Are consumers losing their sweet tooth or seeking alternatives?
Obesity is on the rise in the U.S., among both adults and children. Sugary foods and beverages are often culprits of these increasing obesity rates. As a result, some consumers have chosen to pursue diets that avoid sugar, either for weight loss or simply to lead a healthier life.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released guidelines concerning this very topic, blasting the beloved sweetener and recommending that consumers cut their intake down to six to 12 teaspoons of sugar per day. To put that into perspective, the average American consumes about 18 teaspoons of sugar per day.
The intense focus on sweeteners stems from shifting health values of consumers, particularly millennials and other health-conscious shoppers. Food and beverage companies are sometimes either flourishing or struggling to keep up, and new adaptive product announcements have been regular headlines over the past few years.
Even retailers are hopping onboard and stocking their shelves with healthier, less sweetened products, such as Coca-Cola Co.'s new Canadian Coke recipe. Most recently, Target announced plans it has in terms of food.
The question is whether consumers are looking for alternatives to traditional sugar or losing their sweet tooth altogether.
The debate over low-calorie/artificial sweeteners
Many companies’ answer to an outcry for less sugary foods and drinks has been to turn to low-calorie or artificial sweeteners. According to Food Insight, low-calorie and artificial sweeteners often taste akin to table sugar, or sucrose, but they are hundreds or even thousands of times more sweet. By being so much sweeter, it takes much less artificial sweeteners to taste as sweet as a product that uses traditional sugar. Therefore, food and beverage companies’ products that use artificial sweeteners tend to have much fewer calories. The most popular artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.
The low-calorie aspect of artificial sweeteners is attractive to dieting consumers. With artificial sweeteners, these consumers can continue eating the foods they love with less of an impact on their daily calorie count. Studies report the confirmed safety of artificial sweeteners as well as other health benefits, such as not causing tooth decay, like natural sweeteners.
However, for every study positing that artificial sweeteners are safe, there seems to be one or more that report the opposite. Scientists link artificial sweeteners to everything from weight gain (which defeats its purpose) to altering gut microbes which can lead to metabolic diseases like glucose intolerance and Type 2 diabetes.
Some opponents of artificial sweeteners have championed stevia, a natural low-calorie sweetener, as a healthier alternative, including some food and beverage companies. However, like artificial sweeteners, stevia is much sweeter than table sugar, about 300 times in some cases, so stevia could alter consumers’ preferences to eat more sweetened foods. Also, while stevia is naturally occurring, it is still commercially processed.
Meet the new addition: Allulose
Just as the artificial sweetener debate heats up further, a new player enters the game: allulose, also called Dolcia Prima by its producer, London ingredient company Tate & Lyle. The sweetener occurs naturally in certain produce, such as corn or sugar beets, and it comes with 70% of the sweetness of table sugar but only 10% of the calories.
Tate & Lyle recently reported its ability to mass produce allulose, which it feels could revolutionize low-calorie sweeteners and the products and companies that use them. Dr Pepper Snapple Group is already testing allulose for its products, according to The Wall Street Journal.
How food and beverage companies adapt
Beverage makers are one of the most visible adapters to changing perspectives on sweeteners. One way has been to turn to stevia, the new darling of diet-friendly sweeteners. Late last year, Coca-Cola Co. released its stevia-sweetened Coca-Cola Life to a national consumer audience, and not long after, PepsiCo Inc. responded with its own stevia-sweetened diet soda in three cities, Pepsi True. Last month, Kraft Foods Group, Inc. announced two sweetener-related changes for its Capri Sun brand. Its low-calorie Roarin’ Waters varieties will use stevia extract instead of sucralose, and the original Capri Sun recipe would now use sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.
What’s funny about the entire sweetener movement is that, according to the 2015 Sweetener360 report, consumers may more actively voice their desires for healthier sweetened products, but their purchase behaviors don’t reflect what they’re asking for. These findings bring up questions about whether food and beverage companies need to be all that concerned in the first place. If nothing else, going for healthier sweeteners may at least improve a company’s image in the minds of consumers, if not its bottom line.
When the government gets involved
With national obesity rates through the roof and sugar targeted as a main reason for them, it was only a matter of time before the government involved itself in the debate. First Lady Michelle Obama has even joined in the fight against childhood obesity with her now five-year-old program, Let's Move.
California’s senate is considering a bill, SB 203, that would place warning labels on sugary drinks, including soft drinks, energy drinks, sweet teas, and sports drinks. The bill was introduced last year as SB 1000 and passed the senate, but it died in the assembly, so there’s no telling what kind of support the bill will ultimately receive. On a local level in the state, San Francisco warning label talk is happening.
Soda taxes are another way some legislators intend to fight the country’s sugar cravings. In November, Berkeley, CA, may have become a model for other cities and states when it became the first city in the country to pass a tax on sugary beverages. The tax adds $0.01 per ounce to soda and many other sugar-sweetened beverages. The Guardian estimates that such a tax could increase a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola by about 30%. Mexico passed a similar tax on beverages with added sugar early last year.
Despite the world’s health concerns, sugary beverages aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. To the potential dismay of some food and beverage companies, a nationwide discussion is brewing, and these health concerns may affect the industry in decades to come.