CHICAGO Call it Candy Lite.
Long viewed as a slightly naughty self-indulgence, candy is getting a makeover as companies try to concoct sweets that are a little healthier.
From low-carb to low-cal to sugar-free to ''guilt-free,'' many of the estimated 1,400 new products on the market this year come with a health pitch of some kind. And the array of soon-to-be-released offerings on display at the All Candy Expo, North America's largest candy trade show, shows the pro-health movement is just getting rolling.
Tinkering with treats is part of the low-carb boom being served up by the U.S. food industry in response to the growing popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets. Candy makers also are anxious to avoid any repercussions from rising obesity among children, although the National Confectioners Association trade group contends kids' candy consumption hasn't increased.
So far the strategy appears to be working. Sales of ''diet candy,'' the industry's feel-good term for sugar-free and reduced-carb sweets, soared 90 percent to more than $273 million last year as overweight Americans fretted more about nutrition and health. And supermarket shelves are being stocked regularly with new low-carb goodies, likely ensuring the fad won't fade any time soon.
''There's no doubt that the buzz in the industry right now is really health-conscious candy,'' said Barry Sokol of Sorbee International, a Philadelphia-based company that touted its new sugar-free products at the All Candy Expo. ''This low-carb craze is beyond going through the roof.''
Sugar-lovers, relax it's not all about health. Low-carb or sugar-free items still comprise just a fraction of the $24 billion-a-year confectionery industry. And gobs of teeth-tingling sugar candies still commanded attention at the three-day trade show, which ended Thursday.
Debut items included jumbo-sized Smarties, one-pound chocolate wreaths and chili-pepper flavored candy called Diablo Ignited Sours. In the ever-popular gross-out category, there were Mean Green Blow Pops that turn your tongue green and Brain Drain Liquid Candy, which maker Kandy Kastle promotes as feeling like ''brains rolling around in your mouth.''
But the focus on sour and ''extreme'' tastes that influenced new products a year or two ago has shifted to a more healthful approach featuring low-carb fudge and licorice, sugar-free jellybeans, calcium-fortified wafers and a whey protein diet bar.
Hershey Foods is sinking a bigger investment into the new trend with the introduction of 1 Gram Sugar Carb Bars after recording first-year sales of $12 million for its line of sugar-free Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey's chocolate bars.
Smaller companies are following suit.
Albanese Confectionery Group is repackaging its World Best Gummi Bears as World's Best Zeros, with a label boasting ''0 Fat - 0 Sugar - 0 Net Carbs.'' ''We were making sugar-free products for years (for diabetics), but never thought of the idea of marketing them as low-carb,'' said Scott Albanese, owner of the Merrillville, Ind., company.
Innovative Candy Concepts of Atlanta launched a line of bite-sized candies last year called Sinfully Delicious, advertising them as no-guilt candy because they are sugar-free, fat-free and contain just two calories. This year it has reformulated its popular Too Tarts kids' candy to eliminate refined sugar and add fruit juice concentrate, with 50 percent to 60 percent fewer calories.
The Atlanta company says orders of Too Tarts have tripled since it announced the product a month ago.
''When we first started making kids' candy about seven years ago, we thought 'Isn't it nice to do something that's fun?''' said CEO Armand Hammer, no relation to the late famous industrialist. ''But when I saw my grandkids eating it, I thought there must be something better I can give them than pure high-fructose corn syrup.''
Improved technology has made it easier for companies to replace sugar than was the case with fat during the low-fat craze of the 1990s.
Do the new candy products taste as good? It depends who you talk to.
A few random samplings found such items as sugar-free Reese's Pieces and low-carb Gummi Bears tasted pretty much the same as the regular recipe, but some others failed to delight.
''It's easier to do low-carb and taste good than it is to do low-fat and taste good,'' explained analyst Mark Hugh Sam, who follows food companies for Chicago-based Morningstar Inc.
Joe Dutra, whose Kimmie Candy Co. makes chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, contends most low-carb candies still don't taste good. He calls the low-carb boom a marketing ploy for candies that are ''low-carb but high-calorie.''
''It's like sex you really want to enjoy it when you have it,'' he said. ''You don't want to eat candy and have it taste like cardboard.''
Nonetheless, he admitted somewhat sheepishly, his small, Sacramento, Calif.-based company will probably follow the herd next year with a low-carb version of its ChocoRocks chocolate candies. ''You have to go with the trend. And new products are always interesting for consumers.''
While chocolate sales have remained stable in the face of all the health concerns, according to analyst Sam, sugar-based candies have ''gone down quite a bit'' recently.
Candy makers, however, remain confident the long-term prospects are bright. Diet or no diet, said Albanese: ''People will always indulge themselves with some kind of a treat, with something sweet to eat.''
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