SWEET STUFF Good, bad and clever vie for sales

Who knew there's so much to keeping the world's sweet tooth satisfied?
CHICAGO -- Somehow, candy doesn't seem like a tough sell. Nonetheless, the market remains as competitive as ever, flaunting new, surprising and sometimes bizarre schemes to snare a new generation of confection lovers at the 2005 All Candy Expo.
In this secret universe that would make Willy Wonka proud, hundreds of manufacturers pitch their products to thousands of buyers, mostly from drug, department and convenience stores.
The most interesting products fall into three categories: the good, the bad and the clever.
The "good" candies include countless variations of fat-free, sugar-free and carb-free candies, mostly trending toward healthier, safer products.
Too Tart candies by Smart Choice, for example, replaced sugar with fruit juice in their entire line last year, even sponsoring and earning the approval of the American Diabetes Association.
Georgie's Chewy Bonbons go a step further by dropping aspartame -- an artificial sweetener popular in diet sodas -- because people with the genetic disorder phenylketonuria have difficulty metabolizing it, said company president George Drogaris.
Energy and weight-loss products, claiming to provide quick, healthy energy, may be of more questionable merit.
Pump you up
Chewing Nutra-Trim gum two or three times a day, for instance, coupled with no change in diet or exercise will boost metabolism, control appetite and result in a weight loss of 8 to 10 pounds a year, said Nutra-Trim representative Matt Gearhart. "If you're already chewing gum, why don't you chew gum that does something for you?"
He claimed that there are no side effects. But the gum has never been tested: Nutra-Trim's results are based on independent studies of the individual ingredients, including green tea extract, chromium picolinate, l-carnitine and guarana.
Big Sky also features guarana, along with ginseng, in a pocket-size, "hyper-charged" Warp mint.
Representative Salma Hayat said the mint packs the refreshment of Altoids with the energy of Red Bull, minus the sugar.
"It's slightly caffeinated, a different version of green tea," she said, adding that the mint is "absolutely" healthier than coffee.
But the energy component in both the mint and coffee are actually the same: Guaranine, taken from the exotic Brazilian herb guarana, is just a fancy name for caffeine.
Jolt gum, also caffeinated, makes the comparison explicit, equating two sticks of gum to one cup of coffee.
Fuel for you
But if mints and gum and coffee still don't meet your needs, there's one more way to boost your energy fast. Jelly Belly's Sports Beans claim to provide a quick and powerful fuel fix for long-distance athletes, including the pro cycling team that the company sponsors.
But they're not sugar-free. Is that bad?
"Sugar has got a bad name," said Jelly Belly owner and chairman Herm Rowland. "Sugar is a crop; it's grown out of the ground."
Rowland continued: "Now, I'm a diabetic. Here, I'm the Candyman, and I'm a diabetic -- not because I'm the Candyman, but because I let myself get overweight to 285 pounds eating steak and eggs and all those other wonderful things to excess. What Americans have to learn is not to eat in excess."
Jelly Belly's better-known Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, inspired by J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter," lead the "bad" category of candy.
The product features traditional flavors (cinnamon and cherry), unusual ones (bacon and black pepper) and downright disgusting ones (booger, rotten egg and vomit). There's no candy-coating them, either -- the flavors actually taste as described.
"It's so bad, everyone loves it," Rowland said, estimating earnings of $10 million to $15 million a year on the beans. "It's so bad, it's selling like mad."
The childhood fascination with all things gross appears in Kandy Kastle's products as well. Big Burp and Big Barf candy dispensers, for example, offer the associated unpleasant sounds with each dispensation.
The deliciously "bad" category also contains Blueball strong mints.
The round, blue balls of mint, offered in a tin shaped somewhat like ... Mr. Peanut, hail from Spokane, Wash. Co-founder Jason LaFever and his friend thought of the idea on April 1 -- when else? -- of last year.
"It's kind of a college product grown out of control," La Fever said with a laugh. "We haven't had as much of a problem with it as we thought we would."
As one observer put it, "I'll bet half the people in here don't even get the joke."
Leading the "clever" category are Chocpix chocolate photographs. The white chocolate, molded from photographic plates, retains photo quality when held up to the light.
"In sunlight, they become 3-D," said Geoff Dixon, who took the idea from similar designs in plastic. "It's down to a one-tenth millimeter definition."
For approximately $200, custom pictures can be made for special occasions, but the company expects the price to fall quickly. Different colors and flavors are on their way.
In another clever and shameless appeal, My Favorite Company offers a line of stuffed animals that desperately cry, "Take Me Home! Adopt Me! I'm Cute!" Each of the animals comes equipped with a Merry Christmas stocking and its own type of candy: the cats with fish, the dogs with bones, etc. Who can pass them by without feeling a little less human?
And finally, for the romantically disheartened, there are Tom and Sally's Homemade "Girlfriend" and "Boyfriend" chocolates made into attractive human figures. With clever quips such as, "She better be nice, or I'll bite her head off" and "If he gets any hotter, he'll melt," anyone can believe in true love.
Despite the rising interest in healthier food habits to combat the obesity trend, Americans need not give up sweets entirely. Healthy or indulgent, naughty or nice, the endlessly adaptable candy market has something for everyone.

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