- New research from the Sugar Association shows 63% of consumers are unable to identify sugar substitutes as the sweetening ingredient in their foods. Similarly, two-thirds of people believe food companies should be required to clearly identify sugar substitutes as "sweeteners" in ingredient lists.
- As a result of its findings, the Sugar Association filed a citizen petition on June 3 with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It asked the agency to update its labeling requirements to add the term "sweetener" after the name of all non-nutritive sweeteners on the ingredient list as well as add the name of the sweetener for products making a sugar-content claim.
- The study also noted 76% of consumers think it is important to know if foods contain sugar substitutes and more than 69% of consumers believe products labeled "reduced sugar" or "no sugar added" are lower-calorie products.
The desire to make this switch was recently accelerated with the FDA's revamped Nutrition Facts label, which explicitly notes the number of grams of sugar in a product. It then breaks out how much of that sugar has been added as an additional sweetener.
Since many alternative sweeteners don't fit the definition of sugars, their presence was left off the label even though their chemical names are still included on the ingredient list. According to the report from the Sugar Association, the number of products that contain at least one non-nutritive sweetener has tripled in the last four years.
However, if consumers are unfamiliar with names like erythritol, rebaudioside A or maltitol, it can be difficult to discern whether a product is sweetened with an alternative, and if so, which one is being used. This lack of transparency is something the Sugar Association report found consumers would like to clear up. Data show that 58% of those surveyed would prefer to have ingredients clearly labeled with simple equivalents next to chemical names. And of the 1,002 people surveyed, they all stated it was “extremely important” or “pretty important” to know how their food was sweetened.
Studies have found not all sugar substitutes are better-for-you. Some sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit are derived from plants and carry a health halo due to their natural source, while others like sucralose and aspartame have been viewed by some as potentially harmful for the body. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol and maltitol also can be difficult for the body to digest.
The study from the Sugar Association found consumers believe sugar substitutes are less healthy than sugar with more people avoiding them in their food than any other additives tested, including MSG, artificial food coloring and added sugar. The Sugar Association is not the only one to come to these conclusions. Innova Market Insights found three in five consumers would rather reduce sugar intake than replace it with artificial sweeteners.
It stands to reason why the Sugar Association, which represents nearly 12,000 beet and cane sugar growers, as well as processors and refiners of sugar, would want these highlighted for consumers on the label. The industry group found when consumers read the front of a package where it states “0 grams of sugar” and “Naturally Sweetened, Nothing Artificial,” 54% of consumers stated they would not expect to find sugar substitutes.
Manufacturers are not always willing to highlight the fact that their products are sweetened with something other than sugar. Conagra Brands' Snack Pack pudding cups clearly state that they are sugar free. However, a look at the ingredients list shows it has four sweeteners: sorbitol, maltitol, sucralose and acesulfame potassium. At the same time, Hapi Water Pure Punch says on the front that the product has zero grams of sugar and is naturally sweetened. However, two of its seven ingredients are alternative sweeteners erythritol and stevial glycoside Reb A.
If consumers are able to better identify the additives in products, studies show there is a chance they will favor options without alternative replacements. The sugar industry stands to potentially gain market share if changes are made. The payoff could be sweet as the sugar alternatives market is worth an estimated $16 billion to $20 billion.