Although research is not conclusive, sugar and sugar calories in foods and beverages often are linked to excess body weight. In turn, the world’s ongoing obesity crisis has left governments, health organizations, and health professionals seeking new ways to help consumers achieve healthier weight. Not surprisingly, nations around the world are calling for sugar reduction in their respective dietary guidelines.
Understandably, these efforts are pressuring food and beverage manufacturers to reduce sugar in their finished products. However, sugar reduction can be a challenge for formulators who want to retain a product’s characteristic sweetness, taste, and sensory characteristics.
Replacing sugar is more complex than simply replacing sweetness. Sugar carries flavor, enhances mouthfeel, provides bulk, is essential for browning through the Maillard reaction with amino acids, and attracts and retains moisture. In cookies and biscuits, for example, sugar interfaces with flour and fat to affect texture, firmness and spread. Without sugar, products may not crystallize properly, aerate, or set. Nor will they satisfy consumers who have high expectations for sugar-reduced products. Exchanging sugar for an alternate sweetener alone may not yield a satisfactory product. That is why sugar reduction often requires additional ingredients to replicate the full sensory experience of sugar.
Limiting sugar looms large for consumers
Every year, Innova Market Insights surveys consumers in representative countries worldwide to understand their concerns about health and lifestyle. Every year consumers tell us that they are trying to limit sugar.
In our Health & Nutrition Survey 2021, we asked consumers about actions they took to improve immunity and digestion/gut health. We focused on these two conditions because of the importance of immune health—with the gut playing an essential role—during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to one-quarter of respondents noted that they limited added sugars to improve immune health and gut health (each ranked among the top five actions). Even higher percentages reported limiting or reducing sugar in general without a specific condition in mind.
Our Health & Nutrition Survey 2022 included several questions that had sugar reduction-related responses as a choice in the answer sets. When we asked consumers how conscious they are of limiting sugar in their diet, nearly half of those surveyed in 11 countries reported being “extremely” or “very conscious” of reducing sugar. More than one-quarter named low sugar as their top diet change during the previous 12 months. Reducing sugar also was the most prominent action taken by parents for kids’ diets.
Despite the focus on sugar reduction, consumers also tell us that sucrose is their most highly accepted sweetener. White and brown sugars also are perceived by consumers as the most healthy, natural, and sustainable. Consumers do not express a strong interest in substituting sweeteners for sugar.
Approximately half of consumers we surveyed agree that they would rather cut back on sugar than use alternative sweeteners. Looking at familiarity with different sweeteners, our 2021 Innova Flavor Survey found that US consumers were most familiar with and accepting of aspartame and stevia; while they were less familiar with and accepting of sucralose, allulose and inulin.
In 2022, one-third of consumers surveyed globally said that they were “very likely” or “likely” to accept stevia; and one-quarter said the same about xylitol, sucralose, aspartame, sorbitol, and erythritol. Meanwhile, nearly half said they would accept cane sugar in their food.
No added sugar is the top claim
Innova tracks product launches with four different sugar reduction claims: “no added sugar,” “sugar-free,” “low sugar,” and “reduced sugar.” No-added sugar is the most prominent sugar reduction claim and it appeared on more than half of 2021 global food and beverage launches that made sugar reduction claims. However, low-sugar claims are fastest growing both globally and in North America. Sugar-free claims are widely used in North America and show modest growth. In contrast, reduced sugar claims launches are becoming less common. In the US, food labels require listing added sugars.
Product categories differ by penetration and growth when it comes to new product sugar reduction activity and related claims. In North America, soft drinks accounted for more than one-fifth of product launches with a sugar reduction claim during the 12 months ending March 2022. Sugar reduction claims also are prevalent on sports products and on alcoholic beverages, where they have become part of a trend toward cleaner, lower-alcohol products. In the US, alcoholic beverages with sugar reduction claims posted a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53.4% between 2019 and 2021, led by hard seltzers and flavored alcoholic beverages.
Sugar reduction claims also are growing on products for babies and toddlers. Parents are extremely conscientious about the amount of sugar their children consume, driving manufacturers to continue reducing sugar and not replacing it with sweeteners.
