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How Nestlé UK & Ireland kicked arts out of confectionery

In 2012, we were the first major confectioner to remove all artificial flavours, colours and preservatives from the entire range
How Nestlé UK & Ireland kicked arts out of confectionery

The Nestlé CRUNCH chocolate bar was the last of the 79 products to become ‘no arts’, marking the culmination of extensive research and product development that started in 2005 and which has seen more than 80 ingredients being replaced with alternatives.

Nestlé makes a wide range of iconic chocolate and sugar products including: KitKat, Aero and Quality Street, however, the brand everyone associated with the achievement was Smarties. Concentrates of fruit, vegetables and edible plants such as carrot, hibiscus, radish, safflower and lemon are a few examples of ingredients used to impart their characteristic colours and these have been used in one of the oldest brands in the Nestlé stable of sweet treats.

But in fact, Smarties was one of the first brands to go ‘no arts’ back at the start of the project in 2005 but that was not without its challenges and one particular sacrifice.

Steve Tolliday, Principal Product Technologist at the Nestlé Confectionery Product Technology Centre based in York, explains: “Back in 2005, we’d made a pledge to remove all artificial colourings from Smarties, but the blue colouring was the only one for which we couldn’t find a natural alternative. So, we removed the blue Smarties in 2006 and replaced them with white ones. Our intention was always to bring them back.”

smarties white blue
Do you remember white Smarties?

First introduced in 1988, the blue version of Nestlé’s colourful chocolate treats was one of the brand’s best loved varieties. Initially produced as a limited edition, blue Smarties were so popular that they became a permanent member of the range. So, February 2008 heralded the comeback UK fans had been waiting for with the return of the blue Smarties.

Steve continued: “After two intense years of research and development, we eventually found that spirulina, a type of green-blue algae, could give us the natural colour we’d been looking for.”

Nestlé’s search for a natural blue food colouring was a revolutionary discovery that set the rest of the confectionery industry on the path to get rid of artificials.

The changes to the entire Nestlé Confectionery range was in response to consumers demanding fewer artificial ingredients in their foods and a commitment by Nestlé Confectionery to find alternatives to artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. Consumer research revealed three quarters (74%)* of consumers look for natural products which includes the need to be free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives when buying confectionery.

At the same time as Smarties, Milkybar was reformulated with its packaging able to say it was made with only natural ingredients. Similarly with KitKat in 2009 and Quality Street in 2012.

To understand why it took so long to replace the artificial colours, especially the blue, Steve takes on the story:

“For years, many of the colours added to manufactured foods and beverages were chemically synthesised or artificial. That’s because they tend to be more stable than their natural or non-artificial counterparts, are less susceptible to light and oxygen, and not as prone to reacting with other ingredients. However, we knew from our research that consumers wanted us to replace artificial colours with natural ones.

Replacing synthetic colours is not as easy as you might think. The range of natural or non-artificial alternatives for blues, for example, is limited. This is partly because blue is rarely found in nature. It’s present only in certain foods, including blueberries, purple sweetcorn, and of course, spirulina.

An additional issue is that natural colouring generally has a more noticeable flavour than synthetic colours. In the case of Smarties, children like to lick the colour off the sweet, which means they are more likely to taste the vegetable from which it originates if it’s too intense. When we were looking for colouring foods for orange Smarties, we tested radish, but the taste was so strong we had to abandon it.

Black carrot, red cabbage and safflower are just some of the colouring foods we’ve been able to use to ensure different varieties of Smarties retain their distinctive appearance.

Replacing synthetic colours with non-artificial ones is a process of trial and error, but we’ve proven that it is possible to ultimately be successful without impacting on the taste and minimal difference in appearance.”

Similar work has taken place in other Nestlé markets. In 2015, Nestlé removed all artificial flavours and colours from our chocolate confectionery in the United States, its largest market. This is no small feat, changing more than 75 recipes, without compromising on the taste and appearance of the products.

* Research carried out by ‘Health Focus International’ from their 2008 Health Survey