Balancing Act

by Jennifer Barnett Fox
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Amidst the increasingly visible and contentious battle of sugar vs. high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), alternative sweeteners such as sucralose, stevia, crystalline fructose, honey and inulin dietary fibers continue to gain traction among consumers and manufacturers alike. These sweeteners complement the desire for indulgent sweet baked foods that maintain a halo of health and potentially leaner profile.
 
Despite the increasing appeal of these products, they are marketed in a number of ways depending on the focus of the manufacturer. Some approach the marketing with a health-and-wellness slant, highlighting lower calorie counts and higher fiber content, while others focus on the natural attributes of the sweeteners, calling attention to clean-label aspects.

GROWING MARKET.

The Nielsen Co., a Chicago, IL-based research company, reported that sales of food and beverage products making sweetener claims have reached $10.4 billion with a 4% change vs. one year ago and a 27% change vs. 4 years ago. At the same time, there has also been a 5% avoidance in sugar, according to Elizabeth Sloan, PhD, in a June 9 Prepared Foods Webinar on sweetness enhancers. Dr. Sloan, president of the consulting firm Sloan Trends & Solutions, also shared that moms continue to make a strong effort to limit the sugar, HFCS and artificial sweeteners their children consume.

Overturning old stereotypes about sugar alternatives is a continuing mission for a number of companies. Tate & Lyle, London, UK, created a research program called “Voice of the Consumer” to find out what consumers think about alternative sweeteners. The program found that consumers, including moms, have a comfort level with a range of sweeteners including crystalline fructose, sugar and sucralose. This summer, the company partnered with leading nutrition experts for a consumer education campaign, which will answer common misconceptions about sweeteners and offer healthy lifestyle tips for families.
 
The company manufactures Splenda sucralose, a zero-calorie sweeter that is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Splenda can be blended with fiber, prebiotic fibers and vitamins and used in no-sugar-added, sugar-free and reduced-sugar applications. It is also suitable for use in foods targeted for diabetic consumers, according to the company.

“There has been much conversation and discussion about the role of sweeteners in the American diet,” said Pashen Black, marketing communications manager, Tate & Lyle. “There are misconceptions, and we hope to clarify some of the basic questions about sweeteners and obesity. Over the last few years, consumers have become increasingly confused on how to make the best choices in their food or beverages, often thinking that they simply need to eliminate certain ingredients to make their lifestyle healthier.”
 
For more than 20 years, Hill & Valley, Rock Island, IL, has provided sugar-free and no-sugar-added baked foods. The company introduced its new Harvest line of sugar-free Candy Corn cupcakes, Pumpkin Streusel and Pumpkin Spice mini muffins and Red Velvet cake at the International Deli Dairy Bakery Association show in June. The products are sweetened with a blend of malitol, sorbitol, polydextrose, acesulfame potassium and sucralose.

“Alternative sweetened products offer the consumer the ability to consume without the worry of blood sugar spiking while enjoying the same treats they have come to love,” said Felicia Carlson, marketing manager, Hill & Valley.

NATURAL APPROACH.

For those who only a nature-made sweetener will do, honey is the sweetener of choice. While honey provides no calorie savings over conventional sugar, it increasingly fits the bill for consumers looking for a “healthier,” clean-label sweetener. To promote its functionality, the National Honey Board recently launched a new logo and tagline, “Honey … The Way Nature Intended.”

“Today’s consumers want products that are natural, familiar and have a clean label,” said Bruce Wolk, marketing director, National Honey Board. “There is a certain trust that goes into products with ingredients that consumers can relate to. This especially holds true for sweeteners, which have recently been put under the microscope by consumers, the government and food manufacturers.”

Honey, which is 25% sweeter than sugar or sucrose, can extend shelf life and inhibit mold growth. It can be used to sweeten breads, tortillas, cookies, crackers, sweet goods and fillings and toppings. A recent home-based survey conducted by the National Honey Board found that 44% of respondents were willing to pay a premium of 40¢ for whole-wheat bread made with honey.

All-natural, low-cal yet still indulgent was the goal of Penny’s Low-Fat Desserts in Grass Valley, CA. The baker recently expanded its line of 100 Cal, high-fiber, low-fat cookies and muffins with three new products sweetened with Rebiana-brand stevia, which is 200 times as sweet as sugar. Rebiana was jointly developed by Cargill, Wayzata, MN, and the Coca Cola Co., Atlanta, GA.

