Mainstream consumers are opting for sugar-free and low-sugar confectionery products as part of a healthy lifestyle. No longer the domain of diabetic patients, reduced-sugar candies offer the option of sin without the sugar. Plus, new naturally derived sweeteners made from stevia are poised to potentially fill a sweet spot in the health and wellness category once they receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.).

Sugar-free products are gaining mainstream acceptance and popularity. An NPD Group study on national eating trends found 29% of those surveyed admitted to eating unsweetened/no sugar foods at least once in two weeks. And a consumer survey conducted by Deloitte in the spring of 2008 found 66% of those surveyed wanted more low-sugar product options in packaged food choices.

"Trends in the U.S. Market for Sugar, Sugar Substitutes and Sweeteners," a report published in October by Packaged Facts, found the 2007 retail market for sweeteners was at $3.1 billion, and projected the market would grow to $3.2 billion by 2012. Packaged Facts noted the market may shift with the introduction of stevia extracts, the continued growth of the organic and less-refined sugar categories, as well as a decline in the use of saccharin.

Stevia-based sweeteners may become a popular choice for consumers looking to satisfy a sweet tooth. Extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, the sweetener has been used in foods and beverages in Asia and South America for years. It has no calories and is 250 to 300 times as sweet as sugar.

Stevia-based sweeteners already are cleared for use in dietary supplements in the United States. Earlier this year both Cargill and Whole Earth Sweetener Co. L.L.C. petitioned the F.D.A. to be able to use stevia-based sweeteners in foods and beverages. The companies currently are waiting on F.D.A. clearance.

Natural, low-glycemic sweeteners

In the organic chocolate market, lower-glycemic, natural sugars are the sweeteners of choice for consumers watching their sugar intake, said Curtis Vreeland, senior analyst for the confectionery industry at Packaged Facts.

"In terms of the organic side of chocolate, there is a big move toward lower-glycemic sugars, like rice, tapioca or agave," Mr. Vreeland said. "They’re not sugar-free, just lower in sugar. And in the premium chocolate market, someone concerned with sugar might reach for a deep, dark chocolate bar. That’s one reason why dark chocolate is beating them all — people are trying to manage their sugar intake, as well as obesity."

A higher cacao percentage in the chocolate usually means there is less sugar, according to Cook’s Illustrated magazine. It noted darker chocolates with higher cacao percentages will be correspondingly less sweet.

Something sweet to chew on

Sales of sugar-free chewing gum are on the rise. Sugar-free gum sales reached more than $1 billion for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 1, up from $953 million for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 3, 2007, and up from $686 million for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 6, 2004, at mass-merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., according to ACNielsen.

"In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, sugar-free gums entered the U.S. market, but what they all lacked was the great taste that consumers wanted," said Brian Wright, marketing communications director for the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. "When Wrigley introduced Extra, its first sugar-free gum in the United States, consumers found the long-lasting flavor they were looking for and within five years Extra became the No. 1 selling brand of sugar-free gum. Since then the U.S. gum category has grown steadily with sugar-free gum being the significant driver."

Mr. Wright noted that today, sugar-free chewing gum makes up the majority of Wrigley’s product portfolio, which includes Orbit, as well as Extra, Eclipse and 5. Orbit was the first sugar-free gum to receive the American Dental Association Seal of Approval because it is proven to help fight cavities, strengthen teeth and reduce harmful plaque acids.

In 2009, Wrigley plans to debut Orbit Strawberry Mint and Positively Pomegranate flavors to its line-up. The two flavors were unveiled in 2008 as limited edition flavors, and now are growing in popularity as fruit flavors continue to be a key contributor to gum category growth, Mr. Wright said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 9, 2008, starting on Page 39. Click
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