Your teeth shatter through the candy shell first, then hit the chocolate membrane next. For the next few moments, it’s any M&M you’ve ever eaten. That is, until the melt-in-your-mouth coating dissolves and the caramel hits your tongue. I expect an explosion like a sundae topping. Instead, it’s chewy, but doesn’t threaten to pull out a filling. Sweet (too sweet, IMO), but it warms with maillard reaction at the last second, and it finishes with a slight kick of salt–just enough to make you consider eating one more.
I’m munching on a bag of the new Caramel M&M’S, Mars Chocolate’s latest flavor of its iconic treat. In the era of iPhones, it’s easy to forget the scale of Big Candy. Mars produces 400 million M&M’S per day, which makes for a significant (but undisclosed–Mars is privately owned) part of the company’s $33 billion of revenue a year.
And Mars has big plans for its caramel flavor. The plain and peanut varieties are the company’s mainstays, but caramel will likely be the fourth best-selling M&M of roughly a dozen flavors currently on the market–and it may even knock peanut butter out of third place. “It will be a tight race to see what consumers think,” says Hank Izzo, Vice President R&D at Mars Chocolate.
According to Izzo, Mars looks to its consumers for the next big idea, and consumers had been asking for caramel M&M’S for a long time. “We would dabble here and there,” he says. “For the last several years we’ve been dabbling, prototyping, and testing with consumers. It was clear there was a lot of work we had to do, not only on what this thing was, but also how to make this thing.”
Three years ago, full development began in earnest. The team started by figuring out the composition of a caramel M&M. Of course that sounds simple–it’s an M&M with caramel in the middle!–but within those confines, there are a lot of decisions to be made. The only standard Mars has for M&M’S is that the shell and chocolate layers be consistent across all flavors. Everything else had to be figured out.
“There’s obviously multiple different types of caramel experiences. You go all the way from molten caramel–something that’s not soft and chewy but released pretty quickly in your mouth–to a quicker melt, softer caramel, or a longer lasting chewier caramel. We play with that piece,” says Izzo. Of course the taste matters, too. “We’ll make a wide range of textures and tastes: a caramel that has more of a vanilla taste, one with a salty finish, one with more of a brown flavor that’s been cooked a little bit more,” he says.
Given that the factory lines hadn’t been built for caramel yet, the test M&M’S were made by a combination of machines and human hands. Internal and external testers would then rate them in rounds of qualitative and quantitative testing–in one test, someone might try M&M’S cooked with five different chewiness levels, while in another, the person would simply be asked to rate how much he or she liked the chewiness of a particular M&M. The team tested over 100 variations of M&MS before nailing the right mix–and volume. “We tested some smaller sizes that are similar to the size of a regular Plain M&M’S,” Izzo reveals. “After testing, we found consumers wanted more caramel, so we had to make the actual candy larger in size.”
Once the R&D team had homed in on the most scientifically delicious M&M–again, too sweet to my taste buds, but what do I know?–they had to build the production workflow on an assembly line in what Izzo calls “one of the most complex product and process challenges our scientists and engineers have ever faced.”
“When we’re making this thing at scale it’s a huge challenge–how do we make an M&M without it becoming a big caramel blob?” he asks. But he declined to share details, citing a proprietary process.
Even in the finished pack, you can see the difficulty of the assembly with your naked eye: The Caramel M&M’S aren’t perfect little UFOs, like the classic flavor, or charming, rounded eggs like Peanut M&M’S. They’re downright craggy pebbles of varying size and shape, lacking any discernible uniformity beyond color and the perfect, printed “m” logo. They look less like something off an assembly line and more like an M&M your obsessive molecular gastronomy friend may have cobbled together by hand in his kitchen.
But Izzo is quick to argue that this imperfection is not a flaw, but a selling point: “The fact that they may not all be the exact same size and shape adds to the unique experience they deliver,” he says.