July 22, 2011
by Kerry Watson
Natural low- and no-calorie alternative sweeteners have blossomed over the past couple years. What began as a few sugar-alcohol-based products has now become a wide assortment of exciting new options. With ever-rising concerns over obesity, cancer and diabetes, its no surprise these new natural choices have been so well received by consumers.
Stevia, also known as reb A, rebiana A, sweet leaf or honey leaf, is a plant native to South America, where it has been used for centuries to sweeten foods and beverages by the indigenous people of that region. Even though it has been a mainstream sweetener for many years in other countries such as Japan, stevia has had to overcome difficult regulatory obstacles that long hindered it from being sold as a sweetener to the American public.
For years, stevia was only allowed to be sold as a dietary supplement. It was prohibited from being added to any food or beverage product and was relegated to being sold in the supplement aisle of natural food stores. In December 2008, FDA approved two stevia-based sweeteners containing rebaudioside-A (reb-A) as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Reb-A is one of the main steviosides, compounds that give stevia its sweet taste.
After this paradigm shift, stevia products began to explode in the market. First, several new table top products popped up in the sweetener aisles of stores. Soon after, a slew of new diet soda and juice products were introduced that provided consumers with natural alternatives to traditional artificially sweetened diet beverages. Now, we are beginning to see stevia being used as a sweetener source in lighter product offerings across categories. Some examples include Silks line of light soymilks, Blue Diamond 100 Calorie Chocolate Almonds, Breyers 100 Calorie Yo Crunch and Attune Foods Probiotic Granola Munch. It is clear consumers are looking for more natural, low-calorie options both from newcomers and from the brands they know and trust. Categories such as baking mixes, frozen desserts and candy have yet to see many options that use stevia as sweetener source.
Products that contain stevia as the sole alternate sweetener source grew 53 percent from $123.1 million to $188.3 million during the past year in the conventional (food/drug/mass) merchandiser channel. In the natural channel, these same products grew 75 percent from $7 million to $12.3 million. Products that contain stevia in combination with other no- and low-calorie sweeteners grew 159 percent from $95.6 million to $247.8 million in the conventional channel; iIn the natural channel, these products grew 143 percent from just under $900 thousand to $2.1 million.
There are several other popular natural sweeteners. Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar-alcohol sweetener found in the fibrous parts of many fruits and vegetables. It is considered a low-calorie sweetener 100 g of xylitol contain around nine calories. Scientific research has linked xylitol to preventing both cavities (Br Dent J. 2003 Apr 26;194(8):429-36) and ear infections (Pediatrics. 1998 Oct;102(4 Pt 1):879-84). As a result of these studies, xylitol can be found in many oral health products including toothpaste, mouth wash and dental gum. Xylitol is also available as a table-top sweetener both on its own and in combination with other natural low- and no-calorie sweeteners. As is true with many sugar alcohols, xylitol is not absorbed by the body. Therefore, taking too much can result in uncomfortable digestive side effects. Limiting xylitol consumption and combining xylitol with other sweetener sources will help to prevent these issues from occurring.
Erythritol is another sugar alcohol that shares many of the same attributes of xylitol, with one key difference. Erythritol is absorbed by the body and therefore is much less likely to cause the same undesirable digestive effects as other sugar alcohol products. Erythritol can be found as a primary sweetener or in combination with other low- and no-calorie alternative sweeteners, such as stevia. Product examples that contain erythritol include Sobe Life Waters and PomX Iced Coffee.
Lo han, also known as lo han guo, lo han kuo or monk fruit, is indigenous to areas around southern China. It has been used traditionally in Chinese culture as a medicinal food and sweetener with many health applications, including heat stroke, cough, diabetes and general longevity. Some examples of products that contain lo han include Kashis Honey Sunshine Cereal, Bear Naked Fit Triple Berry Crunch Granola and Oatmega3 Wellness Bars.
Natural diet sweeteners have opened a new and exciting area for the natural products industry. As consumer demand grows for natural low-calorie alternatives to indulgent staples like ice cream, candy and other desserts, manufacturers will answer with new and innovative products that will no doubt find success, providing that the taste, texture and price measure up to their traditionally sweetened counterparts.
Kerry Watson, CNC, manager, SPINS product library, has worked in the natural products industry for more than 13 years and with market researcher SPINS for six years, where she plays a leadership role in the SPINS content-development team. Watson is certified as a nutrition consultant, diet counselor and nutritional educator through Bauman College. She attended the California School of Herbal Studies, Forestville, CA, and graduated at the top of her class in 1998, with certificates in foundations, therapeutics and clinical herbalism.
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