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Natural Alternative Sweeteners: What’s Next After Stevia?


by Kimberly Kawa,Jennifer Fuller -

That dreaded sweet tooth. Let’s be honest: Resisting our palates’ penchant for sweet foods can be a struggle. However, today's consumers are increasingly opting for healthier substitutes that are touted for having fewer calories and even added wellness perks. The market for these sweeteners has exploded, with stevia as an early entrant that quickly gained popularity and opened the door to a steady stream of newcomers. Here's the skinny on a handful of the latest sweeteners to hit the scene.

Monk Fruit

The monk fruit is a small, sweet melon native to China and has been used in Southeast Asia as an herbal medicine and sweetener for hundreds of years. Also known in the Western world as "lo han" after the fruit’s traditional Chinese name luo han guo, monk fruit-derived sweeteners have attracted attention as they are marketed as having zero carbs and low or no calories. Monk fruit sweeteners are made from monk fruit extract, which is 200- to 300-times sweeter than sugar.

Consumers may also be drawn to monk fruit as a sweetener since it originates from a fruit, unlike plant-based alternatives such as stevia. Sales of products featuring lo han spiked after FDA classified the sweetener as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in 2010. According to SPINS, these products grew by 42 percent in 2011 compared to previous year in natural, specialty gourmet, and conventional all-outlet combined retail channels. With the recent expansion of lo han to new product categories—namely tabletop sweeteners and herbal formulas —and its growing popularity within the mainstream market, sales of lo han sweeteners and sweetened products have soared to more than USD $60 million with 70-percent growth in the past year (52 weeks ending July 6, 2013).

Coconut Palm Sugar

Coconut palm sugar has garnered attention because it looks, tastes, dissolves and melts like sugar, but is less processed and more nutritious. Pure certified organic coconut palm sugar is made from the nectar of the coconut palm tree and is naturally rich in a number of key vitamins including potassium, zinc, iron and B vitamins.

The number of calories in pure coconut palm sugar is almost identical to that of regular refined sugar (about 15 per teaspoon). However, coconut palm sugar has a lower glycemic index so it is absorbed into the bloodstream at a significantly slower rate, making it a viable sugar substitute for diabetics or those looking to avoid blood sugar spikes.

Flavor is another reason to switch to coconut palm sugar. It can vary since the product is not highly processed, but it is typically known as being subtly sweet like brown sugar, yet richer and more complex. Coconut palm sugar’s unique flavor profile and absence of a bitter aftertaste makes it ideal for use both in the raw and in baking.

Not surprisingly, sales of coconut palm sugar and products using it as a sweetener have multiplied in recent years. In the past year, SPINS reports sales reached more than $6 million in the combined retail channels, up from less than half a million in 2010. The success of these products has ramped up in all three channels, but natural supermarkets continue to drive about 60 percent of volume.

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