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Iconic Necco wafers go all-natural

Green color lost as cabbage, beet juice are utilized

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / October 27, 2009

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All-natural might be all the rage in the food world, but will candy lovers have a sweet tooth for beet juice and purple cabbage?

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 United States 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.

Necco said the switch is not in response to 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.