. We track product launches in countries around the world, as well as market sizes for the world’s top chocolate countries. We also have consumer panels in a dozen countries who provide us with their opinions and attitudes towards chocolate confectionery in addition to, as you can imagine, a wide number of other products.
I have been following the industry for Mintel for over a decade. It has been fascinating to track the growth of premium chocolate and to watch the way we are starting to learn more about cocoa and chocolate. I see the evolution as following a similar path to coffee. It used to be that coffee was just coffee, and then people began to learn more about the coffee beans. All of a sudden, “coffee” wasn’t good enough anymore; people wanted Sumatran or Kona. The same thing is happening in chocolate as premium and “sourced” cocoa – for example, cocoa from St. Lucia or Sao Tomé – becomes more popular and more desirable than plain old chocolate
What are the next big things for the chocolate industry on a macro-scale?
One thing we are seeing is a growing interest in “dark milk” chocolate. The products have a higher cocoa content than milk chocolate but they are not as harsh or strong tasting as many of the dark chocolate products on the market. For example, typical milk chocolate has about 25% cocoa content, while most dark chocolate is about 70% cocoa. Dark milk is about 45%-50% cocoa and has some added dairy ingredients that round out the taste and mouthfeel. These products deliver a stronger cocoa punch than milk chocolate without the harsh or bitter notes of dark chocolate.
As I mentioned above, there is also a growing interest in “sourced” cocoa and cocoa content. People like to know where the cocoa is coming from, and they want to know how “dark” and intense the experience will be. Moreover, there is now more cocoa from the New World on the market than ever before, which ironic because cocoa originated in the New World, but more than 70% of the world’s current cocoa comes from Africa, especially Cote d’Ivoire.
The third thing to look out for is the growing interest in organic cocoa. This may turn out to be a challenge going forward as there is currently not enough organic cocoa in the world to satisfy those who want to “eat organic,” so we will be watching to see how this plays out.
Flavors like chocolate-hazelnut will always be a classic, but are there any new or more obscure chocolate combinations that are gaining popularity?
The majority of chocolate on the market has no specific flavor other than chocolate! But you are right that hazelnut is the second most popular flavor after plain chocolate. Other trending flavors we are tracking include:
- Coconut, which has been given a strong health halo in the past year
- So-called “superfruits” such as blueberry and acai
- Herbs and botanicals such as lavender and rose
- Sweet and savory combinations such as chili and chocolate, salt and chocolate and, particularly in the U.S., bacon and chocolate
- Smoked flavors with chocolate such as smoked salt or smoked caramel
Does preference in chocolate flavors vary by region?
Yes, there are definitely some profound regional differences! For instance, in Japan, which has a really innovative chocolate industry, by the way, we see sweet flavor profile vegetables like squash or potato with chocolate, as well as matcha green tea with chocolate. Italian and French consumers prefer dark chocolate over milk chocolate, while Germans prefer milk over dark. In Eastern Europe, there is a strong preference for alcoholic beverages as flavoring for chocolate.
What are boutique chocolatiers doing to differentiate their offerings?
We are seeing great creativity in packaging, with “clean” labels that make it clear that the ingredients are “sourced” and that there is nothing in the way of additives or preservatives. There are also tastings or flights of chocolates now being offered so that consumers can sample, taste and compare different types of chocolate all at once.
Do you have any suggestions for hotels?
Again, consumers have become more sophisticated in their chocolate knowledge, and hotels may want to ensure that the chocolate they comp their guests is high quality. Even if it is their own brand, properties should be clear to display cocoa content and sourcing on the packaging. Given the extent to which food allergies and sensitivities are an issue, clean labeling is also important.
Given that today is Valentine’s Day, what tips would you offer a restaurant looking to boost its romantic appeal via improved chocolate offerings?
Perhaps a special chocolate souvenir that couples could take home with them after a romantic evening. Two small champagne truffles in an attractive box delivered along with the bill at the end of the meal or at checkout would provide an attractive “last bite” reminder of the hotel for when the couple got home.
Be honest: Who makes the best chocolate in the world?
I am always asked this question and it is really hard to answer! I have tasted hundreds of chocolate brands and I have come to the conclusion that the best chocolate in the world is the one that I want another bite of!