A range of naturally-sourced sweeteners help consumers and formulators reduce sugar content while maximizing flavor.
Global obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization, while the number of people with diabetes rose from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. Scientists and medical professionals have linked these alarming health trends, as well as other health issues like metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver, to increased sugar consumption, largely from added sugar in foods and sweet drinks.
Whereas sodium was once the “boogieman” of good health, sugar has stepped in to take its place. Market research from Mintel showed that 35% of U.S. consumers believe food and drink companies should be doing more to reduce the amount of sugar in products, while 34% also agreed companies should make it easier to understand how much sugar is in products (Mintel Sugar and Sweeteners – US, December 2016).
Some people are trying to cut out sugar altogether. Based on combined polls from 2014, 2015, and 2018, Gallup found that 51% of adults reported avoiding sugar. Older people (56% of those 65 and up, and 53% of those 50-64; compared to 30-49 at 52%, and 18-29 at 44%), Hispanics (55% compared to 50% of black, and 51% of white survey respondents); and college graduates (62%, compared to 47% of non-college grads) were all more likely to shun sugar.
“Consumers are paying closer attention to both sugar and artificial sweeteners in their products than ever before,” observed Julie Johnson, general manager, HealthFocus International. “Nearly half of U.S. shoppers (48%) said that ‘lower in sugar’ is extremely or very important on labels, an increase of 12 points since 2014. Conversely, 52% find ‘no artificial sweeteners’ equally as important and has seen nearly the same growth.”
Labeling & Regulation
Upcoming changes to the Nutrition Facts Label in the U.S. is one reason food and beverage manufacturers are clamoring to reel in sugar content. Based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) mandatory policy, added sugar content will need to be explicitly disclosed to consumers on product packaging. Set to take effect between 2020 and 2021, the new Nutrition Facts Label will reflect the grams and percent Daily Value (DV) of added sugar content, which would ideally help consumers limit calories from added sugar.
A recently published study in the journal Circulation suggested these updated labels could be a cost-effective way to boost Americans’ health, while financially benefitting the country’s healthcare system and society. Researchers suggested that added sugar labeling could prevent or postpone approximately 1 million cases of cardiometabolic disease—including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes—over a 20-year period. Furthermore, when paired with industry efforts to reduce sugar content in anticipation of the new labels, this number could be closer to 3 million.
Healthcare savings could also be significant. Added sugar labeling was estimated to save $31 billion in net healthcare costs and $61.9 billion in societal costs. Again, if food reformulation also reduced sugar content, the U.S. could save even more—$57.6 billion in net healthcare costs and $113.2 billion in societal costs.
Shaun Richmond, global vice president of sweeteners for Layn USA, Newport Beach, CA, sees these changes as a step in the right direction. “We believe that anything that allows consumers to stop and take a look at their overall diet and the foods and beverages that they consume is a positive step,” he said. Richmond perceived measures such as state sugar taxes, changes to the Nutrition Facts Label, and other regulatory measures around sugar consumption, as positive actions that will ultimately “increase consumer awareness and act as a catalyst for conversation around how consumers balance their own and their family’s diet.” In a culture where consumers are bombarded by convenient and indulgent foods and beverages, Richmond asserted “these measures can help to ensure nutrition and dietary balance remain part of the conversation.”
While these regulations are designed to support Americans in making more informed decisions about what they’re consuming, such changes can create “confusion and challenges for food manufacturers and marketers pertaining to ingredients selection,” said Amy Targan, president of Malt Products Corporation, a Saddle Brook, NJ-based manufacturer of malted barley extract and other natural sweeteners. While she stressed “the importance of balanced nutrition” Targan asserted that “all sweeteners aren’t created equal.” That said, she believes “sweeteners such as naturally derived grain extracts should be viewed differently by regulators in terms of the ‘added sugars’ label category, as these ingredients provide important nutrients above and
Discussing government intervention in sugar consumption, Andy Ohmes, global director of high intensity sweeteners for Cargill, Wayzata, MN, said “we all have a stake in improving consumer health, and if we work collectively to better understand the root causes that are driven by science, not unsubstantiated opinions, we can create transparent solutions that lead to sustained improvements in health.”
He called Nutrition Fact Labels an important source of information, and expressed support for “plans for public education and awareness activities that can help consumers understand the new labels and how to use them.”
Ohmes added, “The educational efforts put forth by the government agencies and other stakeholders will be equally critical to ensure what is put on the label translates into changing consumer behaviors.”
The Sugar Reduction Trend
Johnson of HealthFocus International called the category for sweeteners, including sugar, “the perfect storm of conflicting consumer needs.” Key issues impacting the space include the desire to reduce calories and carbohydrates, and reign in weight; the trend of clean eating and avoidance of artificial ingredients; consumer desire for formulas supporting sustained, natural energy (particularly among those with children); and above all, consumer demand for appealing taste experiences.
“Because of this, all sweeteners have been under intense consumer scrutiny, and unlike the low-sodium trend, which was relatively short-lived and non-transformational, the factors impacting sweeteners are creating significant and long-term changes in how consumers view and use these products,” explained Johnson.” She said these conflicting needs will drive consumer decisions at the shelf. “At a very basic level, even though they may not always act accordingly, sugar reduction is all about consumers trying to be healthier. According to the HealthFocus Global Sweetener Report, 95% of shoppers around the world believe that reducing sugar makes foods and beverages at least somewhat healthier, so it makes sense that this has also garnered the attention of manufacturers.”
Natural vs. Artificial
In their quest to avoid sugar, consumers are seeking out natural or plant-based formulas to fill in the flavor gap. In general, consumers are more partial to easily identifiable, naturally-derived ingredients when compared with the complexly-named, lab-created synthetic formulas.
Market research from Mintel demonstrated this, as 35% of U.S. consumers agreed that artificial sweeteners are bad for health, while just 19% agreed that artificial sweeteners taste as good as sugar in food/drink products.
Furthermore, 26% of U.S. consumers said they would like to see more food/drinks which use naturally sourced sugar substitutes (such as stevia). Nineteen percent said they are purchasing more foods and drinks containing natural sweeteners such as monk fruit or stevia, while 16% said they would pay more for such products.
While consumer interest in naturally-sourced sweeteners has piqued, Richmond of Layn USA believes there will always be competition from artificial sweeteners. “Both options offer sugar and calorie reduction, which is important to a large number of consumers,” he said. “The balance has certainly shifted in recent years with most food and beverage companies acknowledging a consumer preference for a more natural product. While this is solid progress for both food and beverage companies and sweetener producers, plant-based sweeteners still have work ahead.”