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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: A sweeter world

    In addition to providing indulgent goodies, the Hershey Co. is looking out for its consumers' emotional and even physical welfare.

    At the 2006 All Candy Expo, held this summer at Chicago's McCormick Place, I was amazed by the number of domestic and international vendors participating, as well as the hundreds of innovative confections being introduced: candy to help shed those extra 10 pounds; Crunchy Gummies from Albanese; organic gum; Jelly Belly Sports Beans fortified with carbs, electrolytes, and vitamins; "We Care" Gummy Ribbons of Hope to benefit breast cancer research; and thousands more.

    Having toured just about half of the show floor, I came across one booth swarming with attendees: Hershey. Hoping to introduce myself on behalf of Progressive Grocer -- and yes, pick up a couple of packages of my all-time favorite, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups -- I went over for what I thought was going to be a short visit but soon found myself in no hurry to leave.

    Like so many industry folk attending the All Candy Expo, I was surprised to learn how deeply the Hershey Co., North America's largest snack food manufacturer, generating in excess of $4 billion annually and employing some 14,000 associates, continues to touch the hearts of individual consumers both emotionally and even physically.

    The company's long-term commitment to youth and education is impressive. So is the new Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, which directs cutting-edge scientific research to develop products and technologies that will provide consumers with health benefits.

    Kids and candy make for a perfect combination. It's a concept that was well understood by company founder Milton Hershey when, in 1908, he and his wife, Catherine, donated their hard-earned profits to establish the Milton Hershey School.

    Operating in Pennsylvania, the school, at which Hershey management team members still serve as mentors, provides socially and financially disadvantaged boys and girls from pre-kindergarten through grade 12 with a private, all-expenses- paid education, including room and board, medical and dental care, clothing, and numerous other amenities.

    Granted, there are many lessons to be learned from Hershey's philanthropic efforts, but perhaps the most valuable involves mathematics. Currently, the school, which is operated by the Hershey Trust, owns more than 30 percent of Hershey Co. stock, a stake valued at nearly $7 billion dollars.

    Snacking redefined

    The Hershey Co. established The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition in an effort to meet today's increasing consumer demands for healthier products. The idea came from Hershey's Health and Wellness Advisory Board, a panel of world-class scientists and experts who provide key insights in the areas of weight management, brain function, nutrigenomics, children's nutrition, and eating behavior.

    Dan Azzara, v.p. of global innovation and quality and a 20-year veteran of the company, notes that the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition is focusing its research and development on three major areas: heart health, weight management (later this year the company will launch a line of 100-calorie chocolate products), and the relationship between the consumption of specific foods and mental and physical energy.

    "We've already made great strides in a number of health-benefit areas through research studies, partnerships, and new product development," says Azzara. "Keep in mind that we're still a candy company that offers indulgence, but we've expanded our breadth and choices to include a number of good-for-you and better-for-you items."

    He adds: "We're extremely excited about preliminary results of a Yale University study confirming cardiovascular health benefits of hot-cocoa consumption. Conducted by the Yale Prevention Research Center, the study, which was a continuation of ongoing research into the health benefits of dark-chocolate consumption, showed that drinking either sweetened or sugar-free cocoa made with Hershey's Natural Cocoa powder can result in measurable improvements in arterial function."

    Azzara, a food chemist who prior to joining Hershey was a high school teacher and cross-country track coach, says the company has also launched marketing efforts to appeal to younger consumers. "We want kids to understand that candy not only tastes great, but it can also be a good choice of nutrition. For example, the popular PayDay candy bar provides 15 grams of protein. And we've taken the traditional candy bar a step further by developing a PayDay trail mix that's packed with extra protein."

    Today health-and-nutrition items represent 10 percent to 15 percent of Hershey's sales. "Our goal is to raise this number to 30 percent, and we're confident that we'll hit this target. After all, there's a consumer need in the market -- and baby boomers aren't stopping any time soon. They're very active -- and they associate food with health.

    "It's our job to be innovative and to develop new products that appeal to health-conscious consumers, and we'll continue to enhance the nutritional quality of existing product lines, notes Azzara. "However, innovation on its own isn't enough. With the good work of the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, we have evidence to back the nutritional values and health benefits of all our products."

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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