March 5, 2013 -- With soda taxes and proposals to limit super size sweetened drinks already sweeping the nation, candy could be the next target in the war against obesity.There's an inkling that candy manufacturers suspect this and are taking steps to head off future regulation.
Speaking at last week's National Confectioners Association meeting in Miami, Debra Sandler, the president of Mars Chocolate in North America, tried to rally major candymakers to come up with ways to help solve the obesity crisis before government forces step in and force them to.
As first reported by the candy trade publication Confectionery News, Sandler said in her speech, "If we don't [act], I worry that someone else will do it for us. ... We need the whole industry to step up. ... We are not judged by the leaders of the category but by those who do not take responsibility for change."
Calls and emails to Mars Inc. and the National Confectioners Association by ABC News seeking comment were not immediately returned.
Americans do seem to have an insatiable appetite for sweet treats. We consume more than 7.7 billion pounds of candy each year -- about 25 pounds per person -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Approximately 60 percent of that total is from chocolate, with gummy bears, chewing gum and a wide variety of other nonchocolate confections making up the remainder.
As Sandler noted in her speech, candy only accounts for 2 percent of calories in the average American diet. But she warned against using this low percentage as an excuse to skirt the issues, urging manufacturers to fight excess calorie consumption by displaying calorie content more prominently on the front of the packaging and reformulating recipes for lower-calorie counts and better nutrition.
Sandler's remarks have received praise from some surprising places.
"Mars has been making an effort to be more responsible in how they market candy. It's good to see them calling on their colleagues to do the same." said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog organization that has often criticized large food companies.
Wootan said that Mars was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which included a provision that required foods served in schools to meet specific U.S. Department of Agriculture standards -- meaning candy had to be removed from campuses.
Mars has also had one of the strongest policies against marketing its products to children, agreeing not to advertise directly to children in most media, Wootan said. Other large candymakers, such as Nestle and Hershey, have adopted similar policies.
Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University's Dyson School and author of the book "Mindless Eating" agreed with Wootan. He said it's tempting to be cynical of a "Big Candy" campaign to fight obesity, but anything companies do to help consumers eat less is a step in the right direction.
"If they do some smart things that make it easier for consumers to eat healthier, they may also expand their markets and increase profits. Regardless of their intensions, that's a win-win for everybody," he said.
Wansink said he thought changes to packaging would be effective because many consumers tend to take a categorical approach to their diets.
"My studies show people often come up with one or two hard-and-fast rules in their diet, such as vowing not to eat candy under any circumstances," he explained. "This often backfires, because they skip the candy in favor of a bagel that has even more calories than a candy bar, or they make up for it later by eating a piece of cake or a really large dinner."
By offering smaller portions, lighter calorie alternatives and resealable bags, candymakers would allow people to indulge their sweet tooth without forcing them to commit to 300 calories or more in one sitting, Wansink said.
While Wootan applauded these kinds of suggestions, she said she wished candymakers would go further.
"I'd like to see them remove candy from the checkout aisle, which is really just a way to manipulate people to buy candy they don't want and regret eating afterward," she said.
She said she also suspected shrinking candy bar sizes would do little good if they still come in giant bags, especially if the bags are decorated with cartoon characters that beckon to children.
In her speech, Sandler expressed worry over the fact that dozens of states have considered imposing sweeping "fat" taxes to curtail consumption of the sweet stuff. There is increasing evidence they could be effective: A survey of nearly 30 international studies published in the British Medical Journal found that a 20 percent tax on sugary beverages would reduce obesity levels by 3.5 percent. And findings published in the Archives of Internal Medicine estimated that an 18 percent tax on pizza and soda would lead to a 5 pound weight loss per year for the average American.