Candy's still dandy, but now a little less unhealthy


A sugar-free, low-fat Halloween: It sounds about as appealing as a gore-free slasher film. But a growing number of Americans each year are putting aside their candy corn and gooey caramel apples in favor of more dental- and waistline-friendly alternatives.

And with the introduction of some improved sweeteners, the sacrifice may not be as great as it appears

Sales of sugar-free candy grew by 307 percent between 1982 and 1991, compared with an increase of 162 percent for sugar-sweetened candy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. A growing sense of health-consciousness among consumers of all ages accounts for much of this dramatic increase.

"It's not just diabetics coming in and asking for sugar-free candy," says Pam Maly, manager of Candy Candy in Towson, "but parents with small children who just don't want the sugar.

Ms. Maly says that sales of sugar-free and lo-cal candies have nearly doubled since last year in her store, which now offers at least 20 varieties of these confections, including hard candy, taffy, chocolate-covered nuts and raisins, licorice and jelly beans.

Candy Candy is not alone. Several area candy merchants have also increased their lines of sugar-free or lo-fat items.

The selection at Scoops, in Owings Mills Mall, includes a sugar-free hard candy made by "Go Lightly," sweetened with hydrogenated starch hydrolysate, an all-natural corn derivative. The same manufacturer produces a 16-calorie version that contains no fat, no cholesterol and no sodium. Scoops also carries products by Ann Raskas, whose 14-calorie hard candy contains no fat.

At White Marsh Mall, Mr. Bulky's Treats and Gifts has a candy selection that's almost entirely sugar-free. Chocolate malt balls, cola bottles, gummi bears and gummi worms are just a few varieties available.

In general, the sugar-free and lo-cal candies are higher in price than their sugar-sweetened counterparts. At Mr. Bulky's, prices range from $5.99-$9.99 per pound. But Candy Candy reports that while prices for sugar-free were initially higher, they now are comparable to prices of regular candy.

Consumers should be aware that sugar-free is not always synonymous with low-calorie. Sorbital, maltitol and HSH, for example, are calorie-packed syrups frequently used to sweeten these confections. Products containing Sorbital and HSH also carry voluntary warning labels indicating that the candy can have a laxative effect if consumed in excess. But many consumers who purchase these products are more concerned with the dental benefits of sacrificing sugar than they are with the calories.

Lowering fat consumption is an other concern for some sweet-eaters, and several candy companies are experimenting with new possibilities in this area. Hershey Foods, for instance, is currently offering a low-fat candy bar in a limited test market. The candy bar contains only 150 calories and 9 grams of fat, compared with the 200 calories and 12 grams of fat in Hershey's milk chocolate bar.

But while many Americans are consuming their fat-free and sugarless snacks with fervor, there are still those who cling to their passion for old-fashioned, fat- and calorie-laden candy. At the Candy Box in Catonsville, owner Mary Chizmadia says she gets few requests for low-calorie confections.

"We're a candy store," she says. You don't come in if you're looking for lower calories."

The idea may take some getting used to. Many people can still recall the days when health-conscious sweets consisted of "Dreamy Tofu," or the flavorless diabetic cookies found in the exotic foods aisle of the grocery store, next to the cans of low-sodium soups.

It was difficult then to imagine a time when you might satisfy your sweet tooth with sugar-free or lo-fat foods that actually tasted good -- but that time may have arrived.

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