In light of this global epidemic, and its significant impact on health, consumers are looking for ways to curb their sugar intake and protect themselves from the negative health effects of weight gain. Market research from Mintel found 84% of U.S. adults are limiting sugar, with the highest percentage citing weight management as their motivation.
“Sugar is the new fat,”remarked Nina Hughes-Likins, global marketing director for Prinova USA, referencing the similar consumer backlash against fat content in processed foods. She suggested that consumers are making the connection between high sugar consumption and serious health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease—all of which are on the rise.
This increased consumer awareness is being felt in the sweeteners market, according to Mintel, with dollar sales in the U.S. sugar and sweeteners market declining by 5% between 2011-2016, landing at approximately $4.3 billion in 2016. In addition, the research firm noted sugar, sugar substitutes, and syrup all experienced falling sales due to the stigmatization of sugar, as well as concerns over the perceived safety and flavor of artificial sweeteners. Sales of sugar on its own—which represents 44% of the dollar sales in the category—declined by 16% during 2011-2016.
The HealthFocus 2016 International Trend Study reported varied concern over sugar around the globe. Europeans (France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, U.K) were less concerned about sugar levels, while shoppers in the Americas (U.S., Mexico, Canada, Brazil) and Asia/Pacific (Australia, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Philippines) reported being highly concerned.
And while sugar worried some, the perception of artificial sweeteners skewed strongly negative in comparison. When examining labels, respondents across all regions reported “no artificial sweeteners” was the most critical message they were looking for on packaging. HealthFocus International also found more than half of global consumers (55%) were willing to pay more for foods and beverages made without artificial sweeteners. Avoidance of such ingredients is also high around the world, with 60% reporting they either did not use, or are decreasing usage of artificial sweeteners, compared to 49% who said the same for sugar.
While adversity to artificial seems pretty well established, there appears to be an opportunity for natural sugar substitutes in the market. Mintel reported 26% of U.S. consumers would like to see more food/drinks using naturally sourced sugar substitutes. However, only a small percentage are willing to pay more for such products, so Mintel suggested there could be some “growing pains” while establishing acceptable product price points. The research firm also said iGens and Millennials are more likely than older consumers to want to see natural options in food and drink, with the younger set willing to pay more for such products.
Opportunity for Natural Sweeteners
Some speculate that the global obesity crisis is driving the “clean eating” trend. Naturally, the search for healthy food and beverage options is leading to consumer demand for less sugar.
Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager for Cargill, Minneapolis, MN, observed, “Lifestyle trends focused on healthier choices and ‘cleaner’ eating, coupled with regulatory mandates, and media messaging linking excessive sugar consumption to health concerns, are some of the key influencers driving the growing demand for sugar reduction solutions.” However, she anticipates sugar content will continue to be important to consumers, with some successful new sugar products positioned for sugar reduction (rather than total elimination), in order to deliver the same great taste consumers crave.
Obesity-related health issues are also a driver in interest for reduced sugar foods and beverages, according to Faith Son, vice president, head of global marketing and innovation at PureCircle. “As health experts and governments have become increasingly concerned about increases in obesity and diabetes, consumers have also been on their own health and wellness journey. More than ever, consumers want to better understand the type of ingredients in their food, and the role they play in their personal health and wellness,” said Ms. Son. “With these types of trends, major food and beverage companies are now engaged both in reformulating products to reduce sugar and calories as well as introducing new products without, or with low levels of, sugar and calories.”
Big players in the food and beverage marketplace are responding to this opportunity, according to Ms. Hughes-Likins. For example, she said “in the first half of 2017, 19.7% of Coca-Cola new product launches claimed to be sugar-free, compared to 8.7% in 2016. Coca-Cola soft drink launches featuring stevia have also grown at a 30% CAGR from 2012-2016 (Innova Market Insights). These low sugar, natural stevia based products are seen as healthier in the eyes of the consumer.”
Stevia Leads the Pack
Stevia sweeteners, Ms. Stauffer suggested, can help companies deliver on the significant opportunity for products boasting reduced sugar content. “According to Cargill’s proprietary research, stevia leaf extract is seen as healthful and is an ingredient that will drive purchase interest on pack. Ongoing innovation through Cargill’s ViaTech stevia sweetener portfolio is helping food and beverage manufacturers achieve optimal sweetness and significant sugar reduction across categories, including beverages, bakery, cereal, and dairy products.” The ViaTech portfolio is based on Cargill’s proprietary taste-prediction model, which according to the company, canprecisely predict which combination of steviol glycosides deliver optimal taste and sweetness.
