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Things have never looked sweeter for sugar-free candy. It's been moved from a pegged endcap diagonally across from the pharmacy to a continually growing shelf set in the mainstream candy aisle. Sales are being helped by an increase in the number of people with diabetes and those concerned about obesity and health and fitness in general. Plus, artificial sweeteners have been improved, and now offer the taste and characteristics of sugar. Throw in a slew of new products, and the sugar-free candy category is definitely a home run.
Sales in the category are pushing $100 million and are expected to grow even faster now that sugar-based industry giants Hershey, Nestle, and Kraft Foods have entered the fray. In March, Hershey introduced its line of Hershey's and Reese's Sugar Free chocolates targeting the estimated 17 million Americans with diabetes. The line is made with the lacitol sugar substitute, which is slowly metabolized and generally causes only a small rise in blood sugar levels. "Consumers have been asking for Hershey's Sugar Free chocolates for years," says Christine Wiker, marketing director, Hershey's Franchise, at Hershey Foods Corp. in Hershey, Pa.
Nestle has also gotten into sugar-free chocolates with a version of its Nestle Turtles—caramel and pecan clusters wrapped in chocolate. According to Information Resources, Inc., unit sales of Nestle Sugar Free Turtles jumped more than 4,600 percent in the 52 weeks ended March 23, to almost 1.5 million packages.
Kraft is seeing success with its Crème Savers Sugar Free Hard Candy, which was launched last summer, and Altoids Strips, sugar-free breath freshening strips that debuted in March. "Sugar-free confections products fit well with the macro trends in the United States," says Larry Baumann, senior manager, communications, Snacks & Confections Divisions, at Kraft Foods in East Hanover, N.J. "With the aging of the U.S. consumer base, the growing number of people living with diabetes, and general consumer interest in lowering sugar intake, sugar-free products are well-positioned for the future."
"Sugar-free used to be considered a specialized concept, but now it is pretty much mainstream," says Steve Schuster, president of Schuster Marketing Corp. in Milwaukee, which manufactures the Blitz line of sugar-free gums and mints.
"Sugar-free has certainly been on the upswing," says Susan Rosenthal Jay, v.p., marketing, at Hillside Candy Co., the Hillside, N.J.-based manufacturer of the GoLightly brand. "A lot of that has to do not only with paying attention to health and wellness, but also obesity in America," she says.
Traditionally a hard candy manufacturer, Hillside last year introduced its GoLightly Doubler Collection of chewy candies in strawberry & cream, peach & cream, and chocolate & cream flavors. "In stores we are seeing a gain in sugar-free SKUs and more facings," Rosenthal Jay says. "If a store is committed to sugar-free, they will have a different presentation from many manufacturers."
GoLightly products are sweetened with Splenda, which is Sucralose and is derived from sugar. "We switched to Splenda about a year ago," she says. "We feel that sales have improved because it tastes better."
"This whole sector is evolving very rapidly because of the different theories on diets right now," says Schuster. "The main sugar-free consumer used to be the diabetic, and there are millions of people who are diabetic and don't even know they have diabetes, but right now there is a boom of consumers looking for sugar-free because they are on things like the Atkins diet and are really monitoring their carb intake," he says. "This is going to lead to a huge growth in sugar-free going forward."
One area where sugar-free has reached parity with its sugared counterparts is in the gums and mints section. As four out of five dentists can tell you, the sugar-free gum category came into the mainstream thanks to Trident, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. Trident, a division of Cadbury Adams USA in Parsippany, N.J., plans to introduce a Trident Cool Rush line in November. "We are leveraging the most advanced technology that we have to deliver that great, long-lasting flavor," says Tom McPartlin, director of marketing, Trident brand.
The launch will be supported by a $40 million advertising and promotion campaign, including buy-one-get-one-free offers, floor stands, and mini wing displays.
That tactic is also being used by sister brand Dentyne Fire, an intense cinnamon-flavored sugarless gum that launched in May. "We have TV advertising that goes on the air in the first week of September," says brand manager Carlos Rivera. "We have a celebrity spokesperson, Chayanne, who is a Latin pop artist making his crossover into the U.S. market. He has all of the imagery and personality characteristics that we would like to associate with Dentyne Fire."
The gum was developed to complement Dentyne Ice, which is the leading sugar-free gum in the intense flavor segment. "While dental hygiene and dental concerns play into the equation, the primary driver of the growth of Dentyne Ice and similar brands is the enhanced flavor delivery," says Victoria Lozano, senior brand manager. "From a formulation perspective, sugar-free gums can deliver a longer lasting flavor than a sugared product, and this is really what is driving people to the sugar-free gums."