Sweet tooth: can sugar alternatives answer consumer demand for healthy foods? 

With consumers becoming increasingly health conscious and aware of what actually goes into their food, sugar has faced increasing demonisation. Callum Tyndall asks, can alternatives answer the demand for healthier sweetness?

The war on sugar has been well documented. The ingredient’s abundance in our food and drink has been clearly linked to the obesity crisis and with the wellness trend’s proven popularity, alongside regulatory bodies’ moves towards sugar taxes and similar legislation, the demand to cut down on sugar has been growing. Many companies have answered this demand, and sought to avoid said sugar taxes, by replacing the demonised sugar with far more publicly palatable sweeteners. It seems like an easy fix, particularly given the ‘natural’ tag of sweeteners such as stevia (which largely ignores that sugar itself is hardly unnatural). 

However, this ‘fix’ doesn’t take into account that many sweeteners, such as aspartame, are artificial (a designation that doesn’t bear much fruit with wellness-invested consumers) and there are still important questions to be asked around just how healthy these sugar alternatives really are. Earlier this year, we looked at whether sweeteners were actually healthy or safe and how they matched up to the claims made around them. The question now, as they continue to serve as the principal alternative to sugar and gain subsequent steam as the push against sugar continues, is just how do they fit into the wellness movement going forward and what else may be out there for the alternative market?

The prospect of ‘synbiotic’ products combining both pre and probiotic elements should be considered for potential benefits.

No magic bullet: assessing the healthiness of sweeteners

In July, the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) provided a scientific statement titled Nonnutritive Sweeteners: Current Use and Health Perspectives. In a press release accompanying the statement, Dr. Christopher Gardner, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University, said that: “While they are not magic bullets, smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet, therefore lowering the number of calories you eat. Reducing calories could help you attain and maintain a healthy body weight, and thereby lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.”

The ‘magic bullet’ phrase is perhaps the most pertinent statement to the issue around sweeteners. As with almost every food or ingredient that comes with some sort of health benefit, whether it be antioxidant or anti-ageing or any one of dozens of other claimed functionalities, sweeteners are being approached as a sort of one-stop fix for all the ails of sugar. And if they are anything like those other ingredients, perhaps best shown most recently by CBD, they will eventually run into trouble when scientific study and subsequent regulation catches up with them and pulls them out of the marketing spin. 

While they are not magic bullets, smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could help you reduce added sugars in your diet

The chances of sweeteners being harmful are low, studies into the field are yet to find indications of adverse health effects from using common sweeteners in normal amounts. This does not preclude further studies from finding such effects or placing more of a dent in the reputation of sweeteners (it is a field still relatively understudied), but consumers can at least feel fairly assured that their sweetener isn’t a hidden ill. They should, however, likely be asking themselves whether it is in fact an outright good. The statement from the AHA and ADA is couched in far too many ‘coulds’ and ‘maybes’ to be taken as a golden seal of approval. 

A gap opens in the market as sugar growth slows

According to ResearchandMarkets’ Artificial Sweetener Market - Forecasts from 2019 to 2024, the market for artificial sweeteners is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.05% from its 2018 value of $7.22bn to a $9.7bn by 2024. Mordor Intelligence’s Food Sweetener Market – Growth, Trends, Forecast (2019-2024) meanwhile, has the market for food sweeteners as a whole expected to reach $82.6bn by 2024 (a CAGR of 1.9% for the forecast period). That valuation includes standard table sugar, which accounted for 77.2% of market share last year, but is nevertheless indicative of the scale of potential market for alternatives.   

The market for food sweeteners as a whole is expected to reach $82.6bn by 2024

It should be noted that while the total value of food sweeteners is far greater than that of artificial sweeteners, and that valuation doesn’t even take into account natural alternatives to sugar such as stevia, the predicted growth for the artificial market is not insignificantly greater than that of the sweetener market as a whole. With the ‘war on sugar’ continuing, and its predominant role in the market, we are at a stumbling point. The market as a whole is slowing because the main component of said market is losing popularity but sugar’s actual positive dietary role hasn’t suddenly disappeared. People still desire sweetness. They just don’t want it to be as bad for them.

