Sugar Substitutes

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By: The Innovation Lab

Americans, just like the rest of the world, have always had a love-hate relationship with sugar. On one hand, we love sweets and the wonderful taste that sugar brings to so many foods and beverages, but on the other hand, we recognize that sugar can be very unhealthy when consumed in excess. We’re taking a closer look at the state of sugar – consumer mindsets and purchasing patterns, how that is driving product development and what some of the options are to meet consumers where they are.

So, let’s give you the scoop on sugar, sugar substitutes and how Leahy is helping to lead the charge in responsible manufacturing and fulfilling the demands for “better for you” fruit and beverage solutions.

In this article, you will find:

  • America’s changing sugar consumption habits

  • Sugar Substitutes — nutritive and non-nutritive

  • How Leahy-IFP is fighting against high-sugar diets

Is Consumer Perception Changing?

It’s no secret that as a nation we consume a lot of sugar. During the pandemic, we also know that Americans’ mindsets shifted. Many of us became more mindful about what we are consuming and began making purchasing decisions based on a desire for a healthier lifestyle including food and beverage choices across all categories. Survey after survey finds consumers wanting to reduce their sugar intake as one of the top ways they are looking towards that healthier lifestyle. As a result, new, “better for you” options are finding their way in our home fridges, school lunch lines, menus, and ad spaces. Overall, consumers seem to be finding many of the offerings delicious, resulting in repurchasing and driving healthier and functional food and beverage sales skyward.

But opting for healthier options doesn’t mean consumers are willing to give up flavor. We see that consumers still rate taste as the most important factor when choosing what they eat and drink. Consumers are doing this in a lot of different ways, some opting for sugar substitutes to make up the “sweetness gap“ while others are shifting away from traditional or favorite foods and beverages to find new healthier alternatives altogether. Which are you? The answer is probably a bit of both. For many, shifting habits has meant striking a better balance because we still (perhaps more now than ever) look at eating away from home as a luxury or want the pleasure of viewing it as a special while meals at home or every day routine eating occasions are increasingly viewed as opportunities to build our bodies and minds into something better. More than likely, you may not be aware of how much is being done by food and beverage manufacturers to reformulate current products that you love in order to help address this and provide new and “better for you” options.

So what is sugar and how did it conquer the world?

Simply put, sugar is a term for many types of simple carbs in food, some of which are naturally occurring. It is a natural ingredient that has always been in our diets. The most basic and familiar forms of sugar are glucose, found in breads, fruits, vegetables and honey. Fructose is primarily found in abundance in fruit but can also be manufactured, mostly out of corn starch, which we know as high-fructose corn syrup.

Considered one of the world’s oldest commodities, sugar is believed to have been first used in Polynesia and then spread to India. In 510 BC (over 2,500 years ago), Persia invaded India and discovered both sugar cane and their process for making sugar. As the Persian Empire expanded, sugar went along for the ride. It was not until the Crusades in the 11th century (over 1,500 years later) that western Europeans discovered sugar. Then, in the 15th century (another 400 to 500 years later), Europe begins refining sugar in Venice as a luxury food grade product and Columbus takes sugar cane plants to the Americas to be planted in the Caribbean, where an industry quickly blossomed.


Reducing Sugar Is A Major Trend

Since we know consumers are looking to reduce sugar and with nutrition facts panels now spell out total sugar and added sugar, consumers are basing purchase decision on what is on the label. A study from C&R Research found that 56% of respondents said they read nutrition labels carefully before making a purchase while 73% said they were willing to pay more for products with trustworthy ingredients. To that end, we see that 66% of millennial consumers are eating with long term health in mind, and, connecting the dots, that means reducing sugar intake.

So, let’s review sugar substitutes

There are two major kinds of sweeteners: nutritive and non-nutritive. Nutritive sweeteners, aka caloric sweeteners, provide energy in the form of carbs. Non-nutritive sugars contain few to no calories or nutrients.

Nutritive sweeteners include things like sugar, agave, honey, maple syrup and molasses. These are ingredients that consumers generally know, are comfortable with and have defined perceptions of in their mind.

