As the threat of COVID-19 continues to loom, consumers are more motivated than ever to reduce or eliminate processed sugar from their diets: A recent Consumer First survey showed that 87% of consumers are trying to limit their sugar consumption (1). “Consumers are concerned about the negative impact sugar has in their diets as it relates to overall health, including weight management and management of blood glucose levels,” notes Kyle Krause, Product Manager of Functional Fiber and Carbohydrates, North America, BENEO. “The pandemic has put the spotlight on overweight and diabetes as studies show that these conditions have caused a severe progress of COVID-19.”
Of course, just because consumers are cutting back on sugar doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their sweet tooth. Demand for healthy alternative sweeteners and sugar substitutes is soaring, with the market expected to reach $3.8 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 6.1% (2). Fortunately, for wellness-minded consumers who want to have their cake and be healthy, too (not to mention the CPG brands who want to attract their business), there are upwards of 50 different natural alternatives currently on the market and new options and innovations in this category are still being discovered.
Just what are consumers looking for in sugar alternatives? “Without question, the top priority for consumers in sugar reduction is taste,” asserts Coralie Garcia Perrin, Global Strategic Marketing Director, Sweet & Dairy Taste, Kerry Taste & Nutrition. “Consumers want to cut back on sugar consumption without sacrificing any of the taste attributes sugar provides in their favorite treats. They are also seeking solutions that are perceived as natural with clean and easy-to-read labelling.”
Sustainability is a growing concern in this category—and another compelling reason to reduce sugar, adds Perrin. “Our recent 2021 Kerry Sustainability in Motion survey of 14,000 consumers across 18 countries found that 84% believe it’s important for people to contribute to improving sustainability. This research also revealed that 49% of consumers consider sustainability when buying food and drink.” She notes that it takes 1,100 liters of water to produce just 1 kilogram of sugar [translates to 290 gallons of water to produce 2.2 pounds of sugar if you prefer that measurement], so simply reducing sugar content can go a long way toward improving the overall sustainability of a product.
In shifting towards clean, sustainable sweeteners, many consumers are getting back to basics by cooking and baking with more natural, nutrient-rich sweeteners like sucanat, coconut sugar, honey, and maple syrup. For instance, Suzanne’s Specialties offers a full range of vegan, non-GMO, and gluten-free sweeteners that retain plant antioxidants and minerals, including organic brown rice syrup, organic wildflower honey, organic agave syrup, and organic clarified rice syrup.
For those looking for keto and diabetic-friendly sweeteners, there are plenty of low- and no-calorie natural sweeteners that also check the great-tasting, clean-label, non-GMO, and sustainable boxes. Old staples like stevia and monk fruit are getting a second look thanks to innovative processing techniques that eliminate the bitter aftertaste and improve useability, while other new ingredient options open up product development opportunities for manufacturers as well as setting the stage for better-tasting products for retailers to serve to their customers.
Standouts: New & Trending Ingredients
Stevia. “Stevia has come a long way from its early days when it was only a single ingredient solution. There has been a tremendous amount of research and breakthroughs with great taste and ingredient science to unlock the potential of the stevia plant,” asserts Jackson Pillow, Marketing Communications & Digital Marketing Lead, Sugar Reduction, PureCircle by Ingredion.
Indeed, innovations abound among stevia suppliers: Ingredion uses a unique fermentation process to optimize the taste of the Reb M stevia found in PureCircle. Nascent Health Science relies on a blend of multiple steviol glycosides to improve the taste and maximize the useability of their SoPure stevia products. And NOW uses an amylase type enzyme during the extract process to eliminate the metallic aftertaste that puts off a lot of consumers. “We’re able to convert some of those devious side compounds into steviol, which is what happens during digestion anyway,” said Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, Senior Nutrition Education Manager, NOW, to Steve Lankford on a recent HealthQuest Podcast (3). “We just do it before it hits your tastebuds, which makes the stevia taste better.” The NOW product is called Better Stevia.
The bottom line: Manufacturers have plenty of stevia options to work with to optimize flavor of reduced sugar and zero sugar products. And retailers might find more success in this category by encouraging customers who have previously shunned stevia because of the bitter aftertaste to give the new generation of stevia-sweetened products a second chance.
Monk fruit. Monk fruit has an appealing flavor profile, but at almost 200 times as sweet as sugar, it’s so concentrated that it can be difficult to find the right dose in baking and product applications. Fortunately, manufacturers have succeeded in finding the right mix of bulking ingredients to pair with monk fruit for easy 1-to-1 sugar substitution. For instance, Healthy Halo Tribe offers Blossom, a blend of monk fruit and erythritol that can be used just as you would sugar in any recipe, notes Amy Goldsmith, Chief Marketing Officer, Halo Healthy Tribes. “Blossom also dissolves effortlessly, retains moisture in baked goods, caramelizes and browns just like sugar.” She notes that the sugar comes in golden brown, granulated and powdered, plus the company also offers a full line of cake and cupcake baking mixes and even sprinkles, which are sweetened with Blossom and made with natural gluten- and dairy- free ingredients.
