As the sugar-free trend continues to grow, candy companies have begun to expand their consumer base. 

As the headline suggests, a spoonful of sweetener is all it takes to sweeten up hard candy treats-without any of the unwanted effects of sugar. These sugar-free hard candies won’t make you gain a single pound and will still deliver the same sugary taste as regular hard candies.

“I think historically [sugar-free hard candy] was always considered to be the diabetic offering and that really has changed,” says Mark Fields, brand manager at BestSweet, Inc. “We’re able to reach not only the diabetic consumer, but those consumers who are concerned about sugar intake or weight management and that is a very large portion of the population now.”

Mooresville, N.C.-based BestSweet, Inc.’s licensed product, Baskin Robbins Hard Candy, appeals to all of the category’s consumers. The candies are formulated using sucralose (Splenda), which appeals to consumers looking to keep off weight and control their sugar intake. But they also make a claim of zero net carbs, which appeals to diabetics needing to keep blood glucose levels stable.

Because of its reputation as a cherished ice cream company-Baskin Robbins produces 31 signature flavors of quality ice cream-the brand was seen as an ideal draw for hard candy consumers.

“We want to mirror the Baskin Robbins experience in candy,” says Fields.

And along with quality comes diversity. Baskin Robbins Hard Candy comes in six flavors: Mint Chocolate Chip, Cookies ‘N Cream, Pralines ‘N Cream, Creamy Vanilla, Fruit Medley (an assortment of Raspberry Orange and Strawberry sherbets) and Assorted Creams (an assortment of Pralines ‘N Cream, Cookies ‘N Cream and Creamy Vanilla).

Although sugar free has been a trend in itself for quite some time now, the sugar-free hard candy category has developed trends of its own. 

BestSweet has tapped into one of those trends – premiumization – by adding premium dairy and dark cocoa to their products.

“Instead of taking out quality in the light of rising costs around dairy, we’ve actually put more premium dairy in our products,” says Fields. “Simultaneously, we’re using real, premium dark cocoa for our new [hard candy] flavor Cookies ‘N Cream as opposed to just a flavor.”

Sorbee International Ltd. showcases another trend within the category: functional ingredients. Sorbee is known for its sugar-free products, including Sorbee EatRite/BeFit Butterscotch and Assorted Fruit-flavored hard candies as well as Crystal Light Assorted Fruit and Lemonade-flavored hard candies (Crystal Light is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods Holdings, Inc., used under license). The company will also be introducing two new flavors to its Crystal Light sugar-free hard candy line that fit the functional trend.

“The first one is going to be called ‘Immunity,’” says Barry Sokol, Sorbee executive v.p. “It’s a cherry pomegranate piece and it will have antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E.” The other candy, “Energy,” will be wild strawberry-flavored including B vitamins and caffeine. Both new hard candies will be introduced in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Thanks to ongoing innovations in sweeteners and ingredients, sugar-free hard candies can be tasty as well as a “better-for-you” treat. In order to obtain this sweet flavor, Sorbee opted to use sucralose with isomalt as a bulking agent.

“With the ability to use the isomalt and increase the sweetness with Splenda, it’s really quite almost eliminated all of the negative conceptions that used to be with sugar-free hard candy,” says Sokol. “In fact, if you would eat a piece of the Crystal Light sugar-free hard candy and compare it to any sugar piece of hard candy, you can virtually not tell the difference.”

In turn, using these alternative sweeteners can create a healthy, tasty candy.

“Everybody today at some capacity is trying to eat healthy, whether it is medically driven or just a concern of eating healthy,” Sokol says.

To provide for those healthy consumers, Round Lake, Minn.-based Farley’s and Sathers  offers a multitude of sugar-free products from several brands including Brach’s, Bobs, Farley’s and Sathers. These hard candy treats are also sweetened with an isomalt/sucralose blend with 50% fewer calories than the regular versions of the candies.

Popular sugar-free hard candy flavors include Butterscotch, Cinnamon and Peppermint. The company also manufactures sugar-free Root Beer Barrels, Starlight Mints and Assorted Wild Fruit hard candies.

“The objective is to provide a product that meets the consumer’s healthy lifestyle demands in addition to making sweet choices available to diabetic consumers and consumers with other health concerns where the consumption of refined sugar may not be an option,” says Michelle Graber, marketing services manager for Farley’s and Sathers.

And that’s certainly healthy for hard candy manufacturers.

From "Low Carb" to "Sugar Free"

"While the first sugar-free candy was targeted at diabetics, the category gained momentum with the popularity of low carb diets a few years ago," says Jon Seighman, Givaudan Flavours applications manager. "Now, savvy marketers have shifted back to calling the products 'sugar free' and are meeting a consumer need for lower calorie snacks."

Seighman went on to explain the uniqueness of sugar-free treats. In addition to cooking candy at a higher boiling point, bulking ingredients are blended with high intensity sweeteners to produce a taste nearly identical to sugar.

"Today, a sugar-free candy that tastes as good as the original is possible," Seighman says, "and many consumers are opting for the healthier alternative."

Givaudan's role in the sugar-free category travels far beyond knowledge of the category. The company has developed exotic new fruit flavors such as Blueberry Passionfruit and Banana Guava to excite the category and its consumers. It has also announced the release of TasteEssentials for Citrus, including flavors based on consumer sensory results and Drivers of Liking analysis.