- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - While Sindhura Citineni worked as a dentist in a rural North Carolina town, many children came to her office with teeth decay.

The parents weren’t sure what to do. Even if they banned all the Mountain Dew and the candy, the kids would gorge on it at their first opportunity of independence.

And since Citineni saw them only about once every six months, she couldn’t instill much education beyond the usual dentist recommendations: “Floss daily, don’t drink sugar beverages, and brush your teeth twice a day.”

This gave Citineni and her husband Tommy Thekkekandam an idea for a candy brand that is healthy for teeth and could serve as an educational tool.

And while a dentist designing candy might sound like a buzz kill to some, Thekkekandam said it’s far from it.

“The brand we’re trying to create is not one that people associate with medicine,” Thekkekandam said. “(It’s) farthest from that.”

Under the company name Tom and Jenny’s, the two Durham residents make caramel candies with all the familiar ingredients, including rich heavy cream, but without the sugar.

The candy is made using xylitol, a sugar alternative derived from plants.

“One of our goals was this should not taste like a sugar-free product,” Thekkekandam said. “Xylitol is looked at by a lot of people in confectionary as a great substitute for sugar.”

Many are getting on board with the idea, including a Michelin-starred pastry chef who assisted Thekkekandam and Citineni with developing a recipe. The candy is also offered in several locations including Foster’s Market and Respite CafĂ©.

In addition to the company’s focus on reducing tooth decay, John Buse, the director of UNC Healthcare’s Diabetes Care Center, said xylitol-sweetened candy may also be beneficial in regulating blood sugar.

“All in all, if a person with diabetes wanted to buy candy, candy made with xylitol would be less likely to raise blood sugar,” Buse said. “In general, (xylitol) seems to be better. But how much better is how unclear. “There’s a lot that remains unknown,” he said.

Thekkekandam and Citineni, whose childhood nickname is “Jenny,” began developing the product about four years ago after Citineni graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Dentistry and Thekkekandam worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company after graduate school at Duke University.

Thekkekandam and Citineni met during their undergraduate years at UNC-CH, where they founded Nourish International, a poverty-fighting nonprofit that has grown to 60 college chapters across the nation and more than 25 international projects.

“Both of us had this strong, strong passion for good nutrition and good health,” Thekkekandam said. “The real goal is we want to be a brand people can trust and really focus on educating the public.”

He said the goal of the brand is to educate children on health through the packaging and ultimately donate a large portion of the profit to give this candy to low-income communities or school systems and to invest in better dental health access.

The two began experimenting with candy recipes while living in New York last summer, but the initial idea of creating hard candy proved to be difficult.

“I’d come home and it’d just be like white crystal and substance all over the kitchen,” Thekkekandam said.

They then moved on to gummy bears, but Thekkekandam said it’s hard to make these in a profitable way on a small scale, so they finally settled on caramel.

But xylitol doesn’t caramelize like sugar; it burns.

So Thekkekandam began adding cream to the pan with xylitol and then heating it all up above 260 degrees.

This process, known as the Maillard reaction, breaks down the proteins, fats and sugars in the cream, Thekkekandam said.

“(You know) how the flavor in dulce de leche is slightly different from a caramel flavor?” he said. “It comes from the Maillard process.it’s all from that milk being heated to a point where you chemically change the proteins and the fats and the sugars.”

After recipe development with the pastry chef, who has not officially tied his name to the product yet, Thekkekandam and Citineni began selling the product in New York.

“Over four or five days, we sold like $3,000 worth of candy,” Thekkekandam said. “It was all that we could make in the kitchen.”

Then in September, after having a child and quitting their jobs on the same day, they moved back to North Carolina.

“We always knew we were going back,” Thekkekandam said. “We both love North Carolina.”

And Thekkekandam said the brand has rapidly gained traction here.

“In New York you have a million small candy companies. Here it’s like (we’re) one of the few and (have) a really unique value proposition,” he said. “The driving principle here is, let’s create something that has this double or triple bottom line effect. It creates value for us or any investors that come along down the road, but just as importantly it educates people and gets great products out in their hands.”

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Information from: The Herald-Sun, https://www.herald-sun.com

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