Reporting from Chicago ——Hawking the latest treats at the Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago this week, confectioners made promises that seemed too sweet to believe.
Saleswomen for Hershey Co. handed out Reese's Minis, chocolate-peanut butter cups the size of marbles, which they touted as ideal for portion control. Nearby, staff members for candy behemoth Mars chatted up their sugar-free Dove chocolates and the company's goodnessKnows snack squares containing "phytonutrients that have been shown to help support healthy circulation."
"You can get your fix in one bite and know it is good for your body and good for the world," said Sarah Endline, founder of the New York City candy maker.
The idea of marrying "healthful" and "sweets" might seem like an oxymoron, particularly here at the largest U.S. gathering of candy makers, where a dizzying selection of sweets had attendees bouncing on the trade show floor like kids going wild on Halloween.
But such products are becoming more common, manufacturers said, as the industry tries to strike a balance between feeding the public's desire for indulgence and responding to government pressure to fight obesity.
State and local lawmakers increasingly are pushing junk-food taxes and other fat-fighting measures. And in recent months First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity has made headlines with increasing frequency.
Food companies are listening. An alliance of major manufacturers this month said the companies would roll out more-healthful options, reduce portion sizes and lower calories in some existing products. The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation — a coalition of more than 80 companies including Mars, Hershey and Nestle USA — vowed to cut 1.5 trillion calories by the end of 2015. (The companies, however, haven't released specifics on what these new products would be or what existing products would become slimmed down.)
The political pressure may be having some effect.
For the first quarter of 2010, two of the three fastest-growing confectionary product segments were sugar-free diet candy and sugarless gum, according to data compiled by Information Resources Inc. and the National Confectioners Assn.
"When you start seeing the White House getting involved in the debate, and reading news stories about how the Food and Drug Administration should be regulating salt, you know the industry has to make changes," said Phyllis Cretors, president of Cornfields Inc.
The Waukegan, Ill.-based private label manufacturer makes snack food for Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and other grocery chains.
In recent months, Cretors said, grocery chains and vending operators have been demanding less salt in packages of veggie chips and puffed corn snacks.
Yet it's a demand that's not always easily met.
"We've already reduced the sodium levels on the ingredients we control, but a lot of seasoning companies use a lot of sodium in the products they sell us," Cretors said. "So that pressure we're feeling is being passed down the chain."
For some confectionary firms, though, the demand for low-calorie snacks is an extension of a longtime trend. Chewing gum makers, for instance, have been promoting their sugarless products for decades, said Dave Fleischer, spokesman for Cadbury North America.
Domestic sales of sugar-free gum grew 7.3% last year, faster than the 3.6% increase in sales seen by the overall confectionery industry, according to research by the National Confectioners Assn. Eighty-seven percent of all gum sold in the U.S. today is sugarless, according to the industry association.
"The campaign [by Mrs. Obama] may not be new from our perspective, but it's great news for the gum market," Fleischer said. "We see gum as a guilt-free snack."
But candy lovers resolved to eat well this year may need a healthy serving of skepticism, said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"For years, the chocolate industry in particular has bragged that their bars are healthy because of the peanuts or nuts in them, or that some of their products include milk and that's good protein for the consumer," Jacobson said.
"A candy bar is typically a lot of calories and not a lot of nutrition," he added. "That's really the bottom line."
Confectioners counter that in the war against obesity their sweets aren't to blame: Candy consumption accounts for less than 2% of the average American's diet.
"Candy and chocolate are treats, part of life's little pleasures," said Susan Smith, spokeswoman for the confectioners association. "As with most foods, candy should be consumed in moderation."