The Sugar-Free Surge
By Renée Covino
As the desire to control sugar intake spreads from the diabetic market to the general population, candy manufacturers respond energetically.
The “low” side of candy is hitting new heights. Even beyond low-carb confections, those that are sugar-free or “dietetic” have substantially surged. Between 2000 and 2004, U.S. sales of low-sugar and low-fat candies quadrupled, according to a diet candy report released late this summer by Packaged Facts, publishing division of Last year, consumers bought an estimated $495 million in “diet” candy, compared with $118 million four years earlier, according to the study. Packaged Facts defines diet candy as confections that are low in sugar and/or carbs and/or calories.
Keeping track of this market through the latest IRI numbers, the National Confectioners Association substantiates the Packaged Facts growth findings. “Sugar-free and diet candy, not including gum, has grown more than three-fold,” states Jim Corcoran, NCA’s vice president of trade relations.
However, with sugarless gum added into the equation, the $495 million diet candy market actually increases to about $1.2 billion. Sugarless gum is currently a $735 million category, according to IRI dollar sales figures for the 52 weeks ending August 7, 2005.
“In 1997 the gum category was two-thirds regular gum and one-third sugar-free; now that’s flipped,” says Corcoran. For 2005, sugarless gum represents a little more than two-thirds of the category.”
Even more proof of a category surge — launches of reduced-sugar products have nearly tripled since 1999, according to ProductScan Online.
Despite all this growth in sugar-free, the NCA still recently referred to the category as an “untapped market.”
Is this possible? Are we just at the tip of sugar-free? And will it continue to be a “go” for the future? Industry and manufacturer response would certainly indicate a strong green light. Here are some top category happenings pushing it in a positive direction.
Artificial sweetener technology is a backing force. “The versatility of many artificial sweeteners allows for manifold combinations to achieve just the right flavor, texture, and appearance” in sugar-free candy, according to the Packaged Facts report. “This synergy among ingredients provides a vast array of choices for the American sweet tooth.”
In addition to what’s currently available in no-calorie sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, etc.) and reduced-calorie sweeteners (polyols such as maltitose and isomalt), new “natural” substitutes are predicted to have a positive influence on the category as well, especially with the natural health crowd. This includes the “legally” natural Shugr, on the market since December 2004, and two new liquid blends, Rebalance System TM001 and TM002, which are not yet in products on the market.
Other low-calorie sweeteners are on the horizon as well (See sidebar on page 32.) 
Innovation is also taking place with existing brand sweeteners such as Splenda bringing even more consumer awareness to the category. By October, consumers will have access to Splenda Brown Sugar Blend, a blend of grown sugar and sucralose, delivering half the carbs and calories of regular brown sugar, “but all of the taste, moistness and functionality of regular brown sugar,” according to Monica Neufang, spokesperson for the brand at McNeil Specialty Products Co.
“The concept of taking small steps to healthier living is catching on,” Neufang reports. “Just 100 calories less a day can have great impact on one’s overall health and wellness.”
Sugar-free manufacturers are increasing production. Simply Lite Foods is one manufacturer that has always been in the sugar-free confectionery business, but it has recently increased “volume, variety and improved taste and textures,” according to Gina Prescia, brand manager for the Commack, N.Y.-based company. “The development of new, quality, functional ingredients has certainly played a big part,” says Prescia. “We have added more production lines, consisting of state-of-the-art equipment to increase the diversity and capacity of our sugar-free/better-for-you production capabilities.”
For more than five years, Russell Stover has been a driving force in the sugar-free chocolate category (and now owns the No. 1  market position by quite a margin, according to Information Resources Inc.). And even with that status, the company continues to venture farther out, believing in the category’s longevity.
“Our response to the consumer’s response to our diet candy has been a vigorous introduction of new flavors, pack types and ventures into non-chocolate as well,” says Mark Sesler, vice president of product development for Russell Stover.
