Some of the biggest candies in the confection industry are getting a "better for you" makeover, but will consumers reach for healthier options when craving something sweet?
According to Kristen Riggs, The Hershey Company's chief growth officer, organic and low- to zero-sugar food options have been growing for years but remain "underdeveloped" in the candy arena. Throughout the pandemic, the company saw sales of low- and no-sugar candies continue to rise as many Americans became more conscious of health issues linked to COVID-19 comorbities, such as obesity, heart problems and diabetes.
This motivation to opt for a healthier treat coupled with the importance of simple in-home family gatherings like making s'mores in the backyard made it a no-brainer for Hershey to rebrand many of its classics as being "better for you."
"I've been covering the industry for 10 years," Crystal Lindell, editor-in-chief for "Candy Industry," told TODAY Food. "In survey data, people often say they want low-sugar options, but then at point of retail, they don’t actually purchase them. Now people are really thinking about being healthier, taking care of their bodies because of COVID."
Back in 2018, for example, when Reese's debuted its Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Thins, many fans on social media were not interested in compromising their sugar intake. Some tweeters asked "what's the point?"
"A lot of people, when they have a Snickers or a Hershey, they want a Snickers or a Hershey. They don’t want something healthier," Lindell said.
But the candy expert added how 2020 guidelines to consume less than 10% of a day's calories in added sugar and a more health-conscious perspective from consumers makes it a good time for Hershey to rebrand their candies.
That's why Riggs and her team considered the range of customers' interests when it comes to cutting down on sugar — if they want to cut down at all.
The lineup of "better-for-you" sweets include portion-sized THINs (now available in Reese’s, York Peppermint Patties and Kit Kats), so the recipe is the same but the chocolate itself is smaller. The company is also rebranding sugar-free products as "Zero Sugar", which includes Jolly Rancher, Reese's, Hershey Chocolate and more. And for the folks who like to indulge but prefer to buy organic, Hershey is launching the first-ever Organic Reese's and Hershey's chocolate, both milk and dark, in retailers nationwide by the end of February. Vegan Kit Kats, which U.K. parent company Nestlé debuted across the pond earlier this month, have yet to make their way into Hershey's product announcements.
"For candy, there is smaller market for organic and smaller to more mid-sized companies making organic," Lindell told TODAY. "People are usually willing to pay premium price for it, which companies are probably banking on."
The 1.5-ounce, two-cup packs have a suggested retail price of $1.99. Regular, nonorganic 1.5-ounce packs vary in price, but the product costs 99 cents on Target.com and 69 cents on Instacart, for example.
"We believe better-for-you confection could represent $1B in growth over the next 10 years, but in order to realize that growth opportunity we need to expand our offerings across the brands consumers love with the benefits they are seeking," Riggs said.
So how will these new candies taste?
According to Lindell, swapping out sugars in drinks, gummies and gum can be much simpler because sugar isn't just a tasty ingredient in chocolate, it's formulaic. This means it affects how the chocolate becomes, well, chocolate.
To see how they produced the new Zero Sugar chocolates, TODAY obtained the ingredients list from a Hershey spokesperson. One of the principle ingredients in all three Zero Sugar chocolates is maltitol. Combined with other ingredients like cocoa butter, chocolate and milk fat, maltitol is a sugar alcohol that's a popular substitute for the real stuff. Some people may be sensitive to it, like those on a low-FODMAP diet to treat gas or irritable bowel syndrome.
Whether the Zero Sugar and organic chocolates and Jolly Ranchers can be expected to taste like their sweeter countertops, Riggs told TODAY, "Absolutely!"
It looks like we'll just have to bite into the peanut buttery cup for our own taste test.