Packaged Beverages: What’s the Next Big Sweetener?

The art and science of balancing flavor and health is no small feat

By
Steve Dwyer, CSP Reporter

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Plant-derived stevia has become so popular that it’s poised to become a $1-billion seller in the near future, according to food market analysts. Other products using stevia include Insight Beverage’s new Hydralive Coolers, as well as many condiments for the coffee bar including Smucker’s Foodservice’s Stevia In The Raw and Whole Earth Sweetener Co.’s certified non-GMO Pure Via stevia sachets.

The Future of Aspartame

The continuing decrease in the sales of diet carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) has been tied to concern about the safety of aspartame. A recent study showing the sugar substitute is safe, however, is not expected to turn things around anytime soon.

The European Food Safety Authority issued a report late last year declaring that the consumption of aspartame is safe. The FDA made a similar declaration years ago. Still, “there has been a resurgence of negative sentiment and questions around the health and safety of aspartame,” according to a recent research note from Bonnie Herzog of Wells Fargo Securities at the time of the report.

“While we don’t believe the [European] report will change short-term negative trends, it could lead to a bottoming out of negative sentiment and a gradual return to volume growth in diet CSDs,” she noted.

However, Herzog, citing a recent survey of beverage retailers, believes sugar substitutes are just one of three major trends that have led to a slacking interest in diet sodas:

Health and wellness: “The majority of our retailer contacts believe consumers are shifting to healthier and all-natural options like bottled waters and teas that don’t have artificial sweeteners.”

Regular CSDs: “Because of the health concerns with artificial sweeteners, some of our retailers believe consumers are switching to regular offerings, which are not perceived to be any less healthy, but consuming at a lower rate as they rationalize calorie intake.”

Energy: “Our retailers believe that many consumers, particularly millennials, are switching to the energy category. We believe certain ‘CSD-like’ energy offerings like Monster Zero Ultra have sourced much of their growth from diet consumers.”

Present Tense for ‘Intense’

Laura Jones, global food science analyst for Chicago-based Mintel Research, says “global usage of intense sweeteners has displayed positive growth over the past five years.” She defines intense sweeteners as ingredients “designed to replace only the sweetness of sugar and allow the product developer to create sweet-tasting products without the calorie contribution of traditional sugars.”

In 2009, 3.5% of all food and drink product launches contained one or more types of intense sweeteners in their formulations, but by 2013 the figure increased to 5.5% of all launches, says Jones.

“The spotlight is firmly fixed on sugar and all the negative publicity influencing consumers’ consumption of it, as only 11% of U.S. consumers reported using more sugar in 2013 than they did in 2012, while 37% of UK consumers try to avoid sugar wherever possible in their diet,” Jones says.

Jones also points to Acesulfame K, or Ace K, as one that’s being closely scrutinized by food and beverage makers. Ace K is known to be far sweeter than sucrose, as sweet as aspartame and about two-thirds as sweet as saccharin. Like saccharin, it has a slightly bitter aftertaste, especially in high concentrations.

“Ace K can be viewed as a blending component to enhance sweetness, where the sweetness in a beverage comes on early in consumption or comes on later. The goal is to get the taste profile as close to sweet as possible,” Jones says.

Looking outside the beverage segment, Jones believes that more upward pressure will be placed on products such as indulgent ice creams and candy to cut out sugar from the formulation blueprint.

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