Do Millennials really prefer ethical chocolate? Hershey-backed study investigates

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Millennials don’t always choose the ethical chocolates they claim to prefer, finds Kansas State University study. Photo: iStock - badmanproduction
Millennials don’t always choose the ethical chocolates they claim to prefer, finds Kansas State University study. Photo: iStock - badmanproduction

Related tags Preference

Millennial consumers claim to favor ethical products, but are often unwilling to pay the premium in practice, according to a study supported by Hershey.

The research by Michael Young and Anthony McCoy at Kansas State University also found younger consumers have a strong preference for clean labels, but are more concerned by high fat than high sugar in chocolate.

The study compared the stated preferences for chocolate among Millennials in focus groups to actual product choices based on a computer analysis.

More than a fad?

It found social factors rarely influenced product choices and were unlikely to outweigh dominating factors such as price, brand, and ingredients.

“In sum, older MGs ​[Millennials] do espouse concern for Rainforest Alliance certification, organic ingredients, and certified ethical sourcing. But, given the weak translation of these concerns into product choices in a limited information environment, confections companies should not be in a rush to change their entire manufacturing enterprise,” ​said the study.

The researchers said it was a laudable goal to support corporate responsibilities projects that protect the rainforest and ensure ethical sourcing, but said: “It remains unclear, however, whether the emerging social sensitivity of the MGs ​[Millennials] is a fad, a fundamental shift in consumer preferences that will be passed on to subsequent generations, or a cohort effect that will age along with the MGs.”

Study design

The researchers first held four focus groups with younger Millennials (18-25) and four with older Millennials (26-35) to ask about their preferences for candy.

It then asked 218 students from Kansas State University to choose between one of two unbranded chocolate options on a screen.

The chocolates were given generic names such as Choc C  and either a list of ingredients with a clean or unclean label, basic information such as fat, sugar or calorie content or declarations such as Faitrade, Non-GMO or gluten-free.

It found Millennial consumers were less likely to choose products with ethical declarations despite claims to the contrary in focus groups.

“Social acceptance may have played a role in some older MGs’ tendency to voice an endorsement of social factors like organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, non-GMO and Fair Trade,” ​said the researchers.

But they added that the research group was more educated than the general populace and heavily skewed towards young people from the US Midwest. The study included no brands.

Fat concerns and clean label

The study also found Millennials were more concerned about fat than sugar content, with 30% making higher sugar choices, 14% less sugar, 11% higher fat and 45% less fat.

Young and McCoy added: “When the ingredient list was the only information provided, clean labels were strongly preferred over unclean labels by five of the six behavioral clusters, representing 89% of the [Millennials].”

Hershey, Nestlé and Mondēlez all announced plans last year to move to cleaner labels and easily understood ingredients.

Related topics R&D Chocolate Hershey Sustainability

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