Stevia, agave and honey: ingredient weapons to challenge the war on sugar

As consumers grow wary of high-sugar levels in beverages, finding a suitable ‘healthy’ alternative is a challenge. Using research from GlobalData, Eloise McLennan examines how drink brands can answer the growing demand for reduced or zero-sugar formulations using key on-trend and emerging ingredients.

According to GlobalData’s Q3 2016 global consumer survey, 60% of consumers globally say they are always or often influenced by a product’s impact on their health and wellbeing when choosing soft drinks. With health now a key purchase motivator for consumers, manufacturers need to innovate and reformulate to address the growing demand for ‘healthy’ beverages.

These consumers often perceive ‘natural’ and ‘low sugar’ claims, plus offerings that provide a balanced nutritional profile, to be ‘healthy’. Consequently, if brands want to appeal to the changing appetites of shoppers, they must respond to the ‘healthy’ movement as failure to do so may harm sales in the future. This is particularly true for manufacturers in categories, such as soft drinks, where government intervention may drive up product prices. Stricter regulatory efforts, such as the introduction of sugar levies, can impact the purchasing decisions of consumers, as evidenced in GlobalData’s Q4 2016 global consumer survey, where more than half of consumers responded that they would buy less of unhealthy products as a result of price rises. 

In the upcoming report from GlobalData, Ingredient Insights: War on Sugar, senior consumer insight analyst Melanie Felgate explores the key trends in sugar and sweeteners. While changes in consumer consumption habits may be cause for concern for brands, advancements in ingredient innovation is paving the way for manufacturers to reformulate and tap into the rising demand for healthier offerings, without compromising vital product components, such as taste and texture. Drawing from research detailed in the report, we take a look at the war on sugar.  

Responding to heightened ingredient focus among health conscious shoppers

Part of the healthy drinking movement has manifested in an increased focus on ingredients, especially among younger consumers. Thanks to the internet, modern shoppers have greater access to product and ingredient information, which helps them to make more informed purchasing decisions, particularly when it comes to selecting beverages that will contribute to personal health goals. 

Although younger generations of consumers are generally seen to be less attentive overall, between 2015 and 2017 their level of attentiveness increased by a greater margin than consumers aged 65 and over. This could have long-term effects for brands. As younger, more knowledgeable consumers get older it is likely that ingredient awareness will continue to grow, making it vital that manufacturers adapt to ensure that product formulations and ingredients address consumer demands.  

GlobalData's Top 5 ingredients to watch

Sweet as sugar: Sweeteners gain from the backlash against sugary beverages

Health concerns are driving many drinkers to actively cut down the amount of sugar they consume. Mainstream criticism of high sugar levels in beverages, most notably soft drinks and carbonates, has marked the ingredient as the latest ‘villain’ in our diets. Given that excessive sugar consumption has been attributed to major health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, it is unsurprising that consumers have become wary of ingesting high levels of the ingredient. 

In order to avoid the growing stigma surrounding beverages that fell into the high-sugar category, manufacturers responded by developing low and no-sugar offerings. Brands must persist with these efforts in order to appeal to health-conscious consumers; however, the big challenge facing manufacturers will be overcoming issues with taste and texture that drinkers often associate with sugar replacements. 

While consumers may perceive natural sweeteners, such as honey and agave to be healthier, using them to substitute sugar or sucrose does not actually reduce the overall sugar content of drinks. As such, brands may choose to consider developing natural sugar and sweetener blends, for example using honey alongside natural sugar/calorie-free sweeteners, such as stevia or monk fruit, to target to the consumer desire for natural lower sugar products without compromising taste or texture.  

The big challenge facing manufacturers will be overcoming issues with taste and texture

Attentive consumers tend to prefer natural beverages with less sugar over products which have had sugar removed entirely. In simple terms, this means that shoppers prioritise naturally sweetened offerings that are free from artificial ingredients over artificial sugar substitutes. The optimal solution to this would be to offer beverages that are wholly sweetened with natural sweeteners that are low sugar or sugar-free, but this can create taste and texture challenges. Therefore, a combination of natural sugar and low levels of sugar is likely to be better received by consumers than sugar-free formulas that have been artificially sweetened. 

Case Study: The Coca-Cola Company’s search for the ideal sweetening solution continues

Many brands have put serious effort into finding a solution to the changing attitude towards sugar. But, attempts to find the next big ingredient haven’t necessarily gone to plan. In 2017, The Coca-Cola Company launched the ‘Sweetener Challenge’ through the Hero X crowdsourcing platform, offering a $1m prize to the winning participant who identified a natural, safe, low-calorie or calorie-free ingredient that “creates the taste sensation of sugar”. The rules also stated that the ingredient, or compound, could not contain or be derived from stevia or monk fruit.

The winner was scheduled to be announced in October 2018, but in April, The Coca-Cola Company cancelled the contest after it was concluded that none of the entries sufficiently met the challenge criteria. The swift creation and subsequent cancellation of the Sweetener Challenge underlined the difficulties that even market leading brands face in the search for a sugar substitute that can truly meet the palatability, health, naturalness and cost needs of both consumers and manufacturers.     

Attempts to find the next big ingredient haven’t necessarily gone to plan

Coca-Cola also received mixed reviews with its first venture into a stevia sweetened cola. Coca-Cola Life blended stevia with sugar, but the low-sugar launch failed to resonate with consumers, and consequently the product was discontinued in many markets, including the UK and Australia. Not to be deterred, Coca-Cola is set to trial a new no-sugar product in 2018, Coca-Cola Stevia No Sugar, which features steviol glycoside Reb supplied by PureCircle. 

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