MELLOWER MALLOW

Marshmallows have long been a favorite for summer campfires and snow-day mugs of hot chocolate. But like childhood itself, the spongy confection of egg whites, sugar and gelatin is often relegated to happy memory as the years progress. Well, not so fast. Adults are rediscovering a whole new generation of marshmallows that range from hand-cut organic cubes to puffs with flavors like amaretto and hazelnut.

Marshmallows have long been a favorite for summer campfires and snow-day mugs of hot chocolate. But like childhood itself, the spongy confection of egg whites, sugar and gelatin is often relegated to happy memory as the years progress.

Well, not so fast. Adults are rediscovering a whole new generation of marshmallows that range from hand-cut organic cubes to puffs with flavors like amaretto and hazelnut.

“It's a basic product, but look at the ways we're elaborating on it,” noted Jon Prince, who heads up McKeesport Candy Co.-CandyFavorites.com, the nation's oldest candy distributor. “You take a basic marshmallow and you make it hand-cut organic, and you get an old-fashioned treat with a health benefit.”

Sales of all marshmallows in the food-drug-mass channel passed the $135 million mark in June, up from $127 million for the same period in 2003, according to the Nielsen Co. Kraft Foods, maker of the well-known Jet-Puffed brand, introduced a strawberry-flavored marshmallow in May. It seems everyone is getting excited about marshmallows all over again.

“It's a simple product, but what's more steeped in lore?” asked Prince.

Nostalgia might be fueling the resurgence, but the humble marshmallow is also getting grown-up attention with new flavors, specialty ingredients and niche marketing. Mary Ann Geraghty and Kim Condon-Shapiro co-founded Toonie Moonie Organics in the latter's garage four years ago. The growing company began with certified organic creme, and is just now moving into square-cut marshmallows.

“We want to offer old-fashioned favorites, but in organic form. And almost everyone loves marshmallows,” said Geraghty. “There aren't that many ingredients, but there's nothing out there like it.”

The company's appearance at a recent trade show resulted in orders from independent food stores, as well as chains like Whole Foods, which wanted Toonie Moonie's products for its Northeast units. Demand is such that Geraghty and Condon-Shapiro just enlisted the help of a co-packer.

Prince, the distributor, feels retailers can easily take advantage of these types of affordable extravagances, since the specialty marshmallows have higher margins than regular varieties.

“What's the difference? Maybe the coloring is a little browner, which creates that vintage feel; maybe the edges are square-cut,” he said. “But the reality is, they're still the same basic product.”