Sugar-Free Superstars

By Renee M. Covino
The low-carb craze may have fans that fade, but confections with low or no sugar seem to have a rock-solid following.
Forget when sugar-free candy was buried in the back of the store, invisible to all but those (typically diabetics) who longed for some sweet facsimile, even though it didn’t really taste the part. Fast-forward to last year, when in the midst of a consumer low-carb frenzy, as well as the food industry’s successful development of better-tasting and more sophisticated sugar substitutes, sugar-free and/or low-sugar candy finally got its big break. At last, candy manufacturers had both the means and the audience for sugarless superstardom. And now there seems to be no looking back.
While some low-carb-claim products can technically be included in this group, and may have even given rise to low- and no-sugar’s jumpstart, experts believe that the continuing trend is for low-sugar products.
Backing up that trend is the improved technology behind sweeteners such as Splenda (sucralose)—a no-calorie artificial sweetener that is made, in part, from real sugar and has raised fewer consumer concerns than some others. Other recent introductions of high-intensity sweeteners have also been well received, and the market for alternative sweeteners is believed to hold great potential.
Back in the confectionery circle, companies such as Jelly Belly (which last year changed its sugar-free line to use Splenda) are raving about their sugar-free sales results. Since the Splenda change, sales are up 51 percent, according to Pete Healy, vice president of marketing at Jelly Belly.
Overall, “diet candy” has seen enormous leaps in sales. For the 52 weeks ending August 8, 2004, the category grew 66 percent in dollar sales and 70 percent in unit sales (in supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart), according to Information Resources Inc., reaching a sales total of $252 million.
Health consciousness counts
“Low-carb by name may not continue to dominate the headlines, but what will continue to grow is the consumers’ consciousness towards their diets,” believes Armand Hammer, president of Innovative Candy Concepts, an Atlanta-based candy company that this summer completely revamped its successful Too Tarts and Suck Ups kids’ novelty candy lines to Too Tarts Smart Choice and Suck Ups Smart Choice, containing no refined sugar.
“We match our candy offerings with what consumers are looking for—and lately, they’ve been very specific about what they want in diet candy,” says Tom Ward, president of Russell Stover Candies. “Last year they were screaming for low-carb, and our low-carb candy sales continue to grow, but we have always sold sugar-free, and it is sticking like never before. We believe we will continue to see especially strong growth in sugar-free.”
Most candy manufacturers view sugar-free and low-carb candies as distinct in formulation and marketing strategy. According to the marketing team at Simply Lite Foods, “Sugar-free candies generally have more polyols and the products do not contain sugar. Low-carb products may contain some sugar. Low-carb products can contain bulking agents that may contain sugar, which sugar-free products can not. Low-carb is usually low in sugar, but it is not necessarily sugar-free.”
And it is because of diabetics, that most companies market sugar-free products very distinctly.
 “We don’t want our diabetic consumers coming to the conclusion that they can eat our low-carb products or that low-carb and sugar-free are one in the same, because they’re clearly not,” says Ward. “Some low-carb candies could hurt a diabetic, so we don’t ever co-mingle the concepts.”
Beyond sugar-free
In fact, Russell Stover has done the opposite. It’s created even more distinct lines within its diet candy offering. It is currently testing a low-calorie candy line called “Calorie Smart,” with a 25- to 36-percent reduction in calories from its regular candy line. The forward-thinking candy company has even come out with two lines that include the glycemic load and index on the package information—a line called Sucratrol, sold under the Whitman’s banner and a line called Diabet-X, sold under the Russell Stover banner. “These are sugar-free items designed with vitamin enhancements such as zinc and chromium, specifically for diabetics that get depleted of these nutrients,” explains Ward. “Additionally, they have the glycemic load, which is a first in the United States.”
Even though other candy companies may not have such diet-savvy lines in terms of product labeling yet, they are aware of how much more educated diet candy consumers have become, and they are reacting accordingly.
Madelaine Chocolate Novelties Inc., which makes gourmet and upscale chocolate items especially for the holidays, has recently started catering to customers looking for diet versions of its popular offerings.
“We’re making no-sugar-added items available,” states Joan Sweeting, national sales manager of the Rockaway Beach, N.Y.-based company. “We thought about calling it sugar-free, but we are much more comfortable calling it no-sugar-added because there are traces of sugar in the milk that goes in the chocolate.”
Believe in the Tooth Friendly?
“When you buy a sugar-free item in the United States, how do you know immediately that it’s sugar free?” asks Julia Penkoba, director of business development for Ferndale USA, a division of Australia-based Ferndale Confectionery. With Ferndale’s candy products such as Jols Pastille fruit-flavored small chewable candies that contain no sugar, no fat and are low in calories, it’s easy. The click-shut candy box sports a logo of a happy-faced tooth with an umbrella over it—indicating it is “tooth-friendly” and independently tested and accredited by the International Dental Association, which means it proved to be harmless to the teeth.
Will something like this catch on with American-made sugar-free candies? “It should,” says Penkoba. “America is just waking up right now to what countries like Australia have been touting all along—sugar-free confectionery items that are not marketed in a diet candy section, but are part of a healthy everyday candy, which happens to be sugar-free.”