Health kick doesn't scare candy makers

As parents eye healthier Halloween treats, candy makers focus on quality in controlled portions

Halloween is undeniably the holiday most associated with soaring candy sales, as trick or treaters and candy givers boost business for the entire industry. However, consumers are becoming more health-conscious, potentially sinking candy sales as the major holidays approach.

With the growing focus on childhood obesity and an increase in type 2 diabetes among kids, the candy industry is facing a difficult period. According to an article in BusinessWeek, a recent study showed that candy sales decreased 14% between 2001 and 2006, with an inauspicious future ahead.

As health-minded consumers look toward alternative treats to satisfy their sweet-toothed youngsters, healthy snacks, such as 100-calorie packs, are becoming more popular among children and adults. They can even substitute for items like mini chocolate bars and lollipops - traditional Halloween goods that kids expect.

"Halloween, as you can imagine, is going to be a difficult time for any particular brand to break through the clutter," says Ilene Smith, VP of the food and nutrition practice at Ketchum. "What a candy company would best be suited to do is to focus on the portion-control issue - focus on the enjoyment and tradition of the holiday, but at the same time, emphasize portion control."

Mainstream candy companies and healthy-snack makers may even work together to get their treats into those bags this year. "I wouldn't see any reason why healthy snack alternatives and candy products couldn't be featured on the same SMT segment with the idea that kids could get a mix of both... limiting the amount of candy and beefing it up with some of the other kinds of healthier treats," Smith explains.

While some people favor a balance between the types of food items thrown in a trick-or-treat bag, even health-conscious individuals like Dr. Susan Rubin from Two Angry Moms, a documentary about improving school lunch programs, who also founded the Better School Food coalition, argue that receiving full-calorie candy on Halloween is permissible and even preferable.

"The food industry is confusing us," she says. "Quite frankly, I would much rather eat really good, high-quality candy because when we focus on this 100-calorie silliness, we lose out on the question of quality."

Rubin hosts Halloween recovery workshops to help parents sort through the goodies and minimize the impact of these sweets. "We go through the candy and ditch the junky candy and trade it in for other things like good chocolate," she notes. Rubin says lower-calorie, low-fat items are like light cigarettes. "They're still harmful," she explains. Her theory is to go with the highest-quality and best-tasting items in limited quantities.

This is the theory that candy maker Mars is adopting in marketing its Halloween-themed goodies. At the beginning of the year, Mars, along with other companies, announced that it would not be marketing to consumers younger than 12.

"That goes for everything we do, including Halloween," says Ryan Bowling, PR manager for Mars Snackfood USA. "But Halloween is not just targeting kids; it's a big family event." The company is not worried about healthy-food alternatives getting in the way of holiday candy sales. "This year, sales went up significantly, and we put a lot of marketing muscle on our M&Ms plan," Bowling explains.

From an M&Ms instant-win sweepstakes with a million-dollar giveaway, to press events in New York to raise awareness and usher in the Halloween season, the company is not changing its game. In fact, Mars has more than 25 new offerings for Halloween this year, including stand-alone candy bars, M&M packs, miniatures, and fun-size items.

For now, candy makers seem assured that dollars will be coming in - for Halloween at least. They seem confident that Halloween is still one of those times when people eat what they want and worry about it later. "It's all about having fun," says Bowling. "It goes all the way up to your grandparents."

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