Strong non-sugar-free brands see the value in a sugar-free counterpart. It seems like every major brand in the candy arena now has a sugar-free counterpart. While Russell Stover led the trend, Hershey is right behind it with its Hershey brand, Reese’s brand, Pot Of Gold Brand and even the Twizzlers brand all making IRI’s Top 20 list of the top-selling diet candy in both the chocolate and non-chocolate categories for the 52 weeks ending August 7, 2005. Others on both lists include Nestlé Crunch, York Peppermint Pattie, Nestlé Turtles, Life Savers, Crème Savers, Pearson Nips, Jolly Rancher, Red Vines and Jelly Belly.
Many companies are now including comparison info on their Websites so consumers can easily see the sugar and calorie savings. For example, Jelly Belly reports that “by replacing sugar and corn syrup in our recipes, our sugar-free candies have 30-55 percent fewer calories per serving.” Like Hershey, Jelly Belly has spread the sugar-free application across many of its offerings. In addition to a sugar-free Jelly Belly jelly beans 10-flavor mix and five-flavor sours mix, the company offers sugar-free gummi bears, inchworms, fruit slices, spice drops, cola bottles and fruit drops.
Low-carb is quickly switching gears to sugar-free. At least that’s the word from players like Asher’s Chocolates. According to company president, Jack Asher, “The FDA was very late in coming out with what they declared was low-carb — so now that the trend has waned, a lot of us got stuck with that labeling.”
Asher’s has already relabeled its “low-carb” chocolate bars to be “low-sugar” chocolate bars, hitting the market right after Labor Day.
One key point in all this is that sugar-free has come to be viewed as a part of a more health-conscious eating plan and not simply a fad. Nor is it seen as merely something that meets the needs of an increasing diabetic population. “As Americans become more health-conscious, specifically in food education, the sugar-free/better-for-you category will continue to grow,” believes Prescia.
Sesler agrees that “to say the sugar-free market grows only as fast as the population with diabetes grows is a limited perspective. The growing concern with obesity, the greater awareness of eating more healthfully, the growth of both types of diabetes, the overall aging of the population, and good to great-tasting new products will continue to fuel the growth in the sugar-free category.”
There are some challenges, however. There are obstacles in sugar-free that need to be overcome, say industry players, “particularly the laxative effects,” according to Prescia. She is referring mostly to the polyols reduced-calories sweeteners that for some can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as gas or laxative effects, similar to reactions to beans and certain high-fiber foods.
While there are many nutritionists who champion artificial sweeteners as a way to cut calories and reduce sugar, there are also those who say that they are not the answer to America’s weight and health problems. Some critics have voiced concerns about the increased consumption of what they refer to as “chemical” sweeteners, especially among children.
For instance, The New York Times recently quoted Dr. Susan Schiffman, a sweetener specialist and professor of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center, who admitted she has “safety concerns” about sucralose. Other nutritionists have observed that people who consume a lot of artificially sweetened foods also end up eating an excess of foods loaded with regular sugar, negating any calorie or health savings.
Customer confusion has also been reported with low-sugar products and confections that are not necessarily low in calories.
The GI Factor
As the low carb craze wanes, the next chapter in diet/nutrition is believed to be the glycemic index, a scientific ranking that classifies foods based on how quickly they raise blood sugar. According to “The G.I. Diet” author Rick Gallop, the secret to losing pounds is avoiding foods that cause blood sugar levels to rise sky high. Such foods trigger a release of insulin, promoting fat storage and causing a quick return of hunger, believes Gallop, past president of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.
Recently-developed additives are catering to the GI concept. Palatinose, also known generically as isomaltulose, is a unique sugar/functional carbohydrate from Palatinit, being touted as a "healthy" sugar that "can help reduce the glycemic and insulin response of foods." Recently, Palatinose, which has self-affirmed GRAS status in the United States, was approved by the European Commission for use in the European Union (EU) in all foods and beverages.
The United Nation’s World Health Organization is just one group that has embraced the GI concept; Australia and South Africa have even allowed glycemic index on food labeling. But in this country there are skeptics — American scientists have not yet agreed on the GI’s validity.
