Maple syrup and honey are emerging as natural sweetener choices. Research finds 39% of consumers search for an all-natural, non-caloric sweetener rather than artificial sweeteners, according to the New Hope Network and the Natural Marketing Institute.
In January, the USDA and HHS released the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, which state no more than 10% of daily calories should come from added sugars. But consumers were already cutting back on added sugars amid health concerns.
"These guidelines foreshadow a change in the FDA nutrition labeling, which will differentiate between added and intrinsic sugars," Emily Balsamo, a research analyst who specializes in food and nutrition for Euromonitor International, told Food Dive. "This will have a big impact on ingredient manufacturers' motivations because they want to cut down on added sugars. I would think sweetening with alternative sweeteners would be more important."
The case for maple
Pure maple syrup delivers more overall nutritional value than many common sweeteners, comes with 40 antioxidants, and has one of the lowest calorie levels, according to a 2012 report compiled by the International Maple Syrup Institute. And maple syrup has expanded beyond breakfast products. Trial probiotic products developed from maple sap appear to have good potential for supporting and delivering probiotics, according to a study published in Bioresource Technology in 2010.
"Basically, maple syrup and maple sugar as ingredients have a lower glycemic index than cane sugar and cane syrup, and just a bit lower than honey," Michael Argyelan, CEO/CFO, Sweet Tree Holdings 1 LLC, dba Maple Guild, told Food Dive. "The trick for companies is how to average, basically weigh the difference between the flavor of it and the sugar content of it. For instance, we could make a sweetened iced tea with using maple syrup as a sweetener and it only comes to 40 calories a serving."
Next month, Maple Guild will launch a line of maple-flavored teas and a line of waters infused with maple flavors. The company’s volume of trees allows it to supply private labels nationwide, as well as develop its own major brands, Argyelan said.
Where are the opportunities?
"Maple syrup is something you see in paleo foods, raw food and super natural niche products," Kara Nielsen, independent food trendologist, told Food Dive. "Natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup, are included in the new natural paleo pantry." Manufacturers looking to create a paleo or vegan friendly product can tout the naturalness of the sugar.
Another way manufacturers can effectively use maple syrup as an ingredient is to evoke a season, such as using the flavoring in desserts popular in the fall "where the maple adds to the autumnal feeling," Nielsen said. Through a proprietary process, the Maple Guild is creating an extra strength maple syrup product, "which is perfect for the ingredient industry or for chefs," Argyelan said. "In terms of cost, they use less and get more. Or if cost is not an object, you get a more pronounced maple flavor in your product."
Manufacturers can also play up the geography, where maple syrup-producing regions can showcase the production and quality of the product. For instance, most American consumers don’t know what pure maple syrup actually tastes like. Argyelan said from what he sees in the marketplace, buyers of pure maple syrup don’t know what the product tastes like, either.
In February, leaders from the maple syrup industry held a press conference in Richmond, VT, to address misleading maple syrup ingredient claims as a follow up to a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration. The producers asked the FDA to investigate products that claim to contain maple syrup. They want to ensure maple syrup is actually in the products, as opposed to artificial flavors or colors.
Natural sweeteners outlook
Will the demand for natural sweeteners remain vibrant? Nielsen said it makes sense for manufacturers to use maple syrup as a sweetener, but it should be marketed in a way that makes sense to consumers. "There are a lot of different reasons for maple and that is what is exciting," she said.
Maple syrup may fall in line with honey as a natural sweetener; retail sales of honey grew 10% in 2015, Balsamo said. She said maple syrup production will increase but she doesn’t think it will achieve the same market size as honey. She pointed to the expense of pure maple syrup, as well as production caps. "It is a tough thing to produce, and it is quite volatile as far as weather and environment."
Dietary guidelines influence the way people think about what is in their food. New Hope Network and NMI research says 63% of consumers read labels on food and beverage packages, and 54% select foods based on the ingredient list on the package.
"Even if producers are sweetening with something like maple syrup or honey, which will count as added sugar and not intrinsic sugar, manufacturers can still advertise it is sweetened with those products rather than sweetened with high fructose corn syrup," Balsamo said.