That dreaded sweet tooth. Lets 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.
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 fruits 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 categoriesnamely 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 sugars 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.
Often referred to as Incan gold, the dried powder of the lucuma fruit has a subtle butterscotch flavor and is gaining traction as a natural sweetener. The whole, raw lucuma fruit originates in South America and has long been highly valued among the native people for its many health benefits. Lucuma powder retains much of the fiber, vitamins and minerals found in the raw fruit, including beta-carotene, iron and niacin.
Like coconut palm sugar, lucuma powder has a low glycemic index and is not overly sweet. The differences between the two sweeteners lie in lucumas low-calorie count and flour-like consistency. Lucuma powder adds a thick, creamy texture when added to foods and makes a perfect base for "lucuma ice cream," a Peruvian treat that is becoming a hit among raw foodies in the United States.
The growing appeal of the fruit is translating to an astounding increase in its sales: SPINS reported sales volume of the powder and products sweetened with it have jumped from just over $11,000 in 2010 to more than $1.2 million during the past year.
Yacon is a sweet-tasting root vegetable that looks a bit like a potato, but tastes more like an apple. Like lucuma, it has been appreciated by native Peruvian cultures for thousands of years and has recently emerged in the Western world as a sweetener.
Yacon syrup is extracted from the vegetables roots, which contain mostly water and a healthy carbohydrate called fructooligosacharides (FOS). FOS can be used as a sweetener that does not elevate blood sugar levels and is relatively low in calories. Whats more, FOS is a prebiotic that facilitates the growth of good bacteria for the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and is high in fiber and polyphenols.
Yacon syrup resembles molasses and is showing up across natural supermarkets. While it has a smaller presence in the market than some of the aforementioned alternative sweeteners, it is experiencing healthy growth, with dollar sales increasing more than 28 percent during the past year within natural retailers.
Undoubtedly, the market for natural alternative sweeteners will continue to expand. Stay tuned as the industry unearths and introduces more options to healthy minded consumers looking to get their sweet fix.
Kimberly Kawa is a natural products specialist at SPINS and has applied her bachelor's of science in nutrition and dietetics and experience in community health to the ongoing development of the SPINS Product Library. Her focus lies in vitamins and supplements, and she supports coding initiatives and identifies industry trends related to the segment.
Jennifer Fuller is a marketing manager at SPINS and oversees the business' public relations, communications, and production of marketing materials to support the company's sales and retail support teams. She leverages SPINS information to report on current and emerging trends within the industry.