Thanks to a certain TV chef, what we feed our children has never been in such sharp
focus. But does Jamie Oliver's crusade against junk food spell disaster for the kids' confectionery market?
Although there is no measure of the kids' sweets market itself, most in the sector believe the category is stable, thanks to the fact that, in spite of the national health kick, confectionery remains an acceptable treat in the eyes of parents and highly desirable in the eyes of children.
Alongside death and taxes, children wanting to eat sweets is one of the few certainties we face in life, and something manufacturers are keen to pounce on.
Parents and children are the two major forces at work here, but they can sometimes pull in opposite directions. While children are happy to guzzle sweets simply because they look and taste good, mums are increasingly concerned about what their offspring are putting into their mouths and are acting as gatekeepers to their children's stomachs.
As a result, some manufacturers are adapting to make sure they don't miss out on mum's buying power.
But it's a fine balancing act, says Rory Goodwin, sales director at Haribo, a £130m brand at retail.
"We've been looking at reformulating our products but we've been taking our time over it. Whatever we do, we don't want our products to lose the characteristics that kids love about Haribo, such as their appearance and taste." Haribo believes it has finally got the balance right and will be coming to market later this year with a new recipe free from artificial colours and with a higher real fruit juice content.
Leaf UK is another manufacturer improving the health credentials of its products.
It took over the Chewits brand two and a half years ago and relaunched it with recipes free from hydrogenated fats and artificial colours and flavours.
Attention is now switching to considering how sugar content can be reduced without affecting quality.
Leaf UK managing director Tony Camp says this reformulation of Chewits, now a £23m brand at retail, and other confectionery products is "a sign of the times".
He says: "Society is reconsidering its attitude to certain things. We've seen cigarettes, alcohol and drink-driving become demonised, and while I don't believe that's happened to sweets, the public is certainly educated generally about healthy eating."
This view of changing times is shared by Tangerine, which was formed earlier this year to buy Toms UK.
Chairman Chris Marshall says the company has removed hydrogenated fats from its products and plans to make all its gums and jellies with natural colours and flavours within two years, as well as cut salt levels in its toffee and fudge, but that it has no plans to make its products 'healthy'.
"I am not ashamed of using glucose, and sugar is a key ingredient for the world's population. I don't think we should be ridiculously apologetic about using it because it is called sugar confectionery after all.
"We don't expect people to consume it in large amounts."
More evidence of the influence of mums comes from Haribo. Goodwin says the
company has noticed an increase in sales of smaller bags of its sweets, which range
in weight from 16g bags all the way up to 1.25kg drums. "We think that this is a sign of greater portion control," he says, although he adds that sales of larger bags are also continuing to thrive.
But the spending power of children is still worth chasing, and not all manufacturers are focusing on taking the so-called nasties out of their products. For example Creative Candy's Toxic Waste ultra-sour sweets, a £2m brand, has proved a cult hit among kids thanks to their light-heartedly subversive image - even though the products contain several E-numbers.
Director Andrew Bolton says: "No matter what kids are forced to eat in school, they will always eat sweets. We're just meeting the needs of the kids of today."
The brand has distribution in Morrisons, Wilkinson and Woolworths and is in talks with Asda and Tesco.
Sainsbury's has already rejected it, says Bolton, because it didn't want a product called Toxic Waste in its range. "That's understandable," he adds, with something of a touch of irony.
One cloud on the horizon is the imminent result of Ofcom's consultation on the future of advertising of food and drink to children.
However, it turns out, people are expecting some kind of restrictions to be put in place.
So what effect will this have on suppliers of children's sweets?
Topps International, which markets novelty kids' confectionery such as Juicy Drop Pop and Mega Mouth Candy Spray, booked a big chunk of airtime on channels including CITV, Nickleodeon and Cartoon Network from the end of August.
Martin Tilney, sales and marketing director, says no other form of advertising is as attractive as television and any restriction would certainly be a blow.
However, he believes that Topps' products are well established enough not to feel the pain too much. "We've already been able to use TV effectively to build up our brands' awareness."
Nestlé Rowntree, meanwhile, is using TV to demonstrate the child-friendly changes it has made to its most popular children's lines. The company has been running a series of adverts, sometimes in succession, flagging up the fact that its products, including Fruit Gums, Fruit Pastilles and Smarties, have recently been reformulated to contain no artificial colourings.
Haribo and Chewits maker Leaf UK has taken a different stance and has already announced that it will no longer advertise its products to children.
Yet Haribo's Goodwin says it will not be the established brands that suffer from restrictions, but newcomers to the market that need to gain publicity in what is already an overcrowded market.
"It will become very difficult for new brands to become established," Goodwin warns.
Ultimately, most players agree that the internet and the numerous activities that can be performed through it will become a more important way to engage with young consumers as they become not just computer savvy but increasingly computer-dependent and technologically orientated.n