On the ingredient supply side, companies are working to source and process the plant in ways that make it more sustainable and easier to work with. Layn recently introduced Super V Fruit, a proprietary variety of non-GMO monk fruit that contains 20% more of the sweet component mogrosides. This means manufacturers can use less in their sugar reduction formulas, and it reduces the amount of land, water and resources needed to produce monk fruit.
“The new Super V Fruit represents a major step in improving and securing the end-to-end monk fruit supply chain, naturally and without the use of GMO,” notes Elsa Gao, R&D Director, Layn Natural Ingredients, Shanghai R&D Headquarters. She adds that the Super V fruit has increased their fruit yield, which has allowed the company to develop a number of new varieties of monk to be launched in the fourth quarter of this year.
Allulose. This sugar, which is found naturally in figs, raisins, and wheat and tastes 70% as sweet as sugar, is increasingly popular with both home cooks and product developers. That’s because it functions and tastes much like table sugar in most applications, especially baked goods, but contains 1/10 of the calories, doesn’t spike blood sugar, and may deliver some health benefits. “Allulose is another emerging sugar reduction solution, which we expect to see increased inclusion in new product launches,” says Pillow. “What makes allulose unique is that it can replace sucrose’s sweetness and builds back functionality at the same time.”
Botanical extracts. Kerry recently launched a natural flavoring solution called Tastesense Sweet based on botanical extracts, which delivers sweet flavor and appealing mouthfeel without the aftertaste of some sugar substitutes. “Kerry has found that application of our Tastesense Sweet natural flavor solution in a product can replace sugar by up to 30% and can also be combined with stevia to reach up to 50% reduction,” notes Perrin. “It is also labelled as ‘natural flavoring,’ an added advantage in this age of clean label.”
Functional fibers. For manufacturers looking to reduce sugar while also improving the functionality of their products, BENEO supplies two low-glycemic, fibrous sugars that can help may have prebiotic benefits for the gut. Derived from beet sugar, isomalt contains half the calories of sugar and the company says it provides sweetness without the cooling effects of many sugar replacements. It has a subtle fruit flavor and low moisture level that makes it a top sweetener for hard candies, and a popular choice in chocolate, candies, baked goods, jams and fillings.
Palatinose, which functions much like sugar while providing a slow release of glucose in the body, is a smart alternative choice for sport nutrition products, beverages and baking mixes, notes Krause. “Palatinose provides full carbohydrate energy in a balanced and sustained way without the ‘spike and crash’ effect common with high glycemic carbs such as maltodextrin.”
3 Secrets to Sales Success
- Educate. “There is a lot of consumer confusion regarding sweeteners and sugar substitutes,” notes Goldsmith. “Consumers who want to avoid sugar may know to avoid ‘artificial sweeteners’ but they may turn to ‘natural sweeteners’ like agave, cane sugar, honey, or maple—all ingredients that avoid the word sugar, but mimic it metabolically.” Having a poster or printout handy that explains each type of sweetener, the benefits, glycemic profile, and what applications it works best for can go a long way in helping customers navigate this aisle.
- Highlight transparency and sustainability. “Ingredient transparency and education is key,” says Pillow. “Consumers want to know about where their food is from and what’s in it.” He suggests sourcing quality products with clean ingredients on the label and having some knowledge of sourcing info to maximize sales in this trend. Perrin also suggests highlighting sourcing: “Sustainability is increasingly important to many consumers and being able to highlight a product’s sustainability credentials to consumers either on package or in the store display is one way to market this category to new consumers. But these sustainability messages need to be augmented with assurances that taste has not been affected as all research continues to show that taste is number one with consumers.”
- Offer taste tests. Provide opportunities to taste different sweeteners or even send customers home with samples to bake with, advises Goldsmith. Set up a coffee station with free coffee with a variety of sweeteners to try along with bite-size sampling of low sugar snacks available for purchase. In the lead up to holiday baking season, in-store baking classes or demonstrations can be a big draw. Bundle ingredients at a promotional sale price so customers can replicate whatever low-sugar treat that was made in store for their loved ones. WF
- Kerry ConsumerFirst, 2018. https://www.kerry.com/insights/resources/2018-consumer-trends
- Natural Sweeteners Market. Market and Markets. Dec. 2020. https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/naturalsweeteners-market-1071.html
- Exploring the World of Natural Sweeteners, HealthQuest Podcast, https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/multimedia/podcast/exploring-the-world-of-natural-sweeteners/