We were recently able to touch base with Thom King, chief innovations officer, Icon Foods, about better-for-you candy and confectionery items—specifically, ingredients that manufacturers can use for better-for-you treats.

Liz Parker: How would you describe the market for better-for-you candy?

Thom King: I'd say that the market is shifting toward functional treats. Gummies are now utilized as carriers for adaptogenic compounds, aimed at enhancing performance, reducing stress, promoting better sleep, and supporting gut health. Beyond functional gummies, there's a demand for low-sugar confections. Think: chocolate-coated candy bites and protein bars that mimic the appeal of candy bars but offer the benefit of added protein and zero added sugar.


LP: What consumer trends are contributing to a demand for better-for-you candy?

TK: Consumers want functional foods that are nutrient dense, low in sugar and good for the gut, with a clean label. Though the concept of clean label lacks a precise definition, it generally signifies products featuring ingredients that are recognizable and perceived as wholesome by consumers. Shoppers are increasingly turning to product labels in their quest for such offerings, with Mondelez International reporting that 43% of global consumers are inspecting ingredient lists while perusing store aisles. This applies to categories like candy that are traditionally thought of as unhealthy. Consumers want nutrient density without sacrificing taste.


LP: How has the push for functional foods affected the candy industry? Is this due to generational turnover? Which companies do you see leading the charge?

TK: Gen Z and Millennials are showing a stronger inclination toward healthier candy alternatives, like those sweetened with natural sweeteners, compared to older age groups. In fact, according to the International Food Information Council, younger generations are more likely to gravitate to low/no-calorie sweeteners than older ones. However, the desire to steer clear of sugar is a trend shared by nearly three out of four Americans, regardless of age, according to the same survey. 

Several companies are championing the production of better-for-you candies. One that comes to mind is the No Sugar Company, which recently collaborated with the Walt Disney Company. Icon Foods is proud to be part of the No Sugar Alliance, an initiative spearheaded by the No Sugar Company in 2023. Moreover, companies such as SmartSweets, SkinnyDipped, Hummii, and Keto Krack'd are also making significant progress in the realm of reduced-sugar, better-for-you candy options. 


LP: What ingredients are consumers seeking out?

TK: Consumers are seeking out clean-label ingredients, especially natural sweeteners including allulose, a rare sugar that occurs naturally in wheat, figs, raisins, and jackfruit. Allulose not only provides a similar taste and texture to sugar without any off notes, but it also does not raise blood sugar, making it suitable for diabetics and anyone else monitoring their blood sugar levels.

Ingredients like prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics are gaining popularity as gut health takes center stage. Beyond their health benefits, prebiotic fibers are especially beneficial for formulators because they can add bulk back to low- or no-sugar candies and improve mouthfeel. Their gelling properties make prebiotic fibers especially suitable for gummy candies. 

Consumers are also looking for ways to add protein, which is why we offer a high protein, zero added sugar chocolate chip. Formulated with prebiotic fiber and whey protein concentrate, these chips add around 18 grams of protein per 100g serving. Their ability to melt and bake like conventional chocolate chips makes them ideal for a wide range better-for-you candies.


LP: Which ingredients are they avoiding? Has the TRUTH Act had a lot of influence on the candy industry?

TK: Consumer preferences are shifting away from artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and Ace-K. While the TRUTH in Labeling Act may further accelerate this trend, at present, the rising price of cocoa is having an even greater influence on the candy category. Those in the chocolate space are grappling with increased input costs, prompting some manufacturers to contemplate alternatives to cocoa. This will likely be the primary focus of the candy industry for the near future. For example, several of our zero added sugar chocolate flavored chips utilize fibers, which reduces the amount of cocoa butter used which stabilizes COGS.

However, once prices stabilize, the TRUTH Act is poised to emerge as the next significant challenge for the industry, prompting manufacturers to reconsider their formulas if they want to avoid a red spotlight on the front of their packaging. 


LP: What challenges should be considered when working with ingredients in better-for-you candy? What mistakes do you often see from first-time formulators? How can formulators overcome these challenges?

One big challenge in developing better-for-you gummies is the tendency for formulators to add excessive amounts of fiber—creating gummies with a significant negative GI impact. The easiest way to overcome this is by stacking different fibers. This allows the formulators to incorporate additional fiber into gummies without unpleasant gastrointestinal effects. Another common mistake is assuming sugar can be replaced easily with one sweetener. Often, this is not the case. Achieving a satisfying mouthfeel typically requires a blend of sweeteners and fibers to create a 1:1 sugar replacement. A great example of this is our KetoseSweet+,a blend of allulose, stevia, and monk fruit. This combination of high-intensity sweeteners with allulose creates a near 1:1 sugar replacement that has no off notes. It is particularly well-suited for use in hard crack candies and caramels. Additionally, perfecting the appearance of better-for-you-candy can be a challenging part of the process, especially when utilizing natural colors. Natural colors are not as bright or durable as artificial ones, and some fade faster, especially for inclusions. 


LP: How is particle reduction being used in better-for-you candy formulations?

TK: Access to particle reduction when formulating better-for-you candies is an invaluable tool in a formulator’s arsenal. Utilizing a finer mesh size can dramatically reduce the cost of chocolate by cutting down on conch time. In addition to saving time, creating one homogenous mixture of sweeteners and fibers can save on the costs of goods sold by streamlining the blending process into a single input. When in a homogenous reduced particle size, erythritol and allulose make it easier to take candies into the hard crack stage. Additionally, powdered sugar-like sweeteners can serve as a zero-sugar sanding sweetener to enhance the texture and mouthfeel of candy or gummies. Icon Foods offers food grade custom milling in a range of mesh particle sizes—100 Mesh, Ultra Mesh, and Supreme Mesh—for our sweeteners and blends.