Insight: Asia reshapes cocoa market

Features Reuters

By Sarah McFarlane

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LONDON (Reuters) - To get an idea how emerging markets are reshaping global consumption patterns, look no further than the cocoa bean.

Hundreds of millions of new consumers in Asia and elsewhere are boosting demand for chocolate cakes, biscuits, drinks and ice cream. This is increasing demand for cocoa, but it is also changing the cocoa market.

When a cocoa bean is processed it makes roughly equal parts butter and powder. The butter goes into melt-in-your-mouth products, as well as soaps and cosmetics. The powder is used in cakes, biscuits and drinks.

Until recently, suppliers had so much extra powder it was sometimes burned in boilers as a fuel. But over the last two years, powder prices have more than doubled; grinders can barely keep up.

"In recent years powder demand has definitely outpaced butter demand, which has been based on the fact that most of the applications in emerging countries are powder-based," said Jos de Loor, managing director of cocoa and chocolate at U.S. agribusiness Cargill.

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Global chocolate sales rose 2 percent to $83.2 billion in 2010, according to market research firm Mintel. This was helped by growth in places such as China, where sales rose 21 percent to $976 million, and Indonesia -- the biggest chocolate-eaters in South East Asia -- where sales climbed 26 percent to $888 million.

Importantly, it was demand for powder which rose fastest. Singapore-based Petra Foods Limited, the world's third-largest supplier of cocoa ingredients, estimates annual global cocoa butter consumption is now between 900,000 and 1 million tons, an increase from 850,000-900,000 tons two years ago. Demand for powder has risen faster, to 1.1-1.2 million tons from 800,000-850,000 two years ago.

In some ways, the cocoa business is turning full circle. Chocolate first came to Europe from Latin America as a drink. Since 1828, when the Dutch worked out how to extract cocoa butter, chocolate products like bars, pralines and pastilles have been in the ascendant. People in North America and western Europe have been eating solid chocolate for more than a hundred years since it was sold to the public in mid-1800s Britain.

Now emerging markets -- particularly in Asia -- are driving a taste for lighter treats.

"If you consider eastern Europe and Latin America, the markets are much more established in the cocoa taste than in Asia," Nestle's Melchior said. "Culturally people are not as used to this flavor."

SWEET TOOTH

You can plot the two-speed cocoa economy on a map. In the rich world, growth in chocolate sales is in the single digits according to Nestle. A bar of chocolate may be an affordable luxury, but it is proving less recession-proof than popular wisdom would have it.

In emerging markets, though, growth is well into the double digits. In many parts of Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe, consumers' first taste of chocolate is typically through milder products based on cocoa powder rather than chocolate bars.

Marc Donaldson, director of cocoa sustainability at Petra Foods, which has over 50 percent of the chocolate market in Indonesia, points out that powder products are "generally more within their budgets."

MELTING MOMENTS

That could change. Higher prices for cocoa powder are probably here to stay. Global cocoa demand is on course to outstrip supply in 2011/12, as aging trees and a lack of investment in some of the world's top producers limit production. Cargill has said that with average annual cocoa demand growth of 2.5-3 percent -- around 100,000 extra tons of cocoa per year -- there are likely to be serious supply concerns in the next few years.

And it's powder that's poised to feel the squeeze most. Emerging market consumers might eventually develop a taste for richer, butter-based products, but that will take time. The hot climate, lack of widespread refrigeration and unreliable supply chains in a market such as India, for instance, make it a lot harder to keep butter-based products in good condition.

"In cooler climates such as in eastern Europe, consumers have migrated from powder products to chocolate confectionery. In warm places like Asia and the Middle East, the migration to chocolate probably will be much less because chocolate melts in your hand," says Steven Haws, of cocoa research firm Commodities Risk Analysis.

The melt-factor can change how a product is made. Nestle's Melchior says his company sometimes uses vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter in some markets, because it raises a product's melting point so it can be more widely distributed.

When Kraft Foods Inc bought British chocolate maker Cadbury in 2010, it gave the U.S. giant a foothold in India, where Cadbury was the largest confectioner. One of the first products Kraft launched there was Oreo biscuits -- a powder-based product.

BUTTER MOUNTAINS

But it's more than a story of increased demand for cocoa powder. Earlier this year, fighting in top cocoa producer Ivory Coast ignited fears of supply disruptions, and cocoa prices rallied to their highest in 32 years in March.

Meanwhile the tough competitive environment for confectioners is hitting butter demand. Chocolate-makers have trimmed products to avoid having to pass on higher costs to consumers. Earlier this year Kraft quietly reduced the size of its Toblerone by one triangle and shrunk the iconic Cadbury Dairy Milk bar by two squares to 120 grams.

"When a manufacturer reduces the size of a bar or the count in a bag, its action immediately reduces by a large amount the quantity of cocoa butter that the manufacturer buys," said analyst Haws.

He estimates a massive 150,000 tons of butter is stored around the world at present: working stocks are usually between 20,000 and 40,000 tons. As a general rule, powder and butter can both be stored for up to 18 months.

"Some people have suggested that butter will find other uses if its price falls to $1,500 a ton. This might include replacing palm oil in some applications. However, that price is more than $1,500 away," Haws said.

COCOA LOCOMOTIVE

But in the future emerging markets "will continue to be the locomotive of growth. Cocoa demand has closely followed global GDP for over 50 years and we expect this to continue," said Petra Foods' Donaldson.

The cocoa business has already gone through enormous changes over the centuries, reflecting broad historical shifts. For instance, even though cocoa was originally found in South America, as Europeans consumed more they increasingly used their newly colonized lands in Africa to grow the crop. Since the start of the 20th century, Africa has been the world's biggest cocoa producer.

The swelling middle class in China have seen their choice explode in recent years. Li Peng Fei, a middle-school teacher in Beijing, loves "dark chocolate; Dove and Ferrero are my favorites. When I was a child, the variety of food in China was not as abundant as today. My mum would buy me some cheap candies made of chocolate with alcohol in them. Now I prefer to buy ice cream and we have more choices."

As she eats more chocolate, expect prices to rise and the way the industry works to change again.

(Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

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