It may be a new year and a new decade—but there’s no “new news,” so to speak, involving sugar’s public perception.

Sugar reduction continues to be a primary topic in the wake of sugar’s association with health conditions including obesity, diabetes and even oral health. Worldwide, more countries are considering and/or adapting dietary guidelines that limit sugar intake. These efforts range from sugar taxes to mandatory labeling of added sugars.

To be certain, this most certainly is an important topic to food and beverage formulators. Sugar confers numerous sensory and functional properties—including bulking, flavor enhancement, viscosity and browning. As such, manufacturers face the challenge of reducing sugar and presenting a healthier image while maintaining flavor, texture, functionality and shelf life. Additional considerations related to sugar replacement include cost, sustainability and the clean attributes of alternative sweeteners.


Consumers & Claims

Sugar reduction is a popular option for the three in five US consumers in an Innova Market Insights survey who agreed that they would rather cut back on sugar than consume artificial sweeteners. Sugar related claims continue to grow and increasingly take a more prominent on-pack positioning.  
In the US, for example, just under 8% of all new food and beverage launches tracked by Innova Market Insights in 2018 featured a sugar related claim. This was behind 8.5% in Europe and 8.4% in Latin America, but ahead of 3.9% in Asia and 4.4% in the Middle East/Africa. Australasia, however, appears to be embracing the use of sugar related claims on a growing range of food and beverage products, with by far the highest penetration level of 12.3%.

“No added sugar” is the most popular claim, ahead of “sugar free” and “low sugar,” with “reduced sugar” a small but growing niche globally.

Among products with sugar-related claims, more than half carry a “no added sugar” claim; approximately one-quarter are labeled sugar free, and 13.5% low sugar. Reduced sugar claims have the lowest share—at less than 8%—but are seeing the best growth as they start to move out of niche status. The other three claims also are growing, but at a lesser rate, with low sugar coming next in terms of growth, ahead of no added sugar and sugar free.


Bottoms Up!

Soft drinks are the classic category for sugar-related claims. These beverages accounted for a leading 20.4% of the total global number of related claims involving new products. Respectively, the other most active sugar reduction categories have been sports nutrition and babies/toddlers.

In the US, “sugar free” was the most popular sugar-related claim for soft drinks and it featured in 11.5% of new products recorded by Innova Market Insights during the 12 months to the end of June 2019. The claim of “no added sugar” had a slightly lower penetration at just under 10%.  Within soft drinks, the subcategories of energy drinks and flavored bottled waters had the highest penetrations of sugar free claims at 44% and 35%, respectively.

The highest penetration of no added sugar claims in soft drinks is in plant-based waters on 35.8%; ahead of juices and nectars at 28.4%. Juices and nectars is the largest of the 12 soft drink subcategories overall in terms of new product development. It’s worth noting however, that this subcategory has seen significant transition due to concerns over levels of sugar in the diet. It has suffered something of a backlash as US volume and value sales have fallen in recent years, with new product development activity levels also dropping. Plant-based waters are at the other end of the scale in terms of launch numbers. That is to say there’s a high penetration of no added sugar claims—but from a low base number of products.


Ingredient Strategies

There are many ways to reduce sugar. Depending on the product application, manufacturers are removing or reducing the amount of added sugar; or replacing part of the sugar formulation with sweeteners and/or using innovative processing technologies, such as “aeration” to increase perceived sweetness. In the dairy category, some manufacturers have turned to slow straining milk to remove sugar prior to yogurt processing. Yet another strategy involving juices is to use enzymes to convert simple sugars to fibers.


Sweetener ingredients can be divided into several groups. Non-nutritive sweeteners offer intense sweetness without calories. Bulk sweeteners include sugar alcohols and related sugars; they are lower in calories than sugar and have a lower glycemic effect. Honey, syrups, and fruit juice concentrates are categorized as natural non-sucrose alternatives. These all provide calories along with varying levels of sweetness.

Sucralose is the most popular non-nutritive sweetener and it is used in more than 60% of food and beverage launches featuring non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar-related claims. It also has been the fastest growing ingredient in terms of new product development from 2016 to 2018, with a CAGR of 26.3%, according to Innova Market Insights. This is despite the growing interest in natural non-nutritive sweeteners, such as stevia, monk fruit and thaumatin.

Stevia, a natural sweetener, took third place among the non-nutritive sweeteners and it was used for 28% of launches featuring sugar-related claims. It is second in terms of growth after sucralose, reflecting its consumer appeal for its plant-based and natural characteristics. During the same two-year period (2016 to 2018), Innova Market Insights reports that stevia experienced a compound annual growth rate of 20%. It is particularly popular for sweetening soft drinks and sports products and now enjoys even wider market appeal thanks to technological developments that facilitate more functional and palatable blends for specific applications.

