How manufacturers can survive the cocoa crisis

By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe & Jess Spiring

- Last updated on GMT

Manufacturers of dark chocolate may be more able to pass price rises on to consumers. Image: Getty/ Alvarez
Manufacturers of dark chocolate may be more able to pass price rises on to consumers. Image: Getty/ Alvarez

Related tags Cocoa Chocolate Sustainability Barry callebaut Confectionery

Soaring costs and a dwindling supply of cocoa mean innovation and creativity are essential for chocolatiers who hope to weather the supply storm

Cocoa prices reached an all-time high this year​, reaching a peak of $12,261 per ton in April.

Unsurprisingly, this is putting immense pressure on chocolate manufacturers. “Chocolate brands have little choice but to charge higher prices and risk volume sales,” CoBank, part of the US Farm Credit System, announced in its research briefing​. 

Its a trend that is already in play according to Euromonitor, with reports showing that retail prices have already risen 17% in the last two years.

Chocolate and the lipstick effect

Like cosmetics sales which historically remain buoyant despite economic downturn, confectionery purchases are also seen as an affordable indulgence, even in a cost-of-living crisis – indeed a recent National Confectioners Association (NCA) study indicated that almost three-quarters (74%) of consumers view sweet treats as affordable. Nonetheless, that same cohort also admitted they were still cutting back with almost half (45%) lowering their spending by changing confectionery brand, type, product size, or retailer.

So what can manufacturers do?

 1.      Cut back on cocoa

As rising cocoa prices continue to affect the economic environment for farmers and brands, manufacturers are exploring way to reduce the quantity of cocoa in their products. That can mean pivoting to items which naturally contain less cocoa, such as white or milk chocolate, or exploring reformulation options that replace cocoa with alternative ingredients.

Taste and nutrition company Kerry for example is offering its customers alternatives to traditional cocoa bean-derived products and suggests “rebalancing the cocoa mass of products with cocoa taste solutions which enable manufacturers to reduce their exposure to the volatile cocoa commodity market.”

2. Look to scientific innovation

While not yet available at scale, biotechnology advances will soon mean bio-identical ingredients can be grown in the lab, boosting sustainability, mitigating climate risk and ultimately reducing costs. Circe Bioscience for example has managed to turn microbes and greenhouse gases into cocoa butter​ while Israeli start-up Kokomodo recently came out of stealth mode to announce its success in cultivating cocoa​.

Chocolate alternatives​ may also provide a solution, tapping faba beans, grape seeds, oats and sunflower seeds to make cocoa-free confectionery.

3. Seek suppliers who can scale production

With climate change impacting cocoa volumes, suppliers are highly motivated to back initiatives which will help stabilise the market. Chocolate giant Barry Callebaut, for example, has recently unveiled its cocoa farming model, the Future Farming Initiative​ (FFI), which is designed to scale sustainable cocoa production. The brand’s FFI arm is responsible for developing technology and research and development capabilities to support collaboration between farmers and the wider cocoa sector.

4. Embrace premiumisation

With its higher percentage of cocoa, dark chocolate manufacturers will struggle most. “With pure chocolate, you will have no room to play,” says Christoph Reh from the Institute of Food Technologists. “With other products you can increase other ingredients to mitigate such as adding more milk, nuts or raisins, but not with pure chocolate.”

This makes life especially challenging for artisanal chocolatiers who are less able to absorb the additional costs and may even find their cocoa orders cancelled altogether. “Some smaller manufacturers have had their 2024 contracts cancelled six or more months after contracting for the supply, simply because that supply is not, and is not anticipated to be in,” says Billy Roberts, Food and Beverage Economist at CoBank. 

There is some good news however, as Roberts believes that with its better-for-you reputation and market position as a premium indulgence, dark chocolate manufacturers can justify a higher price point. “Consumers have almost geared themselves to seek darker options with higher cocoa content as a means of making an indulgent product more of a permissible indulgence,” he says.

5. Think beyond the bar

Canny confectioners are investing in other sectors to reduce their reliance on cocoa, launching candies, gummies and jelly beans alongside their chocolate offering. “We’ve seen many manufacturers increase their involvement with non-chocolate sugar confections,” says Roberts.

Case in point is Ferrero, which has been innovating in its candy brand, Tic Tac, recently launching the first chewy version of the iconic candy​.

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