Low sugar and no added sugar claims also are becoming more common in confectionery product launches. Sugar-free and no-added sugar products offer indulgence options to people who are avoiding added sugars for weight management, diabetes, other medical conditions, or overall health.
We expect to see more launches with a low-sugar claim; that is, products with only small amounts of sugar. Between 2019 and 2021, the compound annual growth rate of new products with a low sugar claim was a robust 300%.
Trends in sweeteners
Trends in sweeteners particularly align with two of Innova’s Top 10 Trends 2022. Our top trend, “Shared Planet,” considers the joint responsibility of manufacturers, government, and consumers to take care of the planet. We see sweeteners—and the reduced sugar products using them—aligning with such clean-related claims as vegan and GMO free. Additionally, inclusion of natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit is becoming more widespread.
Our second 2022 trend, “Plant-Based: The Canvas For Innovation,” highlights growing creativity in the plant space, including plant-based sweeteners and next-generation plant-based products with sweeteners. Expanding technologies such as precision fermentation will usher in further plant-based innovation.
We were curious about global sweetener trends in products with a sugar reduction claim. Between 2019 and 2021, sucralose led other sweeteners and stevia and erythritol showed gains. Nearly one-quarter of US product launches tracked with a sugar reduction claim and sweeteners contain erythritol.
Erythritol, the newest bulk sweetener, is enjoying popularity in a growing variety of products, including frozen desserts and products with keto claims. Allulose, a rare sugar being produced from corn, was and continues to be the fastest growing sweetener for its sugar-like properties and lack of metabolizable sugar. Monk fruit also is gaining market share. It confers a natural halo to labels and ingredient lists and often is combined with erythritol or allulose for a more authentic sugar experience.
Watch for better replication of sugar
The art of sugar replacement has become more nuanced. Not only are there new types of sweeteners but there also are new ways to combine sweeteners to better replicate the multiple sensory and functional properties of sugar. Rare sugars replicate the sweetness and bulk of sugar with zero calories. Combinations of non-nutritive sweeteners offer a more balanced sweetness while minimizing after-taste. There also are next-generation soluble fibers with a mild sweet taste can partially replace sugar, reduce the amount of sugar declared on nutrition panels, and add bulk and fiber.
We expect to see increased competition around cost, clean features, and carbon savings. Likewise, suppliers are attempting to quantify and compare savings in production methods for different types of sweeteners. Movement toward clean and clear labels reinforces current labeling trends toward naming ingredients that a product does contain (natural sweeteners) and does not contain (sugar).
Ingredient suppliers’ new products launches are better replicating the sensory features of sucrose. The IFT FIRST 2022 floor was filled with exhibitors presenting entire lines of sugar reduction sweeteners. Interestingly, these lines featured application-specific combinations of sweeteners, fibers, flavor blockers, and texturizers.
This certainly portends continued momentum toward sugar reduction and replication in a broadening range of food and beverage categories. Innovation in sweeteners enables manufacturers to replicate the sweetness and sensory properties of confectionery and bakery to create indulgent products with less sugar plus additional health benefits.
Innova is closely watching sweetener production via precision fermentation. This technology is facilitating the expansion in greater availability of allulose. We also expect greater usage of the rare sugar, tagatose, involving precision fermentation of starch. Reb M, one of the most desirable steviol glycosides, also can be produced through controlled fermentation by specially crafted yeast.
Sweet proteins such as brazzein and thaumatin also are emerging in new product launches as suppliers ramp up production. We expect suppliers will market these protein sweeteners on a platform of taste, (which is said to be almost identical to sugar) as well as lack of an aftertaste, and an anti-carb, pro-protein health halo.
The various forces are aligning around sugar reduction and changes in the industry are revolutionary.
Lu Ann Williams is Global Insights Director at Innova Market Insights, provider of market research services including the Innova Database. With more than 25 years’ experience in the food industry, Lu Ann is a trend expert and frequent public speaker at events worldwide. She leads a team of analysts and works with global clients. Contact her at email@example.com.