Sugar: What’s the Alternative?

Daisy Phillipson investigates

Ever since the great sugar debate made its presence in the media back in 2014, sugar has been under intense scrutiny for the negative health effects it poses in the diet for both weight loss and for those affected by diabetes. For the confectionery and chocolate market, this has profound implications on the public perspective on sweet treats; particularly with the fine food shopper, who is generally more health conscious than the average consumer. We’ve seen a rise in the use of sugar alternatives; everything from stevia and dextrose to agave syrup and coconut sugar.

Yet, while these innovative new sweeteners have become more readily available to manufacturers, according to food market researchers Mintel, the reduced and replacement sugar chocolate market in Europe is currently rather stagnant. This means 2% of chocolate products released in 2013 with low/no/reduced sugar claims in Europe, 3% in 2014 and 3% in 2015. Not much growth there at all. Does this mean that despite all the hype, replacement sugar does not have a hold in the market?

Not necessarily. But let’s first look at why the figures of sugar replacements have not skyrocketed. One of the main reasons according to Mintel is that consumers are unwilling to compromise taste for health. According to Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst at Mintel, “concerns around taste appear to be a limiting factor when it comes to low-sugar chocolate variants. In the UK, a quarter of chocolate consumers believe that reduced sugar does not taste as good as regular chocolate.”

This is perhaps one of the reasons why restaurant, ice cream parlour and retail outlet Bashall Barn, situated in the Ribble Valley, choose to stick to traditional sugar products. Simon Barnes, managing director at Bashall Barn, said that while the sugar debate does remain prevalent, consumers buying sweet treats tend to cut down on sugary products if they suffer from conditions such as diabetes or are looking to cut out sugar for health reasons, rather than finding replacements and compromising on taste.

In addition, “to put a fake sugar or sugar replacement into sweet products, the production becomes quite complex. For example, with regards to our ice cream, sugar is a form of antifreeze, so it is quite difficult to swap such a significant ingredient for another,” he added.

So what does this mean for the future of sugar alternatives? Will they sink like many food fads do? In short, no. According to Mintel, there is huge growth potential, particularly in the fine food market where customers are willing to pay a little bit more for their indulgent, high-end confectionery and chocolate products. “In order to succeed, it is critical that products retain their indulgent appeal, and maintaining taste as well as other important sensory attributes, such as texture and mouthfeel, must be the priority,” said Mattucci. Consumer responses showed that if sugar products can deliver on taste they could definitely enjoy future potential.
Question is, what are the products that combine both natural or alternative sugar ingredients without compromising on taste, and could these be the future of lowered sugar confectionery?

One of the biggest trends in 2016 is coconut and for sugar lovers, coconut sugar is the ideal ingredient as it is sweet, tasty, provides similar properties to regular sugar and has a lower glycaemic index, which helps to keep blood sugar levels stable. Ombar is one company that has utilised this sweet inclusion and we have been seeing these bars popping up in fine food stores around the country.

One of the reasons for their popularity in this sector is that they still have a nice flavour and are considered as tasty as their regular chocolate counterparts. By containing 100% organic cacao and a high level of flavanols, these bars appeal to a health conscious consumer and yet their rich taste and innovative flavours such as Coconut & Vanilla, Coco Milk, Cranberry & Mandarin and Raspberry & Coconut appeal to those looking for something tasty and indulgent.

Stevia still carries some consumer interest, although it has been known to have a strange aftertaste which can put customers off. Therefore it is important to choose producers who have used ingredient combinations to balance out the flavour. For example, Lily’s stevia-sweetened chocolate offers all the indulgence but with no added sugar in tempting flavour combinations will draw customers in, such as Creamy Milk, Salted Almond, Crispy Rice and Coconut.

Another potential area for growth is with products using inulin and isomalt. Isomalt is a type of sugar alcohol derived from beet sugar used mostly in hard candies as it has a sweetness profile similar to sucrose but with half the calories. Inulin, which comes from chicory root, is used as a fibre and fat replacer and can be used in reduced sugar chocolate formulations.

Ingredients supplier Beneo, who develop these types of ingredients, state that the two replacements are closer to matching the taste and mouthfeel of sugar in chocolate. This would certainly meet the criteria of creating a lower sugar product that still match its counterparts in taste profile.

Whether inulin and isomalt have a strong future in the market is yet to be seen. One issue is convincing customers that it does not pose any additional health risks, as consumers are not trusting towards artificial or unfamiliar sweeteners.

What is certain is that consumers are definitely open to reduced sugar and sugar alternatives in their sweet treats so long as the flavour matches up. There is potential in the market and for a retailer, who must explore unique ingredient and flavour combinations to overcome taste and textural challenges that come from reducing sugar content.

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