When at-home eating occasions spiked during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food and beverage ingredients industry saw unprecedented growth. And the sweeteners category was no exception.
According to “Sugars and Alternative Sweeteners: Incl Impact of COVID-19,” a report from Mintel published December 2020, lockdowns and a general preference for staying at home over the past 18 months meant that more people were cooking, baking and brewing coffee in their home kitchens, and purchasing sugar and alternative sweeteners in record numbers; however, the market researcher pointed out that this growth is not sustainable. Heading into 2022, consumers will become more discerning with their sweetener choices as purchases fall and ultimately stabilize, with sugar and artificial substitutes facing the brunt of the sales decline.
Consumer preferences for better-for-you ingredients are on the rise, at the same time as consumers increasingly mind their sugar intake. This means, according to Mintel, that not only will consumers be cutting back on the sweet stuff, but artificial sugar substitutes will not be an acceptable solution and will, in fact, face a challenging future: Consumers largely distrust them and 69% of consumers regard them as unhealthy. That said, two-thirds of consumers are interested in learning more about different types of sugar and sweeteners, particularly the nutritional differences between them.
This curiosity is good news for the natural sweetener category because it opens the door for brands to utilize (and educate about) options that contain nutrients, lower sugar content, or boast functional attributes such as those promoting dental health or gut health.
Once consumers learn about the different sweeteners available, natural varieties will inevitably reign supreme—and not just because artificial sweeteners have a bad rep. “From our research, we know that a majority of consumers feel that natural ingredients are important in selecting the foods they buy,” said Christina Coles, senior associate marketing manager of the US/Canada sugar reduction and special sweeteners division at Ingredion Inc. “More consumers are paying attention to sweeteners on labels with the recent updates to the nutrition facts panel calling out ‘Added Sugars’ as a separate line item.”
The challenge is determining which natural sweetener will work best, and the answer will likely be different for each product and target consumer. Proprietary ADM OutsideVoice research showed that about 70% of consumers said simple, recognizable ingredients influence their purchasing decisions, and 66% said they’re looking for labels with the shortest ingredients lists. Of shoppers searching for products with a clean label, sugar reduction becomes 61% more important at checkout. Though these preferences vary—and sometimes even conflict with one another—brands can rest assured that today’s ingredient suppliers are offering solutions.
“Most consumers think of clean label foods and beverages as being ‘naturally sweetened’ and/or having reduced sugar and calories,” stated Sarah Diedrich, marketing director of sweetening solutions and fibers at ADM. This opens the door for both natural caloric sweeteners like honey and agave, as well as zero-calorie, plant-based options like stevia and monk fruit.
The deluge of natural sweeteners on the market—paired with the increasing stigma surrounding sugar—explains why refined sugar’s market share is dropping as the years go by. In 2012, Mintel noted, sugar’s share of the sweetener market was 52.5%; by 2020, though it still leads the market, its share strength fell to 39.7%. The good news is consumers aren’t completely swearing off the sweet stuff, as honey’s market share grew 9 points over that time, perhaps thanks to the fact that it’s natural with a better-for-you reputation, and also offers nutrients and antioxidants.
Whitney Smart, manager of beverage applications at Sensient Flavors and Extracts, suggested any food or beverage positioning itself as healthy, natural or premium can benefit from using clean label sweeteners. “Consumers are already expecting it when it comes to these categories, and the consumer is more likely to accept them in these products,” she shared.
But while formulators and brands have a wide range of sweeteners at their disposal, SPINS data showed a few ingredients still come out on top—with honey, stevia and monk fruit securing top-three sweeteners status.
For products that can handle the calories, natural and low-processed sugars deliver. “Some of today’s novel clean label sweeteners are ingredients we have eaten for thousands of years like coconut nectar, coconut sugar and wild agave syrup,” stated Paul Whitman, fruit and vegetable specialties category manager at Global Organics. “None of these require secondary sweeteners or bulk fibers to make the products palatable or functionable. Instead, they taste sweet and deliver a few added benefits as well.”
One major benefit to these types of ingredients is that they tend to appeal to sustainable shoppers. Whitman pointed out that traditional farming practices required these crops to thrive in their natural environment without the aid of herbicides, pesticides or nitrogen-based fertilizers. “Farmers learned to regenerate the soils naturally,” he said, adding that no-till farming (more than 65 years no till for coconut palms and 7 to 10 years no till for agave) locks carbon in the soils for extended periods, making these ingredients particularly appealing for brands seeking to carry sustainability claims.
Editor’s note: This excerpt came from an in-depth feature, “Natural sweeteners offer superior taste, sugar reduction” in the “Natural solutions in sugar reduction” digital magazine. Click the link to read it in full.
Melissa Kvidahl Reilly is a freelance writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering news and trends in the natural, organic and supplement markets. She lives and works in New Jersey.