What do consumers want from dairy-free chocolate? ‘Plants and indulgence can go hand-in-hand’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based chocolate has hit the mainstream. GettyImages/alvarez
Plant-based chocolate has hit the mainstream. GettyImages/alvarez

Related tags: Beneo

With vegan chocolate ‘transitioning into the mainstream’, ingredient supplier Beneo is investigating what European consumers want and need from the category.

Plant-based, across the board, has exploded in recent years.

Driven by consumers ranging from strict vegans to more flexible vegetarians, or ‘flexitarians’, the trend has hit the mainstream.

What we are experiencing, according to Germany-headquartered Beneo, is a ‘plant-based revolution’. The ingredient supplier’s own consumer insights suggests that today, nearly one in two consumers in Europe is interested in plant-based foods and beverages.

This interest in plant-based is reflected by the growing share of plant-based and vegan product launches across the bloc. Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) reveals that from January 2017 to December 2021, the percentage of vegan new product launches rose from 6.97% to 11.65%. Plant-based rose from 0.63% to 2.61% over the same time period.

But plant-based is not all meat analogues and vegan milks. Vegan claims have extended into chocolate confectionery, Jolien Lambrechts, market insights manager at Beneo, told journalists at a media event this week.

Determining exactly what consumers want from the category is a focus area for Lambrechts, who has compiled data from Beneo’s own consumer research, and that of external parties, to help brands aligns with consumer expectations.

Who is driving the trend?

“’Vegan’ is certainly gaining momentum in chocolate confectionery,” ​said Lambrechts. “Vegan recipes continue to attract, and this is reflected in the activities of new product launches.”

Indeed, vegan chocolate confectionery innovation in EMEA, according to Mintel’s GNPD, suggests a significant increase in all relevant regions.

Between January 2017 and December 2021, vegan chocolate confectionery innovation rose from 1.1% to 3.6% in the Middle East and Africa. In Europe, it increased from 4.7% to 7.5%.

A deep-dive into the region reveals the majority of chocolate innovations occurred in the UK (28%), Germany (15%), and the Netherlands (8%) during this period. In the UK, 2021 Mintel data suggests one in four buyers of chocolate confectionery had eaten vegan chocolate within the last three months.

chocolate PeopleImages
A significant increase in vegan chocolate confectionery innovation has been observed across EMEA. GettyImages/PeopleImages

These days, big-name manufacturers, both artisanal and multinational, are launching vegan offerings next to their traditional range (think Nestlé’s KitKat Vegan and Mondelēz’ Cadbury Plant Bar).

Beneo suspects it is flexitarians, rather than steadfast vegans, who are the biggest consumers.

“We cannot assume that everyone buying or showing an interest in vegan chocolate is effectively a full-time vegan,” ​Lambrechts told us.

In analysing Beneo’s own consumer research, undertaken as part of its 2021 plant-based survey, Lambrechts found that of today’s flexitarians in Europe, 27% are already buying vegan sweets, such as dairy-free chocolate.

Another 39% said they aren’t but are interested in the plant-based confectionery category.

What do consumers want in-store?

For Beneo’s customers, who make the plant-based chocolates we see on-shelf, it’s important their products align with consumer expectations.

To ensure they hit the mark, the ingredients supplier has identified which ‘elements’ matter to consumers when purchasing plant-based sweets in-store.

Of course, in the confectionery category, taste is very important. In the Netherlands, for example, taste is the number one driver.

But a deep-dive into the plant-based sweets category reveals other criteria are also influencing purchasing behaviour, suggested the market insights manager.

For around 40% of flexitarians in Europe, for example, the most important factor is the product’s ‘natural’ credentials. “Confectionery products aren’t [exactly] health foods, but we know that the category is undergoing significant changes and is becoming more influenced by the desire for good health and wellbeing.

“Consumers expect to see options with nutritional benefits, or at least a healthier nutrient profile – and this especially counts for the plant-based aisle.”

Environment-related factors also come into play. In Germany, for example, animal welfare was the number one purchase driver in plant-based confectionery, according to Beneo’s insights.

As a consumer in the UK put it: “I buy vegan chocolate because one, I know it’s good for the environment. Two, it’s friendly to animals. And three, it’s the best way forward. It also helps you lose weight, but with some vegan chocolate, you have to watch the content and the calories.”

choc Adam Gault
Consumers want dairy-free chocolate to have the similar smooth mouthfeel of conventional chocolate. GettyImages/Adam Gault

Good texture is another key expectation from consumers. According to Beneo’s plant-based consumer survey conducted last year, one in two consumers are taking ‘pleasant taste and texture’ into account when purchasing plant-based confectionery.

The same survey suggested that 76% find it very important that dairy-free chocolate should have a similar smooth mouthfeel to products containing dairy.

“I do switch between vegan and regular chocolate,” ​noted one consumer. “The reason being that I like the traditional chocolate, the creaminess of it, but I haven’t quite found a vegan substitute that really gives me the creaminess so far.

“But I try and include some vegan chocolate in my diet, just because I am concerned about sustainability and food generally…”

Beneo’s research also suggested the dairy-free chocolate category is not yet at saturation-point, with 38% of consumers saying they would like to see more dairy-free chocolate in the supermarket.

What’s next for plant-based chocolate?

If plant-based chocolate is already hitting the mainstream, what does the future hold for the category? How can brands’ offerings continue to evolve to align with consumer demands?

According to Beneo, the brands will have to align with more ‘premium’ attributes moving forward, such as better-for-you credentials. This could mean incorporating a better nutrient profile, or being able to make claims around sugar, fat, and calorie content.

“We also see brands bringing in functionality, for example [by being able to make] an immunity claim or even helping to fight fatigue – that is something we’re seeing in the market,” ​said Lambrechts.

The ingredients supplier also suggests brands keep consumers excited about the category, by innovating in taste, texture, colour, and flavour. “Consumers are pretty adventure-hungry nowadays, and we’ve got to meet them by bringing more innovation beyond the plant-based angle to make sure we have repeat purchasing and be able to stand out from – what is in some markets, like in the UK – already quite a crowded field.”

And finally, brands must meet consumer expectations around sustainability and quality. Consumers want to indulge, without harming the planet, we were told. “They are asking for product transparency, traceability, and quality ingredients.

“Here is where plant-based options perfectly fit in. For many consumers, sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’ It’s a ‘must have’.

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