A newer natural, non-nutritive sweetener is allulose, which is a rare sugar that resembles sugar structurally and confers many of the same functional benefits of sugar—but with only 5% of the calories. It is not metabolized like sugar and has a minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin levels. It occurs naturally in small quantities in a variety of sweet foods such as figs, but also can be manufactured synthetically.

Allulose has had GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status in the US since 2014 and started to be used on a very limited scale. Levels of patent activity indicate current interest in the use of allulose, rising 42% in 2018 over 2017, while global new product launches involving allulose experienced a CAGR of 300% between 2016 and 2018 (from a low base).

Last April, the FDA announced that allulose did not have to be included in total and added sugar counts in US nutritional labeling. That decision clears the way for much higher levels of use and a potential mainstream move. Launch activity in the US has accelerated. Innova Market Insights finds allulose references in new cookies, baking mixes, cereals and snack bars, as well as sauces, sports powders and a range of tabletop options for sweetening drinks and use in baking.

Many products featuring allulose tend to offer a range of benefits beyond just natural sweetening and sugar/calorie reduction. For example, other claims tout these products as either low in net carbohydrates, keto friendly, paleo friendly and grain- and gluten-free.

Looking more specifically, allulose is featured in new keto friendly products such as ZénoBar bars from ZénoBar, Soquel, Calif.; and Guy Gone Keto sauces and condiments from Guy Gone Keto LLC, Portland, Ore. In the first instance, ZénoBar products also are positioned as vegan, gluten free, high fiber and non-GMO. Guy Gone Keto products also claim to have natural ingredients with no additives or preservatives.

Last but not least, there is the growing tabletop sweetener market. One example is Wholesome Allulose Zero Calorie, a line of sweeteners in both liquid and granulated forms from Wholesome Sweeteners Inc., Sugar Land, Texas. There also are several options combining allulose with other natural sweeteners such as stevia, monk fruit and erythritol.


Other Options

Not surprisingly, chocolate and confections manufacturers must address sugar reduction demands. Companies here indeed are considering other new ingredients and technological advances.

Bulk sweeteners often are used for sugar reduction in the confections category. These ingredients include maltitol, sorbitol and xylitol. Chocolate makers face the challenge of reducing sugar in products without losing the sensory quality that promotes the indulgent nature of chocolate. More brands are using sugar-related claims using natural non-nutritive sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit. Sweet proteins, like thaumatin, also may increasingly feature in chocolate.

Some brands also are using coconut sugars, which not only are efficient in terms of function and taste, but also are perceived as “healthier” by consumers. Artisan producers, such as Endorfin Foods, Berkeley, Calif., focus on the benefits of coconut sugar in terms of taste, sustainability and the digestive benefits of inulin. Coconut sugar also is hailed for its whole food status and reduced sucrose content in the finished product.

Another approach involves positioning the cacao fruit itself as a “super fruit.” Last September saw Barry Callebaut introduce WholeFruit chocolate, made from 100% cacao fruit with at least 40% less sugar, 90% more fiber and 25% more protein than most dark and milk chocolates. It is planned for launch to artisans and chefs in 2020 and then for consumer brands in 2021.

Companies are also looking at alternative ingredients such as coffee cherries as a potential stealth sugar reduction strategies with foods containing chocolate. In these applications, manufacturers use upcycled coffee cherries to reduce the amount of sugar in finished products. This coffee cherry ingredient emulates flavor and highlights cocoa notes—all so less cocoa powder is needed.

Another sugar reduction strategy is to emphasize alternative flavor notes—such as bitter, sour or spicy—and exploit interest in novel and unconventional flavors. Hence, these applications simply reduce the demand for overall sweetness. Interest in botanicals and their health benefits also is rising and may encourage consumers to move away from sugar-laden foods. In this case, Innova Market Insights finds growing use of botanical flavors in new food and beverage development and it can be seen across a range of categories.

The food industry is likely to continue to develop sweetener reformulations and combinations to replicate the sweetness, taste and performance of sugar. Ultimately, tomorrow’s new no sugar or reduced sugar products will address several trends—such as greater consumer interest in health (fewer calories) as well as clean label. In the latter case, it’s already clear consumers are looking for more plant-based and natural sweeteners. This is driving growth in both non-nutritive options such as stevia and allulose, as well as caloric non-sucrose sweeteners and a broadening variety of syrups derived from tree sap or roots.