White Chocolate: Consumers Take Notice


I n the world of confections, there is perhaps no sweeter blank canvas than white chocolate, positioned at the extreme end-range ratio of cocoa butter (lots) to cocoa solids (none). 

It is this absence of cocoa solids and the heavy presence of the cocoa butter, along with sugar, milk and vanilla, that distinguishes white chocolate. And while milk and dark claim most of the market, white chocolate continues to make gains, especially among young consumers, according to Candy & Snack TODAY sources.

Further, these sources are adamant about their products’ identity. As Maureen and Jim Elitzak, owners of Zak’s Chocolate, explain: “Let’s just say this — white chocolate is real chocolate.” 

The process for making white chocolate begins just like its dark and milk counterparts: by roasting well-fermented and dried cocoa beans. After roasting, the husks are cracked and winnowed away, and the cocoa butter is pressed out from the resulting cocoa nibs. It is the absence of cocoa solids that enables the flavors of the creamy cocoa-butter base, which can vary from nutty to fruity depending on the origin, to shine through. Additional ingredients include vanilla, milk, sugar and then the base can be enhanced with myriad inclusions.

The process also lends itself to gradations of white. That is, when pressing out the cocoa butter, if all remaining solids are filtered out, the result is a pure white. Conversely, by not filtering out all the solids, a richer, slightly more tan-colored chocolate is achieved.

“Retailers need to know that white chocolate is not only real chocolate, but that it has a faithful fan base, especially among the Gen Y crowd,” says Gretchen Hadden, marketing lead for Cargill Inc.’s North American chocolate and cocoa business. “Our research shows that nearly 17 percent of millennial (Gen Y) consumers rank white as their favorite chocolate; that’s seven percentage points higher than the general population.” 

Centennials (Gen Z), too, are attracted to the new flavors and colors — white is an effective base for most any hue — being served up. “White chocolate delivers ‘instagrammable’ offerings to younger consumer groups,” points out Laura Bergen, director of brand marketing at Barry Callebaut. She adds that the product’s appeal cuts across all demographics. “It’s a great option for any consumer looking for a sweet and indulgent treat.”

White chocolate currently accounts for about 10 percent of the overall chocolate market, but its growth is worth noting.

According to Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), white chocolate sales grew 12 percent in 2021, compared to milk and dark chocolate, which were up 9 percent. However, its growth is slowing. For the 52 weeks ending July 10, dollar sales rose 6 percent, while volume growth was at 0.6 percent. Moreover, year-to-date dollar growth is at 0.9 percent, while volume declined 6 percent.

Whether it’s a niche product depends on who you talk with. “While it might not be as popular as milk or dark, I don’t consider white chocolate to represent a niche,” notes Marie Loewen, R&D corporate manager, applications at Blommer Chocolate Co. 

“FDA’s standard of identity for white chocolate formally recognizes it as the third type of chocolate, earning it a spot in the formal family of chocolate types,” notes Bergen.

Further, companies note that the pairing possibilities are seemingly endless, enabling chocolate makers to take advantage of trends outside of confection, such as dining and packaged foods. “Citrus, honey and caramel, popular flavors on dessert menus, pair well with white chocolate,” offers Loewen. “Meanwhile, birthday cake and cookies & cream continue to be popular in packaged snacks, which lend themselves to some interesting inclusions in white-chocolate confections.”

Still, even with the versatility of white chocolate, consumers have not driven significant growth for the segment within the chocolate sector, notes Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice-president and practice leader at IRI. “We have only seen dollar share grow less than a point since 2017.”

Nonetheless, IRI data shows that in 2020 more consumers tried products in the sector, helping drive volume growth of bars/tablets by 31 percent, standup bags by 28 percent and laydown bags by 22 percent. Of those, laydown bags are showing the highest volume growth rate, up 9.7 percent, followed by standup bags at 7.6 percent. Bars and tablets were down 3 percent.

“In addition, white chocolate as an ingredient has gained traction during the past few years in categories including ice cream, cookies and coffee,” says Lyons Wyatt.

Despite the sales blips, sources report innovations making their way onto the market will continue to attract consumers, who can expect less-sweet, more nuanced white chocolate taste experiences. “For example, Guatemala Lachua white chocolate has flavor notes reminiscent of an orange peel,” notes Zak’s Jim Elitzak. He adds that similar to oenophiles who drink only red or only white wine, some foodies have preconceived ideas of white chocolate, opting for milk or dark only.

Retailers can help overcome this unfounded bias points out Gary Guittard, president and CEO of Guittard Chocolate Co. “The key is for retailers to taste the many variations and then make them available to their customers,” he explains.

Those who do, stand to gain, industry insiders tell Candy & Snack TODAY. “White chocolate offers great opportunities for retailers looking to excite consumers with flavor combinations; it truly is the perfect canvas for innovation,” reports Hadden.

Even so, expect sales growth to be low as promotions are few and far between, says Lyons Wyatt. “White chocolate is usually one of multiple flavor offerings in a line and advertising is usually about the brand and form, unless there’s a new product launch,” she explains. 

“Consumers are raising the bar on their food expectations as they demand quality ingredients, taste and even reduced sugar,” Loewen says. “The future holds more white chocolate product launches and opportunities to promote them to gain market penetration.”