The truth behind the shift to sugar alternatives
The general consensus is to specifically avoid processed sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). According to NielsenIQ Product Insight, the number of UPCs in Food & Beverage that would qualify to contain HFCS has declined over 8% compared to 2 years ago (compared to a 4% decline in UPCs that are free from HFCS).
Manufacturers remove this ingredient from fruit juice beverages and other products in response to consumer health concerns.i
For these reasons, artificial sweeteners occupy a unique place: they may be regarded as either health-enhancing or a health threat, depending upon a consumer’s wellness priorities. Most consumers (72%) say they are taking action to limit or avoid sugars entirely.ii More than half of food and beverage products in the U.S. (56%) are free from artificial sweeteners.iii New-to-market plant-based sweeteners have potential to change this notion.
The alternative sugar rush
Consumer interest in natural sweeteners is related to the plant-based trend that we’ve seen affect categories across the store. Natural sweetener growth is far surpassed total Food and Beverage category. Manufacturers are taking heed of the transparency trend in omnichannel and specifying the natural sweeteners on package. Veteran sweetener stevia grew +32% but newcomers erythritol (+175%) and monk fruit (+48%) have gained traction.
MotivBase,iv a NielsenIQ Partner Network member, performed ethnographic research into what motivates consumers to seek sugar alternatives. The analysis looked at the promise of sugar alcohols (such as xylitol, and erythritol) and addresses the topic of aftertastes and textures, the role of plant-based offerings, consumption moderation and the rise of Reb M as a sweetener alternative. Five primary consumer “microcultures” emerge from their findings:
- Seeking Neutral Sweetness – Consumers look to sugar alcohols as a tasty sweetener but seek ways to offset possible digestive distress or blood sugar spikes. These consumers are curious about supplementing their diet with more fiber to aid digestion and prevent drastic changes to their blood sugar.
- Avoiding Artificial Tastes – Consumers are adding plant-based sweeteners or natural sweeteners to their food because they believe that they are more natural and inherently healthier than traditional sweeteners. They are eager to find sugar substitutes that fit in with their lifestyle, so they are looking for products that are non-GMO and gluten-free.
- Plant-Based & Healthy – Consumers are preparing food and drinks strategically with different kinds of real sugar to maximize taste and minimize calories. They feel they can eat healthier when they have control over how much sugar goes into their homemade drinks, sauces, and baked goods.
- Picking the Perfect Sugar – Consumers love zero-calorie sweeteners, which grew 19% versus 2 years ago in NielsenIQ Product Insight, because they help them control their weight but complain that they have chemical flavors and weird aftertastes. When they can’t find a sweetener that they are satisfied with, many consumers end up using real sugar instead.
- Reb M – Consumers are excited to try Reb M because they are frustrated by the lack of sweeteners that taste great and are free of a bitter aftertaste. They’re looking forward to candies, sodas, and even baked goods utilizing this new stevia extract.
Next-gen alternative sweeteners
The culture of plant-based sweeteners is currently relevant to almost 23 million U.S. consumers and is anticipated to nearly double within two years. The next generation of sweeteners promise low-to-no calorie options that match the superior texture and taste of sugar.
Gaining attention is Reb M, or Rebaudioside M, is a recently approved steviol glycoside.v It reportedly has a nice taste that appears quickly, lacks aftertaste, and is more similar to regular sugar than Stevia extract. It is obtained as an extract from the Stevia plant but may also be produced by fermenting sugar cane.vi
Several other innovative sweeteners are gaining attention and traction in the ingredients marketvii:
- Allulose – a rare natural sugar that is one-third less sweet, but with one-tenth the calories and is growing at the incredible rate of +903%.
- Incredo – an “engineered” sucrose that delivers equal sweetness with far less quantity
- Supplant – extracted from corn and wheat plants and enzyme-treated so it has a lower glycemic index
Alternative sweeteners (both artificial and low-glycemic) may vary in their appropriateness for use in food products. Consumers are searching for these ingredients according to their needs.
The plethora of sweetener options creates a challenge for retailers to manage variety. Category decisions will be driven by paying close attention to consumer needs and preferences and the trade-offs between health needs and desired product taste.
For consumers, the enormous variety and seriousness of wellness concerns means their choice of sweeteners or sweetener-containing foods is far from simple.
Thus, understanding shoppers’ nuanced needs is vital. For example, low-
“Natural” and “free from sugar” may be conflicting requirements for some consumers, especially those who prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners entirely. “Free from added sugar” generally offers wider choices and items with the claim has grown nearly 26% versus two years prior, but some consumers will check the ingredient panel to look at total sugar content.
Products that are normally low in sugar or do not contain added sugars—such as flavored seltzers, dark chocolate, smoothie mix, and vinaigrette salad dressings, to name a few—speak well to the needs of sugar-conscious consumers.
The ability to search for products based on sweetener content is very important. Retailers and brands need to speak the language of the consumer.
i Food Dive
iii NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Services, Answers on Demand POS Data
iv Motivbase, “The Future of Sweeteners”
vii Bloomberg News Dec 1, 2021