Consumers continue to look for ways to eat and drink more healthily and light—yet they still want to fully enjoy what they love. New products and product claims illustrate how lightness in alcohol content, sweetness, flavor, texture and portion size—are all gaining momentum in food and beverages.

Accordingly, Innova Market Insights also has identified “Lighter Enjoyment” as one of 2018’s top 10 trends.

Light foods and beverages no longer are the reserve of the dieter. Today’s Millennials are shifting more toward moderation and they’re prioritizing high-quality, tasty foods and beverages in place of excessive alcohol consumption. In the beverage sector, Innova Market Insights has seen big brands adapt their marketing of light drinks toward the more mainstream consumer—with the focus on worry-free enjoyment. This has resulted in an increase in drinks with a low alcohol content. 

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Simultaneously, there’s been a push—not only in beverages but across wider categories as well—for alternative natural sweeteners. Many of the industry’s latest formulations and innovations now feature ingredients such as coconut sugar, date, honey and, of course, stevia and monk fruit.

Of course, one of the most striking international developments involves the overall shift in consumer attitudes toward sugar. In response, food and beverage formulators have worked to reduce or replace sugar and/or other high-caloric sweeteners in every application ranging from bakery foods to beverages and breakfast cereals to infant nutrition products.

Innova Market Insights consumer research conducted in 2016 found that 28% of UK consumers pay attention to the amount of sugar when purchasing a sugar confectionery product and 23% pay attention when buying a chocolate product. A low/no/reduced sugar claim was found to be the most important influencer for the sugar confectionery purchasing habits of 23% of UK consumers in 2016, well ahead of indulgence claims (13%) and low/no/reduced fat claim (10%).

Innova Market Insights data show sugar reduction activity remains strong. New products tracked with a “sugar free” or “sugar reduced” platform grew at a CAGR of +16% from 2012-2016. Interestingly, however, those reduced sugar items accounted for just 5% of food and beverages launched in 2016. This suggests that much of the work has been done from a stealth perspective and that some companies choose not to actively market the change.

One recent international survey from DSM, a global ingredient company, shows that concern about sugar is on the rise globally, with nearly half of all consumers saying they are more concerned about overall sugar consumption than they were three years ago. In most countries, label reading has become the norm, with more than 50% of global consumers saying they check the sugar content of foods before they buy. DSM’s survey, conducted in July 2017—with 8,000 consumers in the US, Mexico, Brazil, UK, Germany, Spain, Vietnam and Japan—shows these trends are strongest among women, consumers under 35 and people with children. 

The survey found that 50% of women are more concerned about their sugar intake than three years ago (versus 44% of men); that 59% of consumers ages 26-35 always or almost always check the label for sugar content (versus 55% of the general population); and that 64% of people with children have researched the health risks of sugar (versus 55% of people without children). 

Despite a growing concern for sugar content, consumers also are avoiding artificial sweeteners. The majority prefer to see products that claim they are sweetened with “only natural sweeteners” followed by a preference for “no sugar added products.” When it comes to paying more for healthier options, “natural” is key as 50% of consumers say they are willing to pay more for products that claim “only natural sweeteners” are used and 45% are willing to pay more for “no artificial sweeteners.” 

Hence the challenge of delivering lower sugar products—items that still deliver on taste and clean label appeal—continues to be a major industry focus and opportunity.

Meanwhile, there’s even more widespread demand for sugar reduction. No doubt one of Europe’s top stories in 2018 will be the implementation of a sugar tax in the United Kingdom. Sugar-filled soft drinks will see a tax hike in April 2018 in an attempt to combat rising levels of obesity. UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced details of the new sugar tax in his March 2017 budget statement, noting that the money raised would go to the Department for Education (DfE) for school sports. A tax on drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100ml will be levied by 18p per liter, while those with 8g or more of sugar per 100ml will have an extra tax of 24p per liter.


Revving Up Reformulation

Industry efforts to reduce sugar are having a profound impact on new product formulation. The share of new global products tracked by Innova Market Insights with sugar reduced/free claims (i.e. “no added sugars,” “low sugar” and/or “sugar free”) found a steady rise from 4.2% in 2012 to 5.8% in 2016. This represents a CAGR of +38%. 

In the UK, Nestlé is working on a number of initiatives within its confectionery business to deliver further sugar reductions towards its 10% saving by 2018. Their latest effort involves Nestlé’s flagship KitKat confectionery brand to contain extra milk and extra cocoa. The reformulated recipe sees sugar replaced by more milk and cocoa and reformulated items are being introduced across the KitKat milk chocolate range. 

In late 2016, Nestlé announced a scientific breakthrough with the potential to reduce sugar in its treats by up to 40%--all without affecting taste. Nestlé said it was securing a patent for its innovation, and it would start using the new sugar across its range from 2018. Using only natural ingredients, Nestlé said its researchers had found a way to structure sugar differently, so that less sugar can be used in its chocolate. Although Nestlé recently announced plans to divest its US chocolate and confectionery business, it will be very interesting to see whether products that are made using the technology begin to make their way to market in 2018. 

One other example of innovation to watch includes the reduced sugar reformulation efforts taking place in the Netherlands, where two significant announcements were made in the soft drinks space last March. Coca-Cola took the unprecedented step of removing the sugared version of Sprite from the market and replacing it with the recipe of its no-calorie counterpart, Sprite Zero. The news came as Unilever reformulated Lipton Ice Tea Sparkling to contain 45% less sugar than the most consumed soft drinks in the Netherlands. This makes the entire Lipton Ice Tea’s portfolio low in calories.

