1. “The economy can’t shake us.”
With consumer confidence low and unemployment high, Americans aren’t buying cars, houses and appliances. But they’re not giving up their Snickers, Reese’s or M&M’s. This year through May, confectionery sales were up 4.3% compared to the same period last year, according to the National Confectioners Association. In fact, it’s on pace to be the best year for the sweets industry in at least a decade and handily trouncing the soft drinks business, which has been declining over the last few years.
In 2010, the average Americans ate almost 25 pounds of candy, according to the U.S. Census. That’s up from just over 24 pounds in 2008. Seasonal sales of specialty chocolates and the perceived health benefits of chocolate have helped drive that growth, says Jack Russo, a senior consumer analyst for brokerage Edward Jones. But it’s not just chocolate: Licorice sales are up 4.5% and sales of chewy and gummy candies are up 5.4%, says the industry association. “These products are relatively affordable,” Russo notes, making them an easy way to splurge.
2. “Those taxes aren’t high enough.”
In recent years, cash-strapped states have taken aim at residents’ sugar jones. Despite rigorous opposition from the industry, and in some cases consumers, 30 states now have taxes on candy that run to 7%. While many states have added taxes on candy as a public health initiative to curb weight gain and obesity, other states see candy taxes as a new source of revenue in tough times. In 2009, Illinois, for example, raised taxes on candy to 6.25% from 1%, and has earmarked the estimated $35 million to $40 million in additional revenue for capital projects, says a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue.
But those taxes — at least those that aim to keep sugar junkies trim — may not be working, researchers say. The problem: They’re not high enough. In order for a tax to be a true deterrent, the rate ought to be higher than the current average of 5%, says Lisa M. Powell, a research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She points to recent research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that estimates that a 10% increase in prices should cut consumption by 12.6%; as another example, taxes on cigarettes, which are widely credited for cutting the rate of teen smoking, run to more than $3 per pack in some states.
For its part, the candy industry objects to any taxes at all. The tax is arbitrary, says Susan Whiteside, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association, in part because in some states, treats that contain wheat are excluded: A Twix bar isn’t taxed, but a pack of Twizzlers is. Also, says Smith, food taxes disproportionately affect low-income people.
3. “You’re paying more for less.”
In May, Nestle introduced two new candies under its new Skinny Cow label: nut clusters and a chocolate-covered wafer crisp, each under 120 calories, the latest to join the candy industry’s rush keep calorie-conscious snackers in the fold. Many major candy companies now offer low-cal treats, including Mars’ 3 Musketeers Truffle Crisp Bars (34% fewer calories than a 3 Musketeers) and Hershey’s 100 Calorie Crisp Wafer Bars (50% fewer calories than a Kit Kat).
But the candy companies’ secret to keeping the calories down doesn’t come from a new miracle cocoa bean. They’ve simply done what weight-loss experts have advocated for years: They’ve cut the portion sizes — but not the prices, meaning health-conscious candy buyers are paying proportionally more for less candy. The Mars Truffle Crisp bar and its regular 3 Musketeers bar, for example, each cost $1, but at 1.1 ounces, the lower-calorie bar is half the size of the more caloric treat.
Mars and Hershey’s declined to comment, but Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of the New England Consulting Group says this is just smart marketing on the candy companies’ part. “People will pay a premium to take calories out of the package,” he says. “And it takes away a reason why people don’t eat candy.”
4. “Our candy may have more than sugar.”
Consumers have long been warned about the dangers of lead paint, but few know that the lead levels in chocolate products can also run high. While lead can turn up in many foods in trace amounts, in 2004 chocolate bars had among the highest lead levels of 280 items surveyed by the Food and Drug Administration. In 2006, the agency issued a recall of some types of Dagoba Organic Chocolate for having a lead content that was too high. (Dagoba, which was bought by Hershey’s in 2006, did not respond to requests for comment. At the time, a company executive told reporters that the test results an isolated incident and said no reports of illness were associated with the recall.) Researchers in California have also found that bittersweet chocolate and chocolate pudding had levels of lead that would exceed that state’s recommendations, says Russ Flegal, a professor of microbiology and toxicology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and one of the researchers. That doesn’t come from the cocoa bean itself, he says, but is rather a result of handling, processing and storage.
Most people don’t eat enough chocolate for the lead to have serious consequences, says Flegal: You’d have to eat one-and-a-half milk chocolate bars each day to put your lead intake above California’s recommendations for what is considered safe. But he thinks consumers, especially parents of small children, ought to be aware of the limits. “Some children eat a lot of chocolate, and it could be a potential problem,” he says.
The candy industry notes that small amounts of lead are often found in plant-based foods, and say they’re taking every possible precaution. “Manufacturers take many steps to ensure that lead is at its lowest level possible in chocolate products,” says Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association.
5. “Chocolate is not actually good for you.”
Chocoholics love to cite the healthful properties of the candy, and the candy industry is happy to arm them with statistics and research to support the claim. On Hershey’s website, for example, the company says chocolate “may contribute to improved cardiovascular health,” citing the antioxidant properties of cocoa and a connection between antioxidants and a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses. A separate study on the National Confectioners Association website claims that children and teens who eat candy are less overweight or obese than their peers who don’t.
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