With the subsidence of low-carb craziness, sugarless hard candy has focused on attracting consumers seeking healthier confections.

Sugarless hard candy, despite recent drawbacks, is poised to make a comeback.

Sugarless hard candy, despite recent drawbacks, is poised to make a comeback.

While the sector took a hit from the decline of the low-carbohydrate trend, the obesity epidemic has led consumers toward candies that deliver the taste they crave, without the heavy calorie load.

Despite high hopes for the future, it’s still going to be an uphill battle for the category. Understandably, most sugarless candy manufacturers in general have seen lower sales compared to those during the low-carb’s peak period.

“For us, we have experienced a decline in our sugar-free sales,” says Harry Overly, v.p. of marketing and innovation for Mooresville, N.C.-based BestSweet. “But in general, I think the category has remained fairly flat over the past couple of years.”

Sugar-free diet candy

BestSweet, which licenses the Baskin-Robbins brand from Dunkin’ Brands, hopes that its decadent, yet sugar-free, ice cream flavors will lure in a wide range of consumers.

“With the Baskin-Robbins brand combined with great tasting sugar-free flavors, we’ve been able to compete with our competition, cater to different demographics and really make headway and increase our sales,” Overly says.

Flavor staples like Mint Chocolate Chip, Praline & Cream and Vanilla tend to attract hard candy’s top consumers-adults over 45 years old, Overly says.

While Mint Chocolate Chip holds the top seller spot, BestSweet’s new sugarless flavors are expected to catch the eyes and taste buds of younger buyers. Cookies & Cream, for instance, will be available nationally in January 2008.

“We’re trying to make sure that the new flavors we introduce are not only applicable to the older demographic, but also to the younger,” Overly says. “We actually have had buyers say after eating the Cookies & Cream sugar-free hard candy that it’s the best piece of hard candy they’ve ever had.”

Though the flavors compete with their full-sugar counterparts, regaining retail space post-Atkins has been an issue.

“The only concern is that we see the major retailers starting to shrink the sugar-free sets, despite the aging baby boomer demographic,” Overly notes.

In an effort to woo retailers and consumers, BestSweet is in the midst of redesigning its hard candy packaging.

“Dunkin’ Brands was evolving their brand and trying to reinvigorate their brand behind Baskin-Robbins, so we jumped on that opportunity to do the same with our candy brand,” Overly says. “We changed our packaging to essentially reflect the new Baskin-Robbins logo and make it clear of the ice cream equity our brand contains.”

BestSweet also altered the standard “blue ribbon” that is on all sugarless products by adding a light blue tint with darker blue outlines to differentiate from its sugar lines.

Other manufacturers of sugar-free hard candies, such as the Hershey Co. and its Sugar-Free Jolly Ranchers, hope to revive sales through updated packaging. The new Sugar-Free Jolly Rancher peg bags will arrive during the first quarter 2008.

Moreover, Wrigley’s top-performing Life Savers brand recently added Sugar-Free Fruit Tarts to its line up, which feature an interactive pop top tin. The 1.5-oz. portable tin resembles Life Savers’ recognizable round shape and is available in two varieties with flavors that appeal to both old and young consumers.

The orange tin contains Watermelon, Cherry Lemonade and Mandarin Orange flavors, while the purple tin features Grape Berry, Strawberry Watermelon and Green Apple.

While some companies are turning to contemporary packaging, Lufkin, Texas-based Atkinson Candy Co. recently launched a line of premium hard candy to tap the growing consumer base with upscale tastes.

The double twist-wrapped candies, made with premium formulations in both sugar and sugar-free varieties, are available in 24 flavors, including butterscotch buttons and lemon ovals.

Many premium formulations contain Splenda-also known as sucralose. While sucralose’s history goes back more than 20 years, it was approved in the U.S. only fairly recently, in 1998.

“We use Splenda because it currently has the best name out there in terms of artificial sweeteners and people like it the best,” says Eric Atkinson, president of Atkinson Candy. Co. “Our consideration is the taste and quality of the product, and we don’t consider the cost to achieve that. The way we produce the product is according to how we can make that the best we can.”

GOLightly brand candies feature 20 different sugar-free, peg bag offerings-all made with Splenda.

“We use Splenda, which really is the Mercedes of sweeteners,” says Susan Rosenthal-Jay, v.p. of marketing and exports for Hillside, N.J.-based Hillside Candy, manufacturer of GOLightly. “There hasn’t been any calamities like there have been with other sweeteners, so we don’t have to use warnings on our packages.”

Splenda’s sales reached $212 million in 2006 in the U.S., according to Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc. As opposed to aspartame or saccharin, Splenda has escaped many of the health concerns associated with artificial sweeteners.

“The yellow packets are safe, but the blue and pink sugar packets have had question marks,” she adds, referring to the consumer sugar packet colors of Splenda, aspartame and saccharin, respectively.

Splenda’s ability to provide a cleaner label, in addition to being touted as a “no calorie sweetener,” makes the artificial sweetener a perfect fit for GOLightly’s target audiences.

Diabetics, and other consumers who face diet constraints due to health conditions, constitute the first target group. However, there is a growing market of people who are interested in better-for-you candies but don’t want to give up the pleasure of eating candy, Rosenthal-Jay says.

While minty Starlights, creamy Butterscotch and spicy Cinnamon are tried-and-true favorites, GOLightly’s chocolate sugar-free hard candies are capitalizing on chocolate’s recent success.

“Chocolate is doing so well now, it’s become a huge seller for us,” Rosenthal-Jay says. “People love chocolate, and they get the taste with a much lower calorie amount than the real thing.”

And ultimately, that allure of delivering a sugary taste without the calories will sustain sugarless hard candy-regardless of whether an Atkin’s-like craze ever materializes again. Consumers today want the best of health and flavor, and sugarless hard candy is in the perfect position to capitalize on both.

“The obesity epidemic that you read about everyday in the press only helps what we’re selling,” Rosenthal-Jay says. “Ultimately, with the government taking a stance in what’s served in schools and restaurants beginning to take a bigger notice, health is clearly on the mind.”