Sugar-free candies produced by Dr. John's are sweetened with the natural ingredient Xylitol, which also offers dental benefits. Courtesy Dr. John's Candies
A local sugar-free candy company has redefined how to appease the sweet tooth and is now looking to expand its market base nationally.
In 2010, Dr. John’s Candies introduced a line of sugar-free candies sweetened with the natural ingredient Xylitol, which offers dental health benefits for the consumer. Founded in 1995, the company has been developing unique sugar-free products, showcasing the candy at dental association conventions, and is now looking at a national retail launch into the natural food market.
Dr. John’s Candies was founded by Grand Rapids dentist John Bruinsma and his wife, Debra, a dental hygienist. According to John Bruinsma, the idea to infuse a line of hard candies, caramels, taffies and lollipops with Xylitol originated around 2000, but he had to revisit the idea after the manufacturer informed him it was too difficult.
“I started to get interested in trying to do it again in about 2009, and just took it upon ourselves to add the Xylitol into our sugar-free treats,” he said. “We could get enough Xylitol in there to offer what the research claims is a dental health benefit — basically, reduction of plaque and potentially the reduction of tooth decay, as well.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Xylitol is a sugar naturally derived from forest and agricultural materials, and was first recognized as a dental health benefit in 1970 in Finland. Working with a manufacturer, which Dr. John’s Candies now owns, the candies were infused with 2 grams of Xylitol per serving.
“One of the interesting things we found out in doing it is, once we were able to add significant amount of Xylitol into our products, we were then able to eliminate the artificial sweetener, which is almost always present in sugar-free candies,” said Bruinsma. “Once we did that, we started concentrating on natural flavors and colors, as well.”
Debra Bruinsma said the company differentiates itself from others in the market by the amount of Xylitol used in its peppermints and gum products, which is enough to provide dental benefits to users.
“They just assume that the gum out there right now and the mints out there right now have more than a fairy dusting,” she said in reference to other dentists. “What we strive to do is put enough Xylitol into the Dr. John’s products so we have at least 2 grams per serving, because that is easy for patients to remember. All they have to know is, they just take them three to five times a day.”
Dr. John’s Candies were showcased at the Michigan Dental Association’s annual convention a few weeks ago at DeVos Place. The convention features more than 200 exhibitors displaying products, services and technology, and also incorporates professional sessions and education courses.
Debra Bruinsma said the response from individuals at the event was encouraging.
“We have been so well supported by the Michigan dental professionals for the last almost 20 years,” she said. “Many of them are our friends, and they have kind of been along for the ride, watching to see what a dentist and hygienist are doing with a sugar-free candy company. It is welcoming to come back to a local dental meeting.”
The founders of the sugar-free candy company also have attended American Dental Association conventions, the Natural Products Expo West held in Anaheim, Calif., and the Pure Michigan Agriculture Summit. John Bruinsma said attending the natural products event gained the company exposure to natural food stores across the country, and overall response from the conventions has been positive.
“When we went to Expo West, we weren’t necessarily that busy relative to everybody else … but when you are a candy company at a dental show, it really piques people’s interest quite a bit,” he said.
The sugar-free products have garnered interest in two market segments: dental professionals referring patients to the treats, and the natural foods industry. Dr. John’s Candies are sold locally at such stores as Harvest Health Foods and Ferris Coffee & Nut Co.
As the company looks to launch the product line nationally by this fall, the Simply Xylitol line of sugar-free candy is in the process of rebranding. While Dr. John’s Candies will stay the same, the name of sugar-free candy with Xylitol will be changed in order to market it to the general consumer.
“Right now our line is known as Simply Xylitol, but that is pretty clinical and more or less directed toward dental professionals,” he said. “We are going through a re-branding because we want to enter the natural food market, obviously, as a sugar-free product.”
Dr. John’s Candies is currently in contact with Kroger, the retail food chain headquartered in Cincinnati, after attending the Pure Michigan Agriculture Summit. According to Bruinsma, the retail food company is waiting on the re-branding and other matters on Kroger’s end.
“Hopefully, something will come of it, but they are definitely interested in it,” said Bruinsma. “And we have quite a few independent health food stores across the country — a lot of them in California — that have been ordering for a while already. That is definitely growing.”
The company has hired a broker to represent Dr. John’s Candies on the West Coast once the branding has been finalized.
The firm also has a line of chocolates, gum and tablets, and drink mixes and sweetener available online, in addition to the lollipops, hard candies and soft candies. An assorted sampler of Simply Xylitol candies is priced at $5.99 for 6.5 ounces, while 10.6 ounces of Dark Chocolate Raspberry DecaDENTS costs $18.49.