When it Comes to Sugar, Less is More— And Natural Sweeteners Also Carry More Appeal
Just as sugar is known worldwide as an important ingredient—so too has it become a global issue.
Official bodies—ranging from national governments to the World Health Organization (WHO)—have focused on daily dietary sugar intake and sugar’s contribution to global issues of obesity and chronic health problems. For its part, the WHO has recommended since 2015 that consumers reduce sugar intake from 10% of daily total calorie intake to 5% of those total calories. Experts have said that for an adult of a normal body mass index (BMI), that works out to about six teaspoons—or 25g of sugar—per day.
Of course, some governments also have started to intervene with promotional sugar reduction campaigns. In the United States, one related initiative involves the US Food and Drug Administration’s new Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods and drinks. Starting in 2020 (and 2021 for smaller companies) manufacturers will need to list all “added sugars.”
Not surprisingly, food and beverage processors have responded with sugar reduction efforts. These include product reformulations as well as entirely new offerings with reduced sugar or even zero sugar content. During 12 months to the end of September 2018, Innova Market Insights found that about 7% of all new US food and drink products carried some claim related to being sugar free or containing either low sugar or no added sugar. That annual sugar-related claim figure is up from less than 6% back in 2013.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Innova Market Insights recorded new sports-related foods, drinks and supplements as using the highest number of reduced sugar claims during the 12 months to the end of September 2018. New soft drinks (including juices) took the second place when it came to reduced sugar claims during the same tracking period. Meanwhile, that category actually has a higher overall penetration of reduced sugar introductions. Other key areas of sugar reduction activity include the dairy, bakery, and cereal categories.
Consumers’ concerns about sugar in the diet have impacted the soft drinks industry, and, in particular, the sub-categories of juices and juice drinks. US fruit juice dollar and unit sales volume both have fallen in recent years, and new product development activities have also been affected. Soft drink processors have responded with new products, reformulations and growing use of low sugar and sugar reduction claims. Innova Market Insights found that 24% of all new soft drink products—introduced during the 12 months to the end of September 2018—carried on-pack claims about low sugar, no added sugar or zero sugar.
Within the total soft drink market, juice and juice drinks accounted for a leading 37% of those new entries. Those categories ranked ahead of drinks, concentrates and mixes (23% of new items carrying sugar reduction claims) and flavored bottled waters (14% of new items carrying sugar reduction claims).
Interestingly, the highest penetration of claims related to sugar reduction involves plant-based waters. Although overall category growth comes from a relatively low base, Innova Market Insights found that nearly 45% of new plantbased water products carried a sugar reduction claim during the 12-month tracking period. This is perhaps reflecting the intrinsically healthy image of the products, which also are perceived as natural. Accordingly, it’s important that these products also utilize natural sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners certainly fit this time when consumers are looking for clean labels. As a result, natural, non-nutritive sweetener use is growing. Innova Market Insights found natural sweeteners referenced in more than 10% of US soft drink product introductions during the 12 months to the end of September 2018. The major beneficiary of this has been stevia, which experienced a relatively slow start as manufacturers were tweaking formulations for functional and taste benefits. This is now highly significant, used in 94% of the launches featuring natural, non-nutritive sweeteners.
Looking at stevia in soft drink formulations, Innova Market Insights found stevia referenced in 32% of new soft drinks, concentrates and mixes during the September 2017 to September 2018 time period. Stevia appeared in 23% of new juices and juice drinks; and 16.5% of new iced tea drinks, during the same period.
Some of the most high-profile applications for stevia have involved carbonated soft drinks, a category known for its high dollar value but relatively low new product innovation. Market leaders Coca-Cola and Pepsi are striving to produce the most palatable stevia-sweetened option with both naturalness and sweetness as an alternative to more traditional artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame. Unfortunately, new product development efforts have yet to positively boost the US’ low-calorie carbonated drink subcategory, which has seen sales fall at a higher rate than the overall mature market.
New sweeteners also are emerging, although this tends to be a slow process. Allulose (D-psicose) is a monosaccharide “rare sugar” with the taste and texture of sugar—but without the calories. It was approved as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) in the US in 2014 and has started to be used more recently on a limited scale. It is naturally present in products such as figs, raisins, jackfruit, maple syrup and brown sugar and has just onetenth the calories of sugar—with none of the blood sugar impact.
Allulose was featured in two of Coca-Cola’s Fuze tea drinks launched the US in mid-2018. Fuze Meyer Lemon Black Tea and Fuze Tropical Mango Green Tea both use a blend of sugar, allulose, and stevia leaf extract.
Like soft drinks, the US bakery and cereals categories (including bar products) have seen relatively high levels of sugar reduction claims in recent new product launches. By way of background, major cereals subcategories—including breakfast cereals, and cereal/energy bars—generally have “better-for-you” profiles. However, each segment has faced questions about added sugars and those sugars coming from fruit ingredients.
Worldwide, breakfast cereal new product launch numbers exceed those of cereal bars. In the US however, the relative maturity of the breakfast cereals market and the popularity of cereal bars has resulted in launch numbers being relatively evenly matched. More specifically, 12% of new US cereal bars included sugar content related claims versus 4% of new breakfast cereals with sugar claims during a 52-week tracking period through the end of last September.
The highly developed US cereal and snack bar market dominates globally in terms of launch activity and value and has seen ongoing interest in sugar reduction. This applies not only to the nutrition bars sub-category but also to the market as a whole, which includes granola bars, snack bars, and breakfast bars.
