Marcia Mogelonsky
Marcia Mogelonsky, Ph. D. is the Director of Insight, Food & Drink, at Mintel. Her expertise focuses on consumer behavior across a range of categories.

Candy to relieve sore throats and quell coughs all but disappeared during the pandemic, but “real-time” encounters are reviving exposure to “real-time” cold germs. As US consumers venture out into the world and begin to return to face-to-face life, transmission of cold and flu viruses will increase. Especially at risk for the “common cold” and flu may be children newly returned to daycare or school.

COVID-19’s “bonus”: Social distancing led to a diminished cold/flu season

COVID-19’s social distancing, masking and other avoidance regulations had an unexpected bonus: a significantly diminished cold and flu season. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), seasonal flu numbers were considerably lower globally during 2020-21 than in earlier flu seasons. The WHO explains, “The various hygiene and physical distancing measures implemented by Member States to reduce SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission have likely played a role in reducing influenza virus transmission.”

In the US, for example, significantly fewer cases of the seasonal flu were recorded during the 2020-21 flu season, which typically runs from autumn through winter and into spring, than in preceding years. A similar pattern was noted in South America, where the 2020 flu season (May-September) saw a notable drop in cases. In Europe, seasonal flu was also recorded at “baseline levels” throughout the 2020-21 season, according to the WHO.

Medicated confectionery was “collateral damage” during the pandemic

Not surprisingly, a number of confectionery categories saw sales decline during the first year of the pandemic, as their usefulness was diminished in an era of social distancing and lockdowns.

Sales of gum, breath mints and medicated candy all fell in key markets. In the US, for example, sales of gum declined 8.8% between 2019 and 2020, according to IRI, while The Hershey Company recorded significant declines in mint sales during the pandemic.

In the UK, too, sales of gum, mints and medicated confectionery fell significantly between 2019 and 2020. Not only did medicated confectionery sales decline, but gum sales were down 22% and mint brands also showed significant declines. Ferrero’s Tic Tac, for example, saw sales fall 17%.

The next normal will see a return to the cold and flu season

Access to COVID-19 vaccinations has led to a relaxation of a number of rules put in place across markets to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Social distancing, mask-wearing, lockdowns and “social bubbles” have fallen away as consumers are once again permitted, with a number of caveats, to return to their pre-COVID-19 habits.

Epitomized by the Wrigley Extra gum commercial currently making the rounds on YouTube, the freedom to drop masks and ignore social distancing is resulting in a return to face-to-face encounters. As a result, incidences of the common cold and seasonal flu are on the rise, according to data from the CDC.

Medicated confectionery manufacturers should be poised to promote the throat-soothing, cough-taming properties of their products as consumers unused to living with cold and seasonal flu are once again faced with a need for these products.

Children’s need for medicated candy will increase with their return to school

As children return to school and other group activities, their exposure to seasonal viruses and germs will rise. Just as parents may be caught short by not having cough, cold or flu medications on hand when classes start, they are also likely to need to stock up on child-friendly throat soothers or cough tamers.

This would be a good opportunity for medicated confectionery manufacturers to be ready with back-to-school promotions. They could potentially partner with tissue, hand sanitizer or other hygiene-based products.

Medicated candy with other benefits

A year after the pandemic started, half of US consumers are concerned about their health, and there is a move to improve their food choices. They are upping their intake of vitamins/minerals/supplements and aiming to include more immune-boosting foods in their diets. This opens an opportunity for medicated confectionery; brands can include vitamins, minerals or immunity-supporting ingredients to add extra support for consumers suffering from colds or the flu.

Few products on the market currently include vitamins or immune system support ingredients along with throat, cough or sinus relief. In the US, three in 10 consumers would purchase products that combine immune system support with other health benefits, suggesting the potential for medicated confectionery with immune-supporting ingredients, according to Mintel US research on cough, cold, flu and allergy remedies.

Expand and combine texture choices

Looking at products whose texture is mentioned on pack launched between July 2019 and June 2021, more than half have a hard texture, which allows them to dissolve slowly in the mouth, providing throat or cough relief. Chewy, runny and soft textures, while less common, are also used in medicated candy.

Consumers find a range of textures to be an appealing attribute of food across a number of categories. Products that combine textures (eg smooth and crunchy) and those with novel textures (eg popping, crispy) also have appeal.

A combination of textures could add a new dimension to medicated candy, and such products are likely to have special appeal to children, for whom a range of textured and popping confectionery is already on the market. As an added advantage, the intriguing textures could encourage reluctant children to use medicated candy for throat or cough relief.

What we think

Medicated confectionery will have a resurgence as consumers reconnect with others, and with germs and viruses. The category can recapture old and gain new consumers by experimenting with taste, texture and added benefits. Brands should also encourage consumers to stock up on medicated confectionery before the next cold and flu season begins.