Ms. Son also pointed to stevia as a top ingredient for sugar reduction. She referenced Mintel data indicating use of “natural origin” sweeteners are sharply on the rise. “In 2010, only 9% of new products launching with high intensity sweeteners, used stevia,” she said. “As of August, 2017, stevia was used in 27% of new products launched with these types of sweeteners and outpaced the use aspartame for the first time.”
Underscoring the preference for “natural” ingredients, Ms. Son commented that PureCircle’s proprietary global consumer research indicated that consumers view stevia more favorably when compared to other artificial sweeteners. “The biggest driver to this sentiment has been consumers’ belief around the sweetener being natural,” she said. “The greater the consumer understanding of its natural origin the more positive the sentiment.”
The stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) yields a sweet extract up to 100 times sweeter than sugar, noted Regina Flight, Now Foods/HealthCO, private label/bulk supervisor,yet it contains zero calories and has little impact on blood sugar levels. “Our unique stevia extract—BetterStevia— has a clean, sweet taste without the bitter aftertaste of many stevia extracts. BetterStevia is marketed under the NOW Foods brand, but is available for bulk sales through Healthco under the trade name Stevia FSE.”
Andy Ohmes, global director high intensity sweeteners at Cargill said advances in stevia technology will continue to drive new product development. For example, the company has developed a new stevia-based sweetener that aims to enable even deeper levels of sugar reduction. “Cargill food scientists have invested more than 150,000 hours studying the stevia leaf to develop sweeteners with the optimal balance of sweetness and taste,” explained Mr. Ohmes. “Through our research, we found trace amounts of the glycosides Reb M and Reb D in the stevia leaf, which offer heightened sweetness and a taste similar to real sugar. While these glycosides are rare in the stevia plant, we can produce them through fermentation.” The resulting product, EverSweet, will be commercially available in 2018. “Unlike other stevia-based products, EverSweet provides sweetness without bitterness or a licorice aftertaste, creating a more rounded taste profile with a faster onset of sweetness.” Mr. Ohmes said EverSweet is ideal for manufacturers looking for deep calorie reductions, with the potential to reach up to 100% sugar replacement in many applications.
Recalling the inception of stevia being offered as an ingredient in 2008, most offerings focused only on Reb A, according to Ms. Son. A decade later, PureCircle works with customers on third and even fourth generation products which leverage the company’s newest stevia variety, StarLeaf stevia. “These stevia-based sweeteners use the most sugar-like steviol glycosides and work best in combination with other sweet molecules found in the stevia leaf,” she said. PureCircle also offers Sigma Solutions, a set of products tailored for specific food and beverage categories. “These types of products not only improve the taste, but can make the formulation work easier and faster. Recently we unveiled our Sigma-Xcelerator product development tool, which provides custom stevia ingredient combinations, maximizing taste alongside other customer requirements, such as sugar reduction, speed to market, cost and solubility. We can now offer customers turnkey solutions which simplify their development work to achieve the most sugar-like taste in food and beverages.”
Sweeteners marketed as healthy alternatives to sugar, such as high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame K, neotame and others, are everywhere, according to Ms. Flight of Now Foods/HealthCO. However, she believes consumers are increasingly seeking out natural alternatives, and ingredients they recognize and understand. “The clean label movement has been significant for growth of alternative natural sweeteners that are less processed,” she said. “Throughout history plants have been used as a source for sweeteners, which have the added bonus of naturally occurring beneficial components such as vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.”
One such plant-derived sweetener is agave nectar.“Agave is the plant from which tequila is derived, but the sap is regarded as one of nature’s ideal sweeteners. Agave nectar has a low glycemic profile, and contains the prebiotic substance inulin, which supports digestion by nourishing the good gut bacteria.”
Sugar derived from dates also offers a naturally sweet solution, said Ms. Flight. “Dates can be finely chopped or ground to create a minimally processed healthy natural sweetener. It is popular as a replacement for granular sugar in recipes.”
Like date sugar, maple syrup is another natural sweetener that requires no processing. Ms. Flight noted it has a low glycemic index and contains minerals such as calcium and iron.
