rows of toppings for chocolates manufactured by machine, on a conveyor of a chocolate factory

Sweet talkin’

Plant-based candy may be just a small portion of the confectionary market, but it’s poised to take a much bigger bite of future c-store sales.

Healthy candy? No, it’s not an oxymoron. Consumers and companies are embracing the idea that indulgence has a sweet spot with plant-based confectionary options. Currently, they represent a very small slice of the market (estimated at about 2%), but it’s growing rapidly and industry watchers are bullish about its future.

Fact: MR predicts that the vegan candy market will increase by 14% between 2021 and 2031.

That fact hasn’t been lost on some of the category’s heavyweight players, sparking many to jump in with new plant-based offerings. 

Fresh color food background. Collage with different fruits and vegetables

Product innovation

Hershey has modified some of its bestselling products to remove animal-based ingredients. In March 2023, it launched dairy-free Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which swaps regular milk with oat milk. It is also featured in its new Hershey’s Confection Almond & Sea Salt Candy Bars. Both new products are part of the company’s ‘Plant Based’ line.

The move follows Cadbury’s earlier successful introduction of two new plant-based bars in November 2022—Chocolatey Smooth and Salted Caramel. Almond paste replaces milk to bring the creamy mouthfeel consumers are accustomed to. “Since the launch of the Cadbury Plant Bar in the UK in 2021, there was also interest in this product in Canada,” explains Stacey Biggar, director of marketing, chocolate, Mondelēz Canada. “Flexitarian lifestyles are on the rise. We’ve recognized this need and thought that giving Canadian consumers the option for a plant-based chocolatey treat would be a win-win for everyone.”

[Read more: "The Hershey Company acquires two popcorn plants"]

Flexitarians opt for a primarily vegetarian diet, but may eat meat or fish occasionally. About one in five Canadians have gone this route, according to a November 2022 survey by Chef’s Plate.

Black person holding a Cadbury plant-based, sustainably sourced flavoured chocolate bar in a grocery store

“We expect this category to grow over time,” says Biggar. “We believe that consumer is king and, currently, Canadian consumers are seeking alternatives to help to reduce their consumption of milk and meat products. Plant-based consumption is not a seasonal trend in our mind; hence, we would like to ensure Canadians have access to plant-based alternatives year round.”

[Read more: "Mondelēz's SnackFutures Hub selects startups for new CoLab class"]

Dare Foods Limited’s revamp of its RealFruit portfolio in May 2021 has been a tremendous success, doubling business in less than three years. It reformulated its gummies, eliminated the use of animal-based gelatin. Making the candy plant-based has been a good move not only for health-conscious Canadians, but also for newcomers who come from countries where they don’t eat meat products, according to category marketing manager Karyn Berry.

“There are many people that feel making some plant-based choices are more healthful and better for you,” she says. “It is very much in line with—I hate the word ‘trend’ because it kind of diminishes it—being more mindful. Candy is candy, but consumers can feel better about enjoying it.”

RealFruit can also boast no artificial colours and no artificial flavours across the SKUs. Earlier this year, it added 33% less sugar options to the roster. The bad news: Awareness of plant-based candy among consumers is still small. But the good news? “There’s still a lot of runway available,” says Berry.

Dragee sweets in icing on the store shelf

How c-stores can grow the category

Dare has been working to broaden distribution, promote RealFruit through social media, collaborate with media influencers and provide support to retailers. To take advantage of the growth in plant-based candy, she suggests that convenience stores should ensure it has sufficient merchandising presence.

[Read more: "Special report: Grey market products"]

Since candy is an impulse item for consumers, it needs to be readily available, near registers and places where they wait and line up. Special promotions, bundling and message prompts in-store or near the gas pumps for c-stores that have them to get people inside to shop. Dare is also looking at sales drivers, such as digital coupons and deal-of-the-week specials.

Flavour-wise, Canadians are sweet on sour candy, notes Berry. “Our feedback from consumers has been phenomenal. Everyone loves them. We do have a great assortment for every taste.” While strawberry and cherry reign supreme, tropical flavours, like mango and pineapple, are coming on strong.

Sweet escape

Canadian success stories 

The plant-based market has led to some Canadian success stories, like Smart Sweets—the brainchild of Vancouverite Tara Bosch, who launched the company, focused on low-sugar sweets, in 2016 when she was just 22. She sold it in 2020 for US$360 million. Its current lineup includes plant-based gummies, lollipops and hard candy.

Also out of Vancouver, Yumy Candy, began in 2020, touting its vegan candy free of gelatin, GMOs, nuts, artificial sweeteners and gluten. It became Canada's first publicly traded low sugar, plant-based confectionery company starting in July 2021 with an evaluation of $50 million. Sales are now rolling out across North America.

The bottom line? Plant-based candy is a category to watch, thanks to its strong growth potential. And besides, who doesn’t love candy? As Dare’s Berry says, “It makes people happy and brings them so much joy.” C-stores can get in on the love affair as more Canadians reach for treats they can indulge in—minus the guilt.

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