While your shoppers are, by definition, healthy eaters, they are also human. And as much as we'd like to deny it, being human involves grappling with certain cravings and temptations—many of which are of the sweet variety. While sugar, fat and chocolate could be considered a natural foods shopper's worst enemies, they're also essential ingredients to one of life's greatest pleasures: candy. In fact, if sales numbers are any indication, it seems that your shoppers are taking a "don't mind if I do" attitude toward sweet treats, and what's more, the growth of organic candy sales is leaving conventional competitors in its sugar-coated dust.
According to market research companies SPINS and Information Resources Inc., sales in the organic candy and individual snack category grew 44 percent to $19.9 million in 2004, while conventional candy sales grew only 0.5 percent that same year. Even more impressive, sales of organic chocolate candy grew by 67.3 percent, while conventional chocolate sales dropped by 2.2 percent in 2004.
It's true that conventional candy has its appeal—who hasn't been lured to the snack counter at the movie theater or been enticed by nostalgic thoughts of childhood sweets? However, more and more natural and organic manufacturers are creating candy options that mimic their conventional counterparts where it matters—taste and texture—while shunning the ingredients that make them unpopular with your shoppers.
Pamela Henry-Walker, founder and owner of Prescott, Ariz.-based Pamela's Raw Organic Candy, developed her "Almond Pammies" during a time when she was detoxifying her body. "I wanted to avoid wheat, dairy, gluten, preservatives and chemicals, but missed candy. Creating this product was a response to my search for candy with pure ingredients," she says. Pammies are made with heart-healthy ingredients like organic almonds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds, and eschew partially hydrogenated oils. Furthermore, unlike conventional candies, many of which contain high-fructose corn syrup, or at best, refined sugar, Pammies are sweetened with raw honey, making them suitable for vegetarians, raw-foodists and even some diabetics. Pamela's Raw Organic Candy has enjoyed sales growth of 20 percent over the last year, according to Henry-Walker.
Purity, organic ingredients and unprocessed sugars are important components of many natural candy products. Arnold Coombs, founder and managing partner of Coombs Family Farms, the Brattleboro, Vt.-based makers of maple syrup and maple syrup candy, notes that his product is popular because it is made of pure organic maple syrup and is not blended with other sweeteners like refined cane sugar or corn syrup. "Using those other ingredients does make for a less expensive product, but it doesn't have the flavor or the quality of the unmixed candy," Coombs says. "We have tripled our sales since we made the switch to pure maple syrup candy," he notes.
Besides sidestepping processed sugars and fats, naturals manufacturers are also using wholesome coloring agents and coagulants in their confections. Joel Dee, president of Carpentaria, Calif.-based Edward and Sons Trading Co., producer of the "Let's Do … Organic!" candy line, makes pure candy that is as close to its traditional counterpart as possible. The company's line includes Classic Gummi Bears, Jelly Gummi Bears, Super-Sour Gummi Bears and Licorice Bears, all of which are gluten- and gelatin-free and made with colors derived from organic fruit juices, as well as organic spinach powder. "Using organic fruit and vegetable juice concentrates fulfills a number of purposes. They help to fill out the sweetness profile, giving more character to the flavor of each candy than just straight sugar would—they impart the sweetness and flavors of the fruits themselves," Dee says. "While organic juices may not allow us to get the kind of fluorescent color appeal of conventional candy, that's not a negative on our part. The important thing is that the product is fun and playful, and that consumers can identify different colors with different flavors." In the three years Edward and Sons' candy line has been in production, sales have increased 20 percent each year, Dee says.
And for those who crave a low-calorie treat but want to steer clear of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, which has been linked to cancer, headaches, weight gain and other harmful conditions, xylitol is one answer. This natural, low-calorie sweetener has no damaging side effects. What's more, xylitol has been proven to hinder bacteria growth, especially in the mouth and upper respiratory areas. According to a study published in the January 2002 issue of Caries Research, "the addition of 10 percent xylitol to a triclosan-containing [toothpaste] reduces the number of mutans streptococci [bacteria] in saliva and dental plaque." And in a study published in the January 1993 issue of Journal of the College of Health, researchers found that "a reduction ranging from 30 percent to more than 85 percent in dental [cavities] can be achieved simply by using a few xylitol chewing gums daily over a period of one to three years. In individual cases, virtually total, long-term protection against [cavities] has been observed."
Brian Craig, director of international sales and marketing for Orem, Utah-based Xlear, which makes xylitol products, offers another reason why xylitol is healthy. "The body itself produces between five to 10 grams a day. Xylitol prevents bacteria from growing by inhibiting its binding sites so it can't adhere to sugar molecules. It deprives bacteria of its energy source, so it can't grow and reproduce and create an infection," he says. SparX, the first product in Xlear's Fine and Dandy Candy line, "is reminiscent of the conventional candy Nerds. Kids love them," says Craig.
Aptos, Calif.-based Newman's Own Organics also creates products that hold true to traditional favorites' flavors, but with healthier ingredients, fewer calories and less fat. The company's milk chocolate peanut butter cups, for instance, are made with organic milk chocolate, peanut butter and sugar, and one piece contains only 60 calories and 4 grams of fat, while its conventional twin contains 90 calories and 5 grams of fat.
Newman's Own Organics' policy, which seems to fit in with the entire category's take on natural candy, is that healthy eaters deserve to splurge every once in a while, and when they do, they should make that indulgence count. "Natural foods shoppers eat healthfully consistently—they usually eat in moderation, so having a little chocolate or candy is not going to lead them into adult obesity. That's why you see a lot of different options of high-quality treats in the natural foods industry—not because consumers eat a lot of sweets, but because they eat a balanced diet that allows them to have an occasional treat. They want the treats they do eat to be very high-quality," says Peter Mehan, chief executive of Newman's Own Organics.
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 28, 30