Basically, the dispute is whether or not the glycemic index can be trusted as a tool to help control appetite, weight, obesity, diabetes, and other health concerns, according to panelists at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting this past July.
At this point, the conclusion is that the GI is a “moving target;” published values of specific foods can vary up to 25 percent, a range that scientists consider unacceptable in most arenas, noted Kathie Wrick on the IFT panel, and a partner with the Food Group, a food consultancy firm. It was also noted that GI values can vary widely from person to person. Further complicating the issue — the measure can be affected by factors such as serving size, the amount of processing and preparation, even ripeness or serving temperature.
So where does that leave the United States on the issue? No major American health organization has yet to recognize the GI in disease prevention or management, and because of this, Wrick believes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may be slow to take a stance on GI food labeling.
Nevertheless, “consumers are ready for the glycemic index, and we have to respond because products are going to be developed around this concept,” said Linda Douglas, on the IFT panel, and scientific affairs manager for GTC Nutrition. Low- and no-sugar candies will no doubt be a part of this group.
The Low-Down on Low-Cal Sweeteners
Variety is a sweet thing. The current availability of a multitude of low-calorie sweeteners allows candy manufacturers to utilize a “multiple sweetener approach” — using the most appropriate sweetener, or combination of sweeteners, for any given confection, providing products with increased stability, improved taste, lower production costs and more choices for the consumer.
Low-Calorie Sweeteners Currently Used in the United States
Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame K). Invented in 1967, it was granted general approval in the U.S. in 2003 for use in a variety of confectionery products including chewing gum, dry dessert mixes, soft candy, hard candy and breath mints.
Aspartame. Invented in 1965, aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose. It is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients ever, with more than 200 scientific studies confirming its safety. In 1981 aspartame was approved for use, making it the first low-calorie sweetener approved by the FDA in more than 25 years.
Neotame. A no-calorie sweetener, which is a derivative of the dipeptide composed of the amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is approximately 30-40 times sweeter than aspartame; 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar. The FDA approved the use of neotame as a general purpose sweetener in July 2002.
Saccharin. Saccharin has been used to sweeten foods and beverages without calories or carbohydrates for over a century. In 1991, the FDA formally withdrew its 1977 proposal to ban the use of saccharin.
Sucralose. Sucralose (available under the Splenda brand name) is the only non-caloric sweetener made from sugar. Invented in 1976, sucralose was granted approval by the FDA in 1998 for use in 15 food and beverage categories — the broadest initial food ingredient approval ever granted by the FDA. In 1999 it was approved as a "general purpose" sweetener.
Low-Calorie Sweeteners on the Horizon
Alitame. Invented by Pfizer, Inc., alitame (brand name Aclame) is a sweetener formed from the amino acids L-aspartic acid and D-alanine, and a novel amine; it is 2,000 times sweeter than sucrose.
Cyclamate. A non-caloric sweetener discovered in 1937, it is 30 times sweeter than sucrose. It is stable in heat and cold and has good shelf life. Banned in the U.S. in 1970, there is currently a petition before the FDA for re-approval.
Reduced-Calorie Sweeteners
Polyols. Carbohydrates and not sugars, polyols are used volume-for-volume in the same amount as sugar. Often referred to as "sugar replacers" with consumers and sugar alcohols with scientists, they are neither sugars nor alcohols.  Polyols currently in use in the U.S. are: erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (including maltitol syrups), isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. They provide fewer calories per gram than sugar, do not cause sudden increases in blood glucose levels, but excessive consumption may cause gastrointestinal symptoms.
Tagatose. A low carbohydrate functional sweetener, very similar to fructose in structure. The FDA has granted “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) status.
Trehalose. A multi-functional sweetener found naturally in foods such as mushrooms and shrimp. The commercial product is made from starch by an enzymatic process. It may be used in nutrition bars and white chocolate for cookies or chips, among others. It has GRAS status.
Source: Calorie Control Council; (http: //