After receiving numerous requests for sugar-free and no-sugar-added products, bakery founder Penny Pearl teamed with Cargill food scientists to create products that maintained the company’s focus on all-natural ingredients. Unwilling to compromise on this aspect, Ms. Pearl choose Rebiana (Reb A) for its all-natural qualities and minimal off-flavors. The new no-sugar-added line includes a Chocolate Truffle cookie, Toffee Cinnamon cookie and Banana Bran muffins. Each contains 100 Cal and 3 g or less sugar.
 
“So many companies put in artificial sugars but don’t tell their customers,” Ms. Pearl said. “I knew that I couldn’t create a product until it could include an all-natural sweetener, but no matter what, the No. 1 thing is still great taste. That’s the thread that ties it all together.”

To maintain transparency with her customers, Ms. Pearl launched an upgraded Web site to highlight the stevia-sweetened no-sugar-added products and provide education about artificial sweeteners. She also worked with longtime customers to test the new products.
 
Mintel, a Chicago, IL-based researcher conservatively forecasted that the US market for stevia could account for 10% of the natural sweeteners market ($1 billion) by the end of 2011, including tabletop sweeteners. The company’s 2009 natural sweeteners report also found that natural food supermarkets contribute to the bulk of sales from xylitol and erythritol, which are known for more sugar-like profiles as compared with stevia products.

MEETING NEEDS.

Supermarket News reported nearly half of all consumers are paying more attention to calorie counts than they did two years ago and 25% are buying more low- or zero-calorie products than they did a year ago.
Beneo, Inc., Morris Plains, NJ, focuses on the production of functional carbohydrates such as inulin and Isomalt that contribute both sweetness and nutritional benefits. Its customers are requesting reduced-sugar and low-calorie options that can be marketed not just as sugar-free but also for healthy weight management.

“While taste remains the most important thing, the public is becoming more health-aware and educated about food,” said Joseph O’Neill, executive vice-president of sales and marketing, Beneo, Inc. “This is driven by social and government initiatives, and manufacturers are looking at what they can do to introduce new products to capture this trend and meet the needs of consumers.”

The company’s Orafti inulin is a low-calorie source of natural dietary fiber that contributes sweetness and bulk to partially replace sugar in formulations. Inulin also can be marketed as a natural ingredient, fulfilling functionality for manufacturers and a feel-good ingredient for consumers. Many of Beneo’s customers will provide additional explanation in the nutrition facts panel. Inulin will be noted in brackets as a natural dietary fiber or chicory fiber extract.

When asked if diabetic consumers were an important niche for sugar-free and reduced-sugar products, Mr. O’Neill said marketing to medical needs may prove too narrow of a focus. He stated that consumers are more attuned to low-calorie products than diabetic-specific marketing.

“Formulas developed during the Atkins craze are still alive today, but they are positioned to now call out low-cal, fiber and reduced-sugar or sugar-free,” he continued. “People are looking for more balanced nutrition.”
 
Elisa Nakata of Santé Gourmet, a manufacturer of no-sugar-added gourmet cakes, agreed that marketing to diabetics was a limited focus despite the glut of media attention regarding rising numbers of diabetics and the related obesity epidemic. “People with diabetes don’t necessarily put their money toward specialty items,” said Ms. Nakata, founder of Santé Gourmet, Oakland, CA. “People who buy no-sugar-added products are generally more informed nutritionally.”

Santé Gourmet’s portion-controlled cakes are sweetened with erythritol, which closely mimics the flavor profile of sugar while avoiding the digestive difficulties associated with sugar alcohols. The cakes are available in Carrot, Lemon, White with Chocolate Orange frosting and Chocolate varieties. Erythritol is marketed by Cargill under the Z-Sweet brand name. The cakes also contain inulin, which provides dietary fiber and sweetness.

Rather than concentrate solely on the reduced sugar content, the company also addresses slowing the absorption of carbohydrate, the satiety benefits of fiber and how to create satisfying portion sizes — creating a multidimensional approach to products for a healthier lifestyle.

“Only a small percentage of people understand sweeteners, and they don’t always understand the marketing tactics nor do they want to see the larger position,” she said. “Some people still associate no-sugar-added and sugar-free products with a perception of bad taste. I try to communicate the facts and let people draw their own conclusions.”

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