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In with the old, out with the new

Necco returns to its original candy wafer recipe after customer backlash and a drop in sales

A worker sorted Necco Wafers for packaging. Each roll contains a mix of the candy’s eight flavors. A worker sorted Necco Wafers for packaging. Each roll contains a mix of the candy’s eight flavors. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / October 25, 2011

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New England Confectionery Co. thought it could make its old-fashioned wafer appeal to a modern, health-conscious consumer by coloring and flavoring it with all natural ingredients such as cabbage and beets.

Instead, sales of Necco Wafers fell 35 percent.

“There were stacks and stacks of letters and e-mails that said, ‘Why did you do this? You ruined it,’ ’’ recalled Steve Ornell, Necco’s vice president of sales.

Less than two years after going all natural, the Revere company has gone back to its original recipe in hopes of recouping lost sales and loyal fans of the 164-year-old candy. The chalky, sugary candy that comes in eight colors is once again made of artificial dyes and flavors.

Steve Almond, the Boston author of “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,’’ which includes a chapter on Necco, said the disastrous debut shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“For kids, it’s about bright colors and lots of sugar, not about healthy options,’’ he said. “And even when it comes to adults, candy remains a childish pleasure. There’s a big nostalgia element here, as well. If you loved Neccos as an old-time candy, the idea of an updated version feels wrong.’’

Just ask lifelong fan Jackie Bowden, owner of Billy Boy Candies in New Bedford.

“The colors were bland. The taste was bland,’’ said Bowden, 66, who stopped eating the all-natural wafers. “My theory is that if it wasn’t broken, it shouldn’t have been fixed. They proved it.’’

Bowden is also a distributor of Necco Wafers to other retailers, and the switch, she said, hurt every aspect of her business.

“Once people started trying it, they weren’t buying anymore,’’ she said. “There were no repeat sales, and customers said it was lousy. No one was happy.’’

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates for legislation that eliminates artificial dyes in all US food products, said companies like Necco would have more support in switching to natural products if there were legislation to back them.

“The unfortunate experience indicates the need for national action,’’ he said. “People’s perceptions would change if artificial coloring were removed from all foods.’’

The Necco Wafer dates back to 1847 when English immigrant Oliver Chase invented the lozenge cutter enabling him to make the candies. The cutter is believed to be the first American candy machine, and Union soldiers during the Civil War carried the candies, then known as “hub wafers,’’ according to Necco.

In 1901, Chase merged his business with two other companies to form the New England Confectionery Co., and about a decade later the wafers adopted the “Necco’’ name.

During World War II, sales of the wafers peaked when the US government ordered the company to produce the candy for American troops overseas. When servicemen returned home, they continued to buy up the chalky treats.

Starting in the 1980s, Necco began forming an old-fashioned candy empire, scooping up competitors that produced Candy House Buttons, Mary Jane, Haviland chocolates, and Clark Bar.

Despite the acquisitions - and the fact that Necco produces more than eight billion Sweetheart Conversation Hearts every year for Valentine’s Day - the company still views the wafers as its core product. Necco, privately held, wouldn’t disclose annual sales for the company, but Chicago research firm SymphonyIRI Group reports that all Necco candy brands generated $38.9 million in sales at many US retailers in 2010.

Necco went all-natural with its wafers based on a recommendation from its marketing division and focus groups. Some of the ingredients in the wafers’ artificial dyes like Yellow 5 and Red 40 have come under fire after studies linked them to hyperactivity in children and to cancer-causing agents. The company also consulted with some retail outlets before the all-natural product hit the market; they supported the change.

The new formula took all of 90 days to create. Necco traded artificial flavors and dyes for more expensive natural flavors and colors derived from red beet juice, purple cabbage, cocoa powder, paprika, and turmeric.

The wafers traditionally have come in eight flavors - orange, lemon, lime, clove, chocolate, cinnamon, licorice, and wintergreen. But the company couldn’t make the all-natural color of lime match the original so it was dropped from the lineup. The white wafer already used all-natural coloring and went unchanged.

Only four of the seven flavors needed to be altered to go all-natural. In most cases, the company used a mixture of natural and artificial flavors to make the wafers, so to go all-natural meant removing the artificial flavor. For example, chocolate was made entirely of cocoa extract and cinnamon went to all-natural cinnamon.

Jeff Green, Necco’s vice president of innovation, who designed the new product, said the taste difference between the original and all-natural wafer was nearly undetectable. The difference lies in the wafers’ pale new colors. That, he believes, is what went wrong.

“The perception started with their eyes and affected their tongues,’’ Green said.

Necco has gone all-natural with other candies without much fanfare. For example, Clark Bars now use real peanut butter and chocolate. Raspberry and orange flavor versions of Thin Mints now use all-natural ingredients.

But Necco found that its wafer customers were different, and after more than a year of dramatic sales decline, officials owned up to their mistake. Over the summer, the company brought back the original formula, making the all-natural wafer history. It will take about a year for the transition to be complete as retailers sell out of their stock of all-natural wafers.

“What we found out from people was that they like the product,’’ Green said of Necco wafers, “and they don’t want change.’’

Globe correspondent Christina Reinwald contributed to this report.


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