 Of course, reformulating a much-loved product by removing or replacing the sugar—all while maintaining the familiar taste—is quite a challenge for most companies. 

In the UK, Coca-Cola Life, its mid-calorie cola, appeared to be a victim of the rising focus on reducing sugar levels in the diet. First launched in the UK in 2014, following its appearance in a number of other markets, including the US, it was revamped in the UK in early 2016 with a new lower sugar recipe. In spite of this, the company reports that sales fell by more than 50% in 2016, with retail sales of about GB£11 million. Coca-Cola attributed this drop to its “One Brand” strategy that has encouraged more people to try different Coke variants, however.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has increased investments in Coca-Cola Zero Sugar in the country as part of its on-going zero sugar strategy. According to Coca-Cola, this will allow the company to “simplify consumer choice between sugar and sugar-free formats” as it continues to focus on the growth of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar and Diet Coke. Interestingly, Coca Cola claims that 60% of its portfolio will fall below the UK sugar tax threshold when it enters into force.


Finding Sweeter Balance

There is a dizzying array of fruit beverages available to American consumers, ranging from “fruit-flavored” drinks to 100% fruit juice. The common problem with nearly all of them involves their high sugar content. 

NewTree Fruit Company LP, De Pere, Wis., targeted this gap with its 2016 launch of Edit De-Sugared Fruit Juice. The drink contains 100% fruit juice, but only 1g of sugar. NewTree says its founders patented a de-sugaring process by which 90% of the natural sugars contained within locally sourced fruits—mainly apples, cranberries, grapes and tart cherries—are removed, while nutrients are retained. The juice then is sweetened with stevia, a natural plant-based sweetener, which, unlike the natural plant-based sugars contained within the fruit, contains no calories or carbohydrates. 

This makes Edit a low-calorie offering with only 1g of sugar—but still packed with vitamins and antioxidants, and true original fruit flavor. Officials say Edit is safe for diabetics to drink, and is nutritious for children, but without all the empty calories and artificial sweeteners that lead to tooth decay, obesity, or the sugar-rush/sugar-crash cycle. 

 Waters also are rising as a share of soft drink launches due to their light fresh and healthy image. Innova Market Insights reported a 25.3% CAGR in plant-based waters between 2012 and 2017 year to date, compared with a 6.6% CAGR for the soft drinks category as a whole. It is important to place this in context, however, as plant-based waters is one of the smallest sub-categories, accounting for 2% share of global soft drinks new product development. 

Plant-based waters is one of the smallest sub-categories in soft drinks in terms of launch activity, with around 2.8% of the total, but this is up dramatically from 1.1% in 2012. By comparison, 6.1% of soft drinks introductions were taken up by flavored waters in 2017, compared to 5.1% in 2012, indicating a significantly slower recent growth rate. 

Consumers view flavored or fortified water as a way to boost nutrient intake. Like vitamin waters, the category is expanding to include plant-based waters that consumers believe may have health benefits outside simple hydration. While the US leads in product introductions, Brazil, Mexico, UK, and Canada fall behind, with the latter introducing near half of the US. Compared to the same period five years ago, plant-based water launches have increased by 39%. Aloe vera water launches have doubled. Maple water and birch tree water are fueling new category expansion. Coconut water, which seemingly started the plant derived movement still leads, however. 

The natural image of plant-based waters is reflected in the leading health claims. The claim of “no additives/preservatives” appeared in 40% of new product launches during the first half of 2017 and “natural” appeared in 29% of introductions. Respectively, these figures rank those claims in first and fourth place. “Free from” claims are also popular, with allergy and gluten-free taking second and third places, and non-GMO seeing good growth from a smaller base.


Redefining Sweet

Sugar reduction efforts sometimes aim for more than health appeal.  The goal, instead might be a more nuanced sweetness that appeals to adults. In Europe, Austria Juice talks about developing soft drinks for adults, including its “sophinades” (sophisticated lemonades), which are trending. Officials cite demand for products that are less sweet and more tart than standard fare that more appeals to children. 

To learn more about 2018 flavor trends, Innova Market Insights spoke to Jochen Heininger, vice president product management for ADM’s Wild Flavor & Specialty Ingredients (WFSI) business. He said the company recently launched a new natural orange flavor line from different varieties and grown in different parts of the world (for example, Valencia Orange and Brazilian Orange).

“Certainly also interesting are beverages based on fermented juice concentrate. WFSI has composed beverages that have ‘adult’ flavor profiles and nuanced sweetness. These new products can be positioned as contemporary lifestyle and enjoyment beverages suitable to many different occasions,” he notes.

Another example comes from Eden Creamery LLC, Los Angeles, whose Halo Top ice cream delivers fewer calories with a blend of three sweetening ingredients: sugar, stevia and erythritol. Halo Top also uses vegetable glycerin (rather than sugar and fat) as a thickener and this equates to a lighter pint product. By comparison, for example, Halo Top literally weighs in at 256g of ice cream compared to Häagen-Dazs at 408g. This is a 37% difference. 

Through the “lighter enjoyment” trend, Innova Market Insights believes we are seeing a next generation of better-for-you products delivering lower calorie in particular, through innovative formulations. 

Sugar reduction efforts will continue for some time and added pressure—such as UK sugar taxes on soft drinks—makes the issue even more important. Meanwhile, consumers are emphasizing “lighter enjoyment” and matters of portion size and sophisticated flavoring also be part of the solution.  

Originally appeared in the February, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Move Toward the Light.