There are eight non-nutritive sweeteners that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Those are aspartame, acesulfame potassium, luo han guo (monk) fruit extract, neotame, saccharin, stevia, sucralose and advantame. These sweeteners tend to be “sweeter” than regular sugar as well, allowing manufactures to use less of them than they would if they had used sugar. You’ll see them labeled as artificial, natural, or even alternative, depending on the brand or regulation associated with each sweetener.

For example, Aspartame, seen in the market as Equal® or NutraSweet®, is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is found in a wide variety of foods and beverages, including cereals, yogurt, frozen and gelatin desserts, candy, sugar-free gums, juices, diet sodas, and many other products.
Sucralose (Splenda® and Equal Sucralose) is 600 times sweeter than sugar and shows up in many low-calorie foods and beverages, such as baked goods and other desserts, canned fruits, dairy products and syrups. Sucralose may also be used as a tabletop sweetener.

  • Stevia (Truvia®, Stevia in the Raw®, SweetLeaf® Sweet Drops, Sun Crystals® and PureVia®) is extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant, which is native to South America. Stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and is often blended with other non-nutritive sweetener to reduce bitterness.
  • Luo han guo, or better known as Monk fruit extract (Monk Fruit in the Raw®), is a natural sweetener made from crushed monk fruit. It is the newest non-nutritive sweetener on the market, although it’s been used as a sweetener in China for almost 1,000 years. It contains no calories and is about 10-250 times sweeter than sugar. It is often blended with other non-nutritive sweeteners and often provides a very distinct flavor profile to what it is used in.

Want to get more in-depth with these two categories? Our R&D and QA teams love talking about this stuff!

Bottom line here is if you want to maintain a level of sweetness that consumers are used to while lowering the sugar levels on nutrition facts panels, there are ways to do it. Each option provides its own distinct challenges and benefits from flavor profiles, operational usages, and consumer perception, which can make it the right or wrong choice when developing an item.  Providing consumers with delicious ‘better for you’ options that are accessible, affordable and in alignment with values and perceptions will certainly be one of the keys manufacturers must pay close attention to as demand for healthier products grows.

What is Leahy Doing About It?

Our goal is to deliver the best tasting products and align them with what consumers are demanding with their voices, words, actions and dollars. This means using our experience, insights and innovation to create tasty, “better for you” products that are increasingly lower in sugar. We continue to build our catalog to meet consumers and operators where they are. Carbotrol® fruit utilizes an innovative juice pack method that allows the fruit to keep their natural flavors and sugar levels of fresh fruit by maintaining the brix of the fruit in its fresh form. Truly a unique, cost effective and innovative solution for any operator who is looking to serve fruit all year round. Additionally, we lowered the sugar in our Lovin’ Spoonfuls fruit, which is now packed in extra light syrup and our new product development is focused heavily on lower sugar offerings that fall squarely in the “better for you” space.

Our recently introduced ALL FRIENDS beverage infusion line features six delicious flavors that are designed to complement QSR and fast-casual operators’ menus, as well as College and University foodservice programs’ fare. Each contains nearly half the sugar you will find in most operator beverage programs in those segments and have been created to fulfill consumer demand for better tasting, “better for you” options.  We are going beyond just sugar reduction though; the entire ALL FRIENDS line offers functional benefits of added, vitamins, electrolytes and antioxidants for immunity, energy and hydration boosts. Want to find out more about our new ALL FRIENDS beverage infusion line? Just click here.

Additionally, as an industry leader in product development, we are at the forefront of the no/low sugar revolution, helping major brands, regional chains and specialty producers improve their existing products and launch new products that have significantly lower sugar content than products of the past.

Positive Outlook + Outcomes

Healthier lifestyles, better work-life balance, more exercise, better food and beverage options and more equitable access to all the aforementioned is the recipe we are all trying to perfect. At Leahy, we strive to create a more fruitful life for everyone and that means keeping the consumer, operator and community at the center of every decision we make. While there is still much work to be done, we remain dedicated and committed to bringing innovative solutions and products to market in which customers are demanding. We are optimistic our collaborative efforts with operators and distributors in bringing those products to market will create positive change and a more fruitful life for everyone.