Exclusive interview – Hershey master chocolatier talks simple ingredients

Removing GMOs easy; ditching chemical-sounding ingredients the challenge, says Hershey R&D chief

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Hershey’s tech center in Pennsylvania overseeing a shift to kitchen cupboard ingredients. Photo: Hershey
Hershey’s tech center in Pennsylvania overseeing a shift to kitchen cupboard ingredients. Photo: Hershey

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Cutting GMOs in confectionery is relatively simple, but finding replacements for ingredients that aren’t well understood by consumers is the real challenge, says Hershey’s chief chocolatier.

Hershey last year pledged to transition to simple ingredients​ that consumers might find in their kitchen.

Speaking to ConfectioneryNews, Hershey’s master chocolatier Jim St John, said: “Each product has its own challenge. The easiest things are when you are switching from a GM to non-GM - they do the same thing.”

But St John – who has worked in R&D at Hershey since 1988 – said non-GM ingredients that are not found in consumers’ kitchen, such as malic acid, ascorbic acid and tocopherol, are trickier.

‘Internal struggles’

Hershey's Cookies 'n' Crème, for example, contains tocopherol, which slows the milk in the white chocolate from going rancid and covers off-flavors.

Consumers will pay premium for recognized ingredients, research suggests


More than half (52%) of people will spend over 10% more on food and drink products that contain ingredients they recognize and trust, according to a survey of 1,300 consumers across Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific, commissioned by PR agency Ingredient Communications.

Tocopherol is simply vitamin E, but because it doesn’t sound like something grandma might use, Hershey hopes to find a simpler-sounding replacement.

St John said: “It’s one of those internal struggles because its sounds chemical…it’s not bad to have it in chocolate, but there’s not large enough [quantities] to have a beneficial effect”.

Hershey says there’s enough flexibility in US labelling laws to declare tocopherol as vitamin E, but does not want to give the impression Cookies 'n' Crème is fortified.

“We haven’t found a tocopherol replacement yet,”​ said St John. “It’s a difficult one. We’re also questioning whether it should be replaced.”

Hershey Milk Chocolate

Hershey began its transition to simple ingredients last year by reformulating its major brand Hershey’s Milk Chocolate.

It pledged to remove genetically-modified ingredients from the brand and from Hershey’s Kisses by the end of 2015.

“We never felt uncomfortable about the ingredients [health or safety impact], but it was about what consumer wanted to have,”​ said St John.

Hershey worked with consumers to see how familiar people were with its ingredients and how comfortable they were with the formulation.

“We take that with a grain of salt though because what consumers think today may not be the same in five years,”​ said St John.

Natural vanilla

For Hershey Milk Chocolate, the company replaced emulsifier polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR) and artificial vanillin with a natural flavor and aimed to maintain the flavor.

Malic acid dilemma

Source: Hershey

Hershey’s Brookside brand will also ditch malic acid - a naturally-occurring substance found in fruit – for apple juice concentrate. Hershey St John said Malic acid gives the same results every time, but a concentrate can give varying outcome on the flavor. “It would be great if consumers understood what [malic acid] is but I don’t think that’s going to happen,”​ he said.

“It’s not a slam dunk,”​ said St John. “Artificial vanillin is also always the same and always consistent – it has a particular flavor effect on chocolate…it kind of mellows and smoothes chocolate flavor delivery out….we had to do a lot of testing to came up with the new flavor and to be frank it’s more a lot more expensive than vanillin.”

He said Hershey worked for over a year with major flavor houses to find a replacement.

Increased cocoa percentage

It was not the aim of the reformulation, but Hershey’s Milk Chocolate now has more cocoa butter after the PGPR was removed.

The cocoa percentage is now in the low thirties, taking the volume of cocoa butter above Cadbury Dairy Milk, which has around 26%.

“The sugar percentage actually went down slightly,”​ added St John.

Only cane sugar

Hershey previously sourced both beet and cane sugar for its milk chocolate brand, but now uses only cane.

“You can make a choice between cane and beet, and we chose cane because it’s not genetically modified,”​ said St John.

Renaming game

The transition to simple ingredients is not always so tough. Hershey has simply renamed some ingredients. For example, sodium bicarbonate has become baking soda on product labels to be better understood by consumers.

The R&D chief said this differed to the bulk of chocolate brands in Europe, which tend to use more beet sugar due to beet’s availability in the region. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate now declares sugar as ‘cane sugar’ on its product label.

Sugar reduction?

St John said: “We are looking if there are other opportunities to reduce sugar at the same time – it’s just very hard to do.”

He added that candy was ultimately a fun and an indulgent product, but said: “…I think you’ll find confectioners in the future will reduce the amount of sugar in the product.”

However, he said current options to reduce sugar changed the consumer experience. For example, replacing sugar with water leads to shelf-life concerns, adding fibers or protein in its place changes the texture, while upping the fat content means more calories, he said.

st john cropped
Jim St John, Hershey's chief chocolatier

‘It’s more expensive’

Hershey is using the same manufacturing processes for its simple ingredient products.

But St John said: “We are probably going to have to slow our manufacturing lines down a bit. We won’t be as efficient as we were in the past.”

Hershey also needs to keep some natural colors refrigerated, which wasn’t the case for artificial counterparts.

“It’s more expensive to go to a simple ingredient line. There will be some pain,”​ said St John.

But the company has not raised wholesale prices for Hershey’s Milk chocolate and Kisses, despite the added cost. “We took the pain,”​ said St John.

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