The American love affair with sugar is the world’s most passionate. The sweet, delectable flavor delights the senses and now is as ubiquitous in foods and beverages as sunshine in summer. There are the obvious sources where we expect to find it, including soft drinks, cakes, pies, cookies and candy. Then there are the more clandestine haunts, hiding behind exotic names in seemingly innocuous places such as hamburger buns, yogurt, cereal and salad dressings, secretly lurking to undermine the best intentions.
Widespread obesity and Type 2 Diabetes has many Americans reevaluating their unhealthy relationship with sugar, with some interesting results. While sugar and nearly all other natural sweeteners are nutritive (meaning they contain calories), consumers appear unwilling to forsake plant-based sweeteners for nonnutritive (no calorie) artificial sweeteners. A whopping 44 percent of consumers abstain from aspartame and saccharin, as opposed to only 22 percent who avoid natural sweeteners other than sugar (Hartman, 2010a).
The market has responded with an explosion of natural sweeteners to satisfy this growing appetite. Stevia, indigenous to South America, and luo han guo, (also known as Monk Fruit) cultivated in southern China, are in the natural, plant derived, no-calorie sweetener category, although stevia has the additional advantage of containing no carbohydrates and a glycemic index of zero. Global market research firm Mintel estimates 105 percent growth in the stevia market between 2009 and 2011, with SPINS data reporting launches of new food and beverages sweetened with stevia, and at least one other alternative sweetener rose 918 percent in the 52 weeks ending April 16, 2011. New product launches containing stevia alone rose 79 percent over that same period.
Products containing luo han guo have mostly launched in Asia. Agave nectar, from the blue agave plant found in North and South America, is another sweetener that has recently entered the market with noted success.
In general, more people are now looking for minimally processed foods to fill their refrigerators and pantries. Although it is clear consumers want to eat healthier, there is confusion as to how to achieve that goal. Limiting processed foods as a way to develop better eating habits has been embraced by many people as one of the most important considerations in a healthy diet, with 39 percent of consumers citing chemicals in foods as the most important current food safety issue (IFIC, 2010). Natural foods hold stronger appeal than the same organic foods, as many shoppers continue to associate high cost with organically grown foods (Hartman 2010b).
Innova Market Insights has identified that the word “pure” will be the new natural in 2012 (Food Business News, 2011). Since many of the new tabletop sweeteners in the marketplace contain more than one sweetener, it remains to be seen how this trend will affect the natural sweetener industry. The one plant-based sweetener that is not expected to experience growth is high fructose corn syrup. Many consumers have identified this sweetener to be the antithesis of a healthy diet.
Given consumer preference for natural, pure ingredients and an aversion to chemicals, the true natural sweeteners now entering the market, other than sugar, are certain to continue to take a larger share from the artificial sweetener market.