Hard candies sweetened with sugar substitutes have gone mainstream, due largely to an increasingly diabetic audience, general obesity concerns and health-conscious consumers … as well as the fact that the products now taste better than ever before.

If tasting is believing, then today’s sugar-free hard candies are sure to convince not just the diabetic and health-conscious, but everyday consumers that they’re as flavorful as the carb-laden competition.

According to Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources, Inc., sales of sugar-free/diet candy totaled $71.4 for the latest 52 weeks ending July 12, 2009. Among the top five brands in the category are Sugar FreeLifeSavers from the Wm. Wrigley Junior Co., available in four flavors: Butter Toffee,Wint-O-Green,Pep-O-Mint andArctic Berry Sorbets.Werther’s Original also makes the cut. The brand went sugar-free with peg packages of its Sugar Free Classic Hard Caramel Candy in 2005. And in 2008, it introducedWerther’s Original Sugar Free Minis in three varieties: Hard Candies, Caramel Coffee and Caramel Mint. Other brands making the Top 10 areSimply Lite Sweet’N Low, sugar-freeJolly Ranchersfrom The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA’s sugar-freeNips brand and Best Sweet’sBaskin Robbinsbrand.

“The sugar-free candy category experienced explosive growth during the years of the low-carb craze,” explains Nicole Watson, associate brand manager for Best Sweet. And although sugar-free candy sales are down from 2008, “we expect the aging Boomer generation to refuel growth in the category,” she says. “Consumers who are challenged with following a diabetic diet plan and those who simply choose to live a more health-conscious lifestyle represent the core sugar-free candy customer.”

Splenda (sucralose) remains the leading alternative sweetener in the sugar-free hard candy category, Watson adds. Best Sweet usesSplenda in itsBaskin RobbinsSugar Free Smooth & Creamy Hard Candy because the sweetener is actually made from real sugar and, thus, tastes a lot like the real thing.

Recently, Best Sweet added an Espresso ‘n Cream flavor to the ice cream-flavored hard candy line. The new variety combines the taste of espresso with real cream and features a natural swirl appearance.

“When companies first began manufacturing sugar-free candies, the products and flavors were much simpler than the current offering,” Watson says. “Today, consumers can walk into any mass retailer, grocer or drug store and find an array of sugar-fee products, from dairy-based hard candies with sophisticated flavor combinations … to chocolate bars chocked full of nougat, caramel and nuts.

“Shopping in the sugar-free candy section is the closest it’s ever been to shopping for sugar candy, in terms of both taste and innovation,” she concludes.

No one knows this better than the folks at Eda’s Sugarfree Candies, whoseEda’s Sugarfreebrand has been around since the beginning of sugar-free as we know it (1958, to be exact).

“Sweeteners have come a long way,” points out company president Brian Berry, adding that Eda’s was ahead of its time in producing sugar-free products made with sorbitol, a natural ingredient that doesn’t have the after-taste long associated with the category and contains no net carbs.

Not only are sugar-free products tasting better, but today’s consumers are looking to lead healthier lifestyles in which such items play more of a role, Berry says. This trend, coupled with the pursuit of quality products, is driving sales at Eda’s Sugarfree, whose line is produced in America, thus meeting demand for domestic-made offerings, as well.

The manufacturer’s most recent introductions include sugar-free hard candies in popcorn, bubble gum, grapefruit, mango, eucalyptus and red licorice flavors. And it just started selling a red-and-black licorice mix.

Another brand that’s mixing things up in the sugar-free category is Sorbee’s best-sellingCrystal Lightline. Made withSplenda,Crstyal Lightcomes in three flavors (cherry pomegranate, wild strawberry, and lemonade and pink lemonade) as well as an assorted variety (cherry, orange, strawberry and raspberry). It also contains 50% fewer calories than regular hard candy and is certified kosher.

Meanwhile, Sorbee’sEat Rite Be Fit line offers hard candies in butterscotch and fruit flavors. Like theCrystal Lightline,Eat Rite Be Fit is made withSplenda and contains 50% fewer calories than regular hard candy. It’s also kosher parve.

Sorbee executive vice president Barry Sokol says that not just the flavor, but the overall quality of sugar-free products has improved. Like others in the industry, he notes that the category attracts not just diabetics, buy those who are watching their weight or want to control their sugar or calorie intake for whatever the reason.

“If it tastes good, they’ll continue to buy it,” Sokol says. “I don’t care about the first sale … I’m concerned with the second sale.”

More sales might come from the fact that distribution channels for sugar-free hard candy have expanded. Whether it’s mass, grocery, drug or convenience stores, or even dollar stores, sugar-free offerings are becoming more mainstream. Sorbee products do well in hospital gift stores and college bookstores, too, Sokol adds.

Distribution channels also run deep at Hillside Candy, whoseSplenda-sweetenedGoLightly brand ships to 20 countries around the world, addressing diabetic demands in the Middle East, Central and Latin America, and Asia, as well as the United States.

“While there are many sweeteners available in the market, we have usedSplenda almost since it became available,” says Susan Rosenthal Jay, vice president of marketing/export for Hillside. As a result,“Golightly sugar-free does not have a chemical taste,” she continues.

Bottom line: Sugar-free is here to stay and garnering new fans every day.

As Rick Griseto of Chicago-based contract manufacturer Primrose Candy notes, “Overall, sugar-free products are more accepted by the masses then they have been in the past, opening up a larger target market. The vice president of sales and marketing for Primrose should know.

“I believe that the growth is partially attributed to the increased quality of the sugar-free products that have been produced,” he continues. “Primrose has the expertise to utilize multiple bulking agents,” which take the place of corn syrup and sugar in production, Griseto explains. “Some bulking agents no longer require the use of a high intensity sweetener. Some have less calories than others. Some are less hygroscopic, which promotes a longer shelf life.”

Regardless of the bulking agent or sugar substitute used, sugar-free hard candy sales are poised to reach new heights, especially given their role in diets integral to managing diabetes, obesity and other health-related issues.