Advice From the Trenches

Advice from the Trenches: No Sugar Tonight

Dear C,

There have been a lot of food shortages lately, but at least I can go online and find explanations for it – Avian bird flu, the scarcity of wheat since Russia went ballistic, etc, etc. But one of the oddest shortages is the disappearance of sugar-free hard candy from all of the discount stores! Walmart has sugar free chocolate, but no Brach’s sugar-free cinnamon hard candies, my absolute favorite. And why has Dollar Tree been out of peppermints for months? There is NO explanation anywhere online that I can find!

Got anything?                  

– Peppermint Patty

C says:

I too remember when they had at least a dozen flavors of sugar free hard candies at Job Lot. Finding it hard to believe that they’re ALL gone, I drove to Job Lot, Walmart, and Dollar Tree. You’re right! The only sugar free hard candy I found consistently was Werther’s caramels; no peppermints, no cinnamon, just one lone bag of Jolly Ranchers.

You were right about online explanations too. Nada. The market analysis trends were puzzling as well, largely because while I could readily copy text or download documents from every other market analysis online, the sugar-free trends would not copy – you had to submit contact info in order to obtain them. So, I took screen prints. What I read in them was odd indeed.

COVID has affected every global market, and the sugar industry is no exception. But while the global demand for sugar shrank 18.78% between 2019 and 2020, the demand in the US for sugar-free foods rose. Why? 

The answer to this at least made sense. We’ve known for a while that regular consumption of high-calorie products can lead to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular and liver diseases, but since COVID, people have started to make preventative measures a real priority. This has not escaped notice by the advertising industry – they’ve stepped up their own efforts to sell sugar-free products to health-conscious consumers.

So, why are there fewer sugar-free hard candies than ever before? Well, the joke is on us, Patty. They’re out there alright – if you want to pay double, or more.

If you shop online, you can still find any kind of sugar-free hard candy you want. Here’s the difference: when it was available on shelves, you could walk into Walmart and get Brach’s sugar-free cinnamon candies for $2.99 a bag. Peppermints at Dollar Tree were a buck a bag, Now, the same sized packages can cost you $6 and up. They are also often available only in lots of 2 to a dozen bags. Sellers have jacked prices even higher than those of eggs.

China is one of the world’s largest producers of sweeteners, dominating the global market for saccharin, stevia, aspartame, and sucralose. Shipping shortages and global conflict were constant excuses for unavailable items. But for sugar-free, no excuses were made. Perhaps they were hoping you wouldn’t ask.

The real reason for the bare shelves may be nothing more than greedy price-gouging by merchants. By funneling your best-selling favorites out of the stores and onto the web, they’ve made the products more desirable, then made them ridiculously expensive in the only places they can be found. Brach’s cinnamon candies could be bought at $40 for a carton of 12 – but no one on a tight budget can realistically afford to spend that much on calorie-free junk when the same $40. will buy a week’s worth of the cheapest foods on the market – pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, rice, potatoes… and high-calorie crap made with high-fructose corn syrup. Is it any wonder that those from lower income brackets also have the highest rate of obesity and all the diseases which it spawns?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been quite a paradox in many ways – it led to the adoption of some best-practice models in the food industry. It highlighted the importance of nutritious, higher quality foods in preventing diseases. But it also gave every profit monger in the market the means to squeeze every dime they could out of our increased awareness. The result? Sugar-free hard candies are now out of reach at discount store prices but readily available to anyone with money to burn.  

There are a lot of health benefits from cutting down on sugar and stepping up healthier foods. Unfortunately, a lot of people will not be able to make those dietary changes because higher quality food is also higher priced. So, while the rich are buying insanely expensive keto products and wild-caught salmon, the poor eat diabetes-inducing carbs.

If I were a person who thrived on conspiracy theory, I’d say there’s a story in there.