Sugar alcohols are also a popular sweetening option for product formulators. “Sugar alcohols, naturally found in certain plants and fruits, are a form of carbohydrate similar in chemical composition to table sugar (sucrose), but usually less sweet and have a lower glycemic impact,” explained Ms. Flight.
Xylitol, a naturally-occurring sugar alcohol, is one of the healthiest and most unique sweeteners, according to Ms. Flight. “As a sugar alcohol, it doesn’t promote tooth decay. Although classified as a carbohydrate, it has a low glycemic impact due to its slow absorption in the digestive tract. Its caloric impact is around one third lower than other carbohydrates, making it a healthy substitute for sugar in many cooking applications.” Now Foods’ Pure Xylitol Powder is derived from non-GMO corn.
Erythritol is a naturally-occurring sugar alcohol derived from non-GMO corn. This sugar alchohol is naturally found in small amounts in various plants, fruits, and fungi. “It contains 95% fewer calories than table sugar, doesn’t contribute to tooth decay and has a low glycemic impact. It is about 70% as sweet as sugar, with a similar taste.”
Naturally-occurring sugars—such as fructose, glucose, dextrose, and sucrose—are found in plants, fruits and vegetables. Ms. Flight explained they are a product of photosynthesis, as plants use them for energy. “These naturally occurring sugars can affect blood sugar levels, however they are a good alternative to refined, highly processed sugar.”
“Dextrose, also called glucose, may be a simple sugar but it carries out an important function in cellular energy production; it is the primary source of energy for most living organisms,” said Ms. Flight. “Ours is derived from non-GMO corn, and has moderate sweetness and a fine texture that’s easily utilized by the body.”
Meanwhile, fructose offers similar benefits. A simple sugar commonly found in honey, melons, berries, tree fruits, vegetables, and other natural sources, fructose can also be called “fruit sugar.” Ms. Flight commented, “Crystalline fructose is from corn, but should not be confused with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a family of sweetener mixtures created with varying amounts of glucose and fructose. Crystalline Fructose is a 100% pure form that’s ideal for cooking applications since it doesn’t recrystallize easily once it’s incorporated into foods.” She added that fructose is a particularly good sugar substitute in recipes intended to yield soft, chewy foods, such as cookies and cupcakes.
Sometimes referred to as “milk sugar,” lactose is the first carbohydrate every mammal consumes. “Extracted from either sweet or sour whey, our Pure Lactose has about 20% the sweetness level of table sugar,” explained Ms. Flight. “Often used in food applications and as a sweet addition to children’s milk, lactose also supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria like acidophilus.”
Turbinado sugar, created from a partially-refined sugar cane extract, is real natural brown sugar, as opposed to common brown sugar products which Ms. Flight said are “simply fully-refined sugar with molasses added back.” She added, “a healthier alternative to white and refined brown table sugars, turbinado sugar crystals are larger and typically more pale and dry.” Turbinado sugar can be used as a 1:1 replacement for white sugar.
Certified organic Sucanat cane sugar from Now Foods/HealthCO is wholecane sugar from pure, dried sugar cane syrup. “It retains all the properties of natural sugar cane, including its molasses content, which gives Sucanat a strong and distinctive flavor. Although it can be used as a 1:1 substitute for table sugar in many recipes, Sucanat’s distinctive flavor characteristics and larger granules may require some experimentation to attain the desired flavor and texture,” Ms. Flight concluded.
Mintel predicted the use of honey as a sweetener would continue to gain popularity, with its natural perception driving consumer interest. The research firm reported that honey had the highest perception of health among sweeteners it measured. Of those surveyed, 75% of consumers indicated that honey is healthy, and 38% of consumers rated it the healthiest option (compared to stevia; raw cane sugar such as turbinado, Sugar in the Raw, etc.; agave; white granulated sugar; monk fruit; coconut sugar; maple sugar; sucralose; high fructose corn syrup; and saccharin). This is most likely why from 2011-2015 honey experienced 57% growth.
While at the moment added sugar doesn’t appear to be a big concern for consumers, Mintel suggested this may change in 2018 when the FDA mandated changes to the nutrition facts panel includes information specifying added sugar versus total sugar in food and beverage products. In anticipation of this kind of government regulated transparency, Mintel believes the industry would be wise to begin better communicating the type and amount of sugar in packaged foods.