Trick or treat? Iconic Necco wafers go all-natural

BOSTON (AP) - October 26, 2009

Necco sure hopes so. The 162-year-old Massachusetts company is taking its venerable Necco Wafers all-natural, making them the largest mass-produced candy line in the U.S. to shed artificial flavoring and colors.

Necco, short for New England Confectionary Co., cranks out about 4 billion of the roughly quarter-sized wafers each year, packaging them in large rolls (36 wafers) and junior rolls (nine wafers). Beet juice, purple cabbage, cocoa powder and turmeric - a spice often used in curries - are some of the natural ingredients in the new wafers, which will be phased in at retail stores before and after Halloween.

"Kids aren't going to go 'Yippee! It's all natural!' but they might say to their parents ... 'Look, it's all natural, it's right on the package!"' said Steve Almond, author of "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America," and a self-professed fan of Necco wafers.

The change, a big one for an iconic sweet that has changed little since its creation in 1847, was driven by the trend toward all-natural products, said Jackie Hague, the company's vice president for marketing. She said prices will stay the same and consumers will notice little difference in taste, while the natural colors will give the candy a more muted, pastel appearance.

One thing will be missing, however.

"We lost green," she said.

Green, one of eight original wafer colors, was too hard to duplicate in the all-natural process. It seems the lime flavor could be reproduced naturally, but the color lacked consistency so it was scrapped.

That leaves seven flavors/colors: orange; lemon (yellow); clove (pink); cinnamon (white); wintergreen (purple); licorice (gray); and chocolate, which now will come in variations of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate and mocha.

Biting into the new treats reveals no obvious taste of the purple cabbage, beet juice or other natural flavorings. As always, the hard, sugary discs are smooth with a slightly chalky texture, and very sweet.

All-natural products mostly have been the domain of smaller, more specialized candy makers, though Fairfield, Calif.-based Jelly Belly Candy Co. has introduced an all-natural line of jelly beans, including grape, peach, lemon and plum flavors.

Bernard Pacyniak, editor of "Candy Industry," a trade publication that covers the confectionary industry, called the all-natural wafer "a smart move by Necco."

"It's taking advantage of consumer needs and demands," he said.

The move to all-natural also could help the company "reinvigorate" the brand at a time when there's a slight

resurgence in demand for nostalgic products, he said.

Necco said the switch is not in response to any dropoff in sales. The company reported wafer sales of more than $9.2 million in 2008, an 8 percent increase from the prior year, though sales have been relatively flat in convenience stores and supermarkets, Hague said.

The changeover will result in slightly higher costs for raw materials for Necco, but no additional manufacturing costs, she said, and it will not affect the shelf life of the candy.

The company won't say if the move to all-natural might eventually extend to other product lines, including Valentine's Day favorite Sweethearts and Clark bars.

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