The number of new stevia-sweetened foods and drinks overtook new products with aspartame in 2017, according to global data from Innova Market Insights.
Global consumers have become increasingly aware of the sugar in foods and drinks, and many are trying to cut back. According to a 2017 DSM survey, 55% of global consumers said they always checked product labels for sugar content – and consumers have also become more sceptical of artificial sweeteners. Half of the 8,000 respondents said they would pay more for products with “only natural sweeteners”.
This desire for natural sweeteners, alongside sugar reduction goals, has proved to be a boon for stevia suppliers looking to take a slice of the market for zero calorie sweeteners. According to Innova Market Insights, stevia featured in 27% of new products containing high intensity sweeteners in 2017, while 22% contained aspartame.
For any sweetener to compete with existing options, there are two main areas of focus: taste and cost. Stevia still tends to be more expensive than aspartame, but the most common sweet tasting molecules, known as steviol glycosides, are now cheaper than sugar. Meanwhile, major stevia supplier PureCircle says the price is coming down even for some of the less common sweetening molecules in stevia, which have a more sugar-like taste.
Stevia suppliers have been working to improve the sweetener’s taste profile, and most now offer a range of stevia-derived sweeteners based on different sweet components. Some of these molecules, such as Reb D and Reb M, only exist at very low concentrations in the stevia leaf, meaning they have a higher cost than the most abundant molecules, such as Reb A. PureCircle has developed stevia plants that naturally contain about 20 times more Reb D and Reb M than standard stevia plants, helping to bring the cost down.
However, stevia’s recent success compared to popular sweeteners like aspartame suggests naturalness has also become a major consideration for manufacturers, as well as taste and cost.
Another major supplier, Layn Corp, has also been developing stevia sweeteners with more of the minor glycosides Reb C, Reb D and Reb M. It started out as a botanical extracts company, and has suggested that consumers would prefer to see ‘stevia leaf extract’ on product labels, rather than ‘steviol glycosides’. Consumers associate extracts more closely with naturalness, it says.
Although naturalness may well be important to many consumers, products featuring a ‘natural’ claim on-pack have become steadily less common. Across all new products containing high intensity sweeteners, 26% carried sugar free claims in 2017, while 18% featured low calorie claims. However, the two most popular claims on foods and drinks with high intensity sweeteners had nothing to do with sweetening at all: nearly half (48%) touted their protein content, while 40% made sports and recovery claims.
According to Innova figures, the most popular sweetener is sucralose, which appeared in 47% of new products sweetened with high intensity sweeteners, while acesulfame-K was second, appearing in 41% of new products. Saccharine rounded out the top five, sweetening 9% of new introductions.