Fortunately, many sugar replacements have been shown to actually be sweeter than sugar itself, without having the negative health effects (or have at least not yet been proven to have said effects). From a pure market perspective, the gates are opening for sweeteners to step in and fill the gap that sugar is leaving. As more consumers retreat from sugar, if sweeteners can promise to fill that same role without the same risks, there is a massive opportunity for the market to surge. 

Potential health risks may limit alternatives

Perhaps the greatest health concern when it comes to sweeteners, at least of the artificial kind, is that, due to their lack of nutrition, they may create a false appetite or even push consumers towards eating unhealthy items in some kind of recompense for the sugar they’ve avoided by previously using a sweetener. While consumers may be seeking to avoid the calorific dangers of sugar, they may, in fact, be placing themselves at a different kind of risk. And while more long-term studies are required to examine these risks as a whole, it is worth being aware that there may even be a concern around the impact on the functionality of tastebuds.

As Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Harvard Health Publishing: “Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A minuscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.”

Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup

There are, of course, non-artificial sweeteners out there but they may pose similar risks. Stevia and agave are both naturally sourced and lower in calories within a regular serving (agave has more per teaspoon but requires smaller servings) for example but are also vastly more sweet than sugar, again posing the challenge of creating a calorific craving or deadening taste. Ultimately, while there is a strong chance that the sugar alternative market will continue to grow as consumer defect from table sugar, there is a good chance that the actual best choice from a health perspective is not to seek out an alternative but simply to be mindful of consumption and employ regular portion control. 

It’s important that consumers understand that all those nicely labelled containers on store shelves are not vetted by the FDA.

Opportunities in convenience and children’s snacks  

Needham sees other opportunities in 'on-the-go' and kids' snacks: "Single-serve and individually-wrapped biscuits have a key role to play in the on-the-go trend, providing a convenient format for consumption out-of-home. To meet this need, we recently launched new, individually-wrapped Wagon Wheels single packs designed for the convenience channel and merchandised in a space-efficient counter display unit.”

"On-the-go formats are also particularly important for kids' minis, with 36% of kids' minis consumed as carried out snacks compared to 12% for sweet biscuits. All of Burton's kids' minis products are offered in convenient single serve formats."

Graham at Pladis also sees the potential in offering more convenient products.

Nine out of ten shoppers now claim to snack multiple times per day

"Food-to-go has been a key growth area across the total market, driven by the increasingly busy lifestyles of today's shoppers. The way people are consuming biscuits and other snacking products has changed in recent years, with people increasingly shifting from the traditional three main meals a day to more frequent, smaller and less rigid eating occasions," he says.

"Nine out of ten shoppers now claim to snack multiple times per day, whilst of these, one in 14 (7%) forego meals altogether and simply rely on snacks to keep them going. This is even more pronounced in the convenience retail channel with on-the-go biscuits now representing 24.6% of value sales in the biscuits category. Our latest data from IRI shows that on-the-go biscuits has grown 30.3% in the past two years, whilst take home biscuits grew by 4.3% in the same time period.

"On-the-go packs are also a great opportunity for retailers to encourage consumers to try new products – and drive incremental sales within the category. We've seen this in the successful launch of our handy pack pouches of 'swavoury' snack Flipz and, more recently, McVitie's Jaffa Cakes Nibbles handy packs, which we launched earlier this year."

Wilson at Fox's Biscuits is also enthusiastic. "There is a huge appetite for on-the-go snacking, particularly with more time-pressed shoppers looking for healthier options with exciting flavour combinations," he says.
Fox's has also sought to double down in the kids' segment with a new line for its Party Rings range – the Fox's Party Rings Bucket. Wilson says this "taps into the ever-growing kid's party market, which sees parents spending an average of £215 per party".

This article originally appeared on just-food

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