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    GROCERY: Candy: Sweet success

    Cacao's health benefits may have snagged all the headlines, but nonchocolate candy has its own better-for-you story.

    Dark chocolate has been on the lips of nearly everyone -- literally -- since its antioxidant properties have come to light. Brands such as Hershey’s and M&M's have rushed out varieties with high contents of cacao, the beans used to make chocolate and cocoa. But dark chocolate's high profile of late has tended to obscure another rising star in the sweets aisle: better-for-you nonchocolate candy.

    The segment's newfound popularity is backed by recent category sales figures. While sales dollars of the other segments declined -- even in dietetic chocolate candy -- dietetic nonchocolate candy was up 9.8 percent in food stores over the past 12 months or so, according to ACNielsen.

    It was the highest gainer in the entire candy category, according to ACNielsen -- and even that performance pales against the heady 31.3 percent surge dietetic nonchocolate candy enjoyed the previous year, most likely due to a torrent of new product introductions. (ACNielsen's latest figures are for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 12, 2006, for food stores with $2 million or more in sales, excluding supercenters. For more information on the segment, see page 8 of the Front End section.)

    The industry is seeing an increased number of nonchocolate products with such healthful attributes as vitamin C, reduced sugar, and calcium, confirms Susan Fussell, senior director of communications for the Vienna, Va.-based National Confectioners Association. These items were originally fueled by the Atkins craze of a few years ago, notes Fussell, but seem to have taken on a life of their own since that diet's demise.

    Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that candy is "a great delivery system" for nutritious ingredients, she adds.

    Of course, the key to creating a better-for-you confection is making sure the flavor and texture remain appealing, stresses Fussell. "It has to taste the same as it did before ingredients were added or removed, with no bitter aftertaste," she says. "It also has to feel the same in the mouth."

    Taste is certainly important to Hillside, N.J.-based Hillside Candy, maker of the Golightly line of sugar-free hard and chewy candies for adult palates, in such delectable flavors as butterscotch, cinnamon, lemon iced tea, and coffee.

    Says Hillside v.p. marketing Susan Rosenthal Jay of the Splenda-sweetened treats: "People are interested in taking care of themselves, and reducing sugar is a small way to contribute to their overall health....[Our] target customer is anyone interested in health and wellness, from baby boomers to exercisers to diabetics."

    Adds Jay, "With the aging of America, people who are interested in their health will still be seeking out treats, but with a health angle."

    Additionally, the company has this summer branched into the burgeoning natural food market with its Go Naturally line. Observes Hillside's owner, Ted Cohen, "The baby boomer population -- and their children -- are addressing the need to make healthy choices in what they consume....More and more consumers are knowledgeable about the benefits of consuming foods that are not modified."

    Of course, candy's most enthusiastic consumers have always been youngsters. While brands like Golightly cater primarily to grown-ups, Atlanta-based Innovative Candy Concepts (ICC) has been leading the way in offering better-for-you candy that kids can get excited about, under the Too Tarts SmartChoice brand.

    "We reformulated our entire line [two years ago] to replace the refined sugar with real fruit juice concentrates and fruit juice puree," explains ICC director, public relations Tracy Condon. "The new lineup contains 50 percent to 60 percent fewer calories than the original candies, and has only between 15 to 18 calories per serving. [It's] also diabetic-friendly. Most importantly, the flavor profiles are far superior in taste, as shown by our position as America's best-selling kids' candy."

    According to ICC president and c.e.o. Armand Hammer, the company has big plans for the future, including "a lot of national media coverage" in 2007, with items to be touted by "big celebrity names in health." Hammer further notes that ICC is working on extending the SmartChoice brand to "a whole range of products for kids," beyond the candy category.

    Although candy often serves as an energy booster, most people don't see it as food for serious athletes -- but that perception may change as a result of last year's introduction of Jelly Belly's Sport Beans, which supply the carbohydrates and electrolytes depleted by at least 60 minutes of exercise, thereby preventing fatigue and enhancing performance.

    "The single-serving 100-calorie packet size is the right size and quantity for carrying along on a run and managing carb load," notes Jelly Belly spokesman Tomi Holt. "For example, in a five-hour mountain-bike ride, the rider may expend 2,000 or 3,000 calories -- they need to consume food to keep going."

    Despite the segment's current success, however, merchandising better-for-you candy poses a particular challenge: Should it be placed with mainstream items or in a separate section?

    Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, which operates 884 stores in five Southeastern states, opted for integration.

    "Nonchocolate 'healthier' candies are located in the regular candy section," says Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. "Our sugar-free products are in line with our traditional candies." The approach appears to have been the right one for the retailer. Notes Brous, "In regard to [these] items, sales have seen stable to modest increases due to diabetes and health-and-wellness issues."

    Most manufacturers would agree with Publix's strategy. ICC's Hammer says that his company is "pretty aggressive" in its use of shippers and power wings in the conventional candy aisle, with the displays educating consumers on the "SmartChoice concept." Hammer is also keen on getting parents and kids to notice his candy at the front end, through the use of eye-catching shelf talkers.

    In addition to various display configuration, Jelly Belly has taken advantage of its unique fitness link via "a tie-in promotion for a subscription with purchase to Men's Health or Women's Sport, [which] was introduced in the spring," according to Holt.

    Fussell of the National Confectioners Association notes the importance of cross-merchandising to the segment's sales. Her organization suggests placing better-for-you candy with such items as bottled water, dietary supplements, and even paper bags and plastic containers, so that moms who regularly pack their kids' lunches will add the sweets as a midday treat.

    It seems clear that the current movement toward better-for-you candy will continue to build. Although it won't comprise the bulk of the category, Fussell expects the segment to "continue to grow," especially in the area of functional or fortified foods, as well as calorie and portion control. Notes ICC's Hammer, "It can only go one place, and that's up."

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