The nutrition/intrinsic health bars sector now dominates the market with 50% of all bar sales through multiple retailers. However, this is a highly competitive subcategory focusing on offering multiple health benefits—in addition to convenience and taste. Not surprisingly, sugar reduction is one of the biggest health and clean-label challenges. Related on-pack claims here also are featured prominently alongside information about calories, fiber and protein content.
Last year brought considerable activity in children’s snack bars and several brands featured low sugar content as one of many benefits.
For example, Orgain Inc., Irvine, Calif., said its new Kids O Bar is organic, wholegrain, non-GMO, gluten free and contains half the sugar and twice the fiber of the leading brand. KIND Healthy Snacks (KIND LLC) introduced three varieties of KIND KIDS 100% whole grain granola bars with 25% less sugar and no additives or preservatives. Elsewhere, thinkKIDS, Los Angeles, introduced thinkKIDS protein bars with 7g of protein, 3g of fiber and 4g of sugar per bar. Officials say the gluten-free bars contain 45% less sugar than competitive granola bars and contain no high fructose corn syrup, no additives or preservatives.
Other recent US bakery and cereals applications showcase no- to low-sugar content among a wider range of benefits. For example, Quest Nutrition, Los Angeles, continues to expand its bakery offerings—with protein bars and protein cookies—all with just 1g or less of sugar among other nutrition claims. Another Los Angeles firm, KNOW Foods, offer Know Better Cookies (packaged) as well as cupcakes, muffins, buns and other bakery products—all low in net carbohydrates and keto friendly, paleo friendly and grain and gluten-free. KNOW Foods is another firm using allulose, which it touts as a “sugar-free sugar.”
Consumers also have been more carefully scrutinizing sugar content in the refrigerated dairycase, where conflicting health views have slowed category growth in recent years. The yogurt sub-category, in particular, has seen challenges here. Consequently, yogurts have experienced more sugar reduction activity and related claims. New products strive to clarify its nutritional benefits and emphasize their place as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
For the record, sugar reduction claims were used for just under 10% of overall dairy launches during the 52 weeks to the end of September 2018. This sugar-related claims figure rises to 16.6% for new spoonable dairy and non-dairy yogurts introduced during the same time period. Sugar-related claims were even higher—tracked at more than 30%-plus during the same period—for new drinking yogurts, fermented beverages and dairy alternative drinks.
The “zero” calorie, sugar free concept—now so popular in the soft drinks market—also established a presence in the dairycase. One of the first yogurt offerings was Dannon Oikos Triple Zero blended Greek yogurts (Danone North America) which were positioned as containing zero added sugar, zero artificial sweeteners, and zero fat, as well as 15g of protein. First launched in 2015, Oikos Triple Zero now spans more than a dozen flavors, with on-trend options such as Salted Caramel, Coffee, Orange Creme, Coconut Crème; as well as more traditional favorites such as Vanilla, Strawberry, Peach and Cherry.
Last year saw Dannon’s arch rival, Yoplait (from General Mills) add another category wrinkle.
Its new YQ by Yoplait is a premium-style yogurt made with ultra-filtered milk. The YQ Plain variety delivers just 1g of sugar but 17g of protein per 5.3oz single serving. YQ’s flavored versions have 9g of sugar and claim to have 40% less sugar than the leading Greek low-fat yogurt in a similar 5.3oz serving size. Yoplait YQ is lightly sweetened with cane sugar, real fruit, and natural flavors with 15g of protein. All YQ items also are 99% lactose-free with no artificial flavors or colors.
The launch is the next stage of Yoplait’s initiative to develop a new “simply better” segment within the US yogurt category. This started with General Mills’ Oui by Yoplait product, a French-style yogurt made with simple ingredients and launched successfully in 2017. YQ is the latest addition using this concept.
Other launches targeting simplicity also focus on additional benefits including reduced sugar content.
The Icelandic Milk and Skyr Corporation, better known by its siggi’s brand name, also was active in in 2018 with its siggi’s Simple Sides. The company (acquired by Lactalis) says these Simple Sides combine whole milk yogurt and simple, no added sugar add-ins for a wholesome, high-protein snack “with more protein than sugar in every cup.”
On average, siggis Simple Sides contain 15g of protein and 11g of sugar per 5.3oz serving. This is a more positive nutritional profile within a yogurt and mix-ins segment where other offerings average 18g of sugar per similar 5.3oz serving. New siggis Simple Sides flavors include Vanilla yogurt with Dried Coconut & Cacao Nibs; Honey yogurt with Dried Figs & Walnuts; Vanilla yogurt with Almonds & Dried Cherries; and a Plain yogurt with Muesli and Currants.
In summary, it’s clear that sugar reduction has become a key concern among consumers—particularly those in North America and Europe. These shoppers are searching for food and drink options that provide authentic sweetness and maintain a good taste profile. In addition to product reformulation and new product development, food and beverage scientists and marketers also considering related issues of portion sizing and/or portion control.
Interestingly, the entire topic of sugar reduction comes at a time when consumers want more “clean label” ingredient solutions. As a result, naturalness and clean-labeling have been a strong influence, with natural sweeteners—such as stevia and fructose—now preferred to artificial options. In fact, some consumers now are actively avoiding aspartame.
It can be seen that there has been an ongoing focus on sugar content across much of the food and beverage category in recent years, particularly in the developed markets. However, it has tended to have a greater impact in products that are perceived to have “hidden” sugar, either because it appeared to be a healthy option, such as fruit juices and yogurts; or because consumers were making healthier choices, such as low-fat alternatives.
Originally appeared in the February, 2019 issue of Prepared Foods as Less is More.