It’s widely disputed whether the jelly bean, a chewy sugar confectionery with a hard shell and a distinctive ovoid shape, may be related to Turkish Delight, a sweet, chewy confection covered in powdered sugar, and without a hard shell. But, regardless of its “family tree,” food historians agree that jelly beans are an American invention, the creation of Boston, MA confectioner William Schrafft. The first mention of the jelly bean was in a 1905 advertisement in the Chicago Daily News where it was being sold for nine cents per pound.

After more than 100 years on the market, jelly beans retain their iconic ovoid shape and distinctive hard-shelled form. The candy, which has become synonymous with Easter in the US, is now available globally. Over the years, the product has been commoditized, sold in bulk and given little in the way of distinctive personality. The jelly bean was not distinguished in any major way, until The Jelly Belly Company launched its gourmet beans in 1976, using natural purees for the filling and introducing a broad array of imaginative flavors.

After 100+ years on the market, jelly beans retain their iconic ovoid shape & distinctive hard-shelled form

Jelly Belly owns dynamic flavor innovation

The Jelly Belly Company’s gourmet approach to the sugary treat focuses on developing a range of imaginative and dynamic flavors, such as pancake and maple syrup, and encouraging consumers to customize their experience by combining different flavored beans to create new taste sensations. But, few other manufacturers have followed suit, and flavors in the segment tend to follow a conservative, yet broad, range of berry, citrus and fruit.

Indeed, beyond flavor innovation, there has been little in the way of changes to the century-old treat. Almost a quarter of launches over the past two years have been for seasonal products, and it may be because of the product’s strong association with holidays, primarily in the US and Canada, that innovation has been slow in coming. Tradition has positioned the jelly bean as an occasional treat, a filler in Easter baskets, or a decorative element for Christmas gingerbread houses. Because of its distinctive shape and purpose the candy is rarely eaten out of hand as a major holiday treat – and even more rarely positioned as a “sophisticated  candy.” While Jelly Belly has done much to try to reposition the candy as a solution to the adult sugar confectionery void, jelly beans still tend to be marginalized in the repertoire of holiday – or everyday – candy.

Private label accounts for a third of jelly bean launches

Private label is a strong presence in the jelly bean segment, comprising about a third of launches since 2013. Branded products are led by US-based The Jelly Belly Company, which holds a 15% share of products launched over the two year period, followed by Ireland-based Jelly Bean Factory (6% of launches since 2013), which positions itself as a “gourmet” jelly bean manufacturer. Jelly Bean Factory does not offer as many flavors as its American counterpart, but adopts a similar “sophisticated” positioning, offering GMO-free, gluten-free, nut-free products.

13% of new jelly bean launches are vegetarian

Indeed, the intrinsic gluten-free nature of jelly beans has been used by a number of manufacturers to champion the product. Similarly, positioning jelly beans as gelatine free has become a selling point as interest in this positioning continues to grow. The demand for vegetarian or animal gelatine-free sweets has increased significantly in a number of European markets over the past two years, and jelly beans that are vegetarian now comprise 13% of launches, compared with 6% of the total pastilles, gums, jellies and chews sub-category.

In an era in which “natural” and “better for you” are high in demand, it is notable that the majority of jelly beans are made with artificial colors and flavors; while a high percentage claim “made with natural and artificial flavors,” there are few products that can claim to be completely free from artificial ingredients: less than 1% of launches claim natural or organic status. Besides containing artificial ingredients, the sugar content of jelly beans puts them squarely in the “occasional treat” category. Only 2% of launches are low/no/reduced sugar or calories.

While gluten-free or allergen-free claims may attract some consumers who are seeking treats that fit these dietary requirements, it is likely that jelly beans will remain a special occasion treat. Some imaginative innovations are coming from the category’s top brand, but there is still the need to experiment with more free-from products if the category is going to grow.

What we think

The iconic shape and form of the jelly bean has remained unchanged for a century, but flavor innovations have kept pace with consumer desire for customization and personalization of food products. In line with current trends for “natural” and “better for you” offerings some new jelly bean launches claim vegetarian or animal-gelatine free status, which are desirable attributes to a growing number of consumers. However, while some manufacturers have leveraged the product’s capability to be manufactured without gluten, issues that still challenge them are finding ways to reduce the sugar and artificial flavor and color common to the products, forcing the jelly bean to remain a special occasion treat.

Mintel’s Director of Insight, Food and Drink, Marcia has been with Mintel since 2000. Her expertise center on a number of areas in confectionery and snacks. She also has a deep understanding of consumer demographics, having previously served as an associate editor for American Demographics magazine. Before joining Mintel, Marcia headed her own consulting company which focused on consumer behavior and product innovation in a wide range of industries.

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