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The UK is leading the way with ‘no added sugar’ food and drink launches, according to research from Mintel. Over the past year, Britain has claimed the highest proportion of European food and drink launches with a ‘no added sugar’ claim.
Neha Srivastava, food and drink patent analyst at Mintel, said that while demand for healthier food options is growing, consumers “don’t want to compromise on taste”, meaning that fine food retailers can help drive this industry forward.
“The pandemic has amplified the need for indulgence, influencing consumers’ choice of food and drink. At the same time, the pandemic has seen people place a higher priority on their health by, for example, reducing their sugar intake,” Neha said.
Gracie Tyrrell, founder of healthy snack brand Squirrel Sisters agreed that the Covid-19 pandemic has played a role in boosting demand for products that balance healthy ingredients with premium flavours, but the UK is also pushing forward with regulations against high-sugar foods that are changing the landscape for producers and retailers alike. “Now more than ever, health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and a global pandemic has urged the government to take action. HFSS advertising bans and banning promotions like ‘buy one get one free’ in supermarkets is a great step forward,” Gracie said. “These new regulations have given brands no choice but to amend their ingredients or produce new products that fit within the new guidelines.”
Creating a product with no added sugar that tastes great poses a challenge to producers. Bertel Haugen, head of innovation at Rude Health, said his brand has found a winning formula by focusing on high-quality ingredients. “White sugar is a one dimensional flavour,” Bertel told Speciality Food. “It only brings sweetness, nothing else. So when we are developing a recipe with no added sugar, we use the best quality ingredients that bring more of a 3D flavour experience. For example, our Sicilian almonds are slow grown for extra flavour, then we roast them which brings it out even more. So when you drink or eat our products you are not missing the 1D sweetness from sugar because there’s a 3D experience from the almonds and other ingredients.”
Bertel said the brand has taken this approach further in its low-sugar cereals by focusing on 3D flavours as well as textures. “Instead of using artificial sweeteners to give you the sensation of ‘sweet’, we decided to play with texture as well as flavour. We added things like crispy flakes with crunchy roasted nuts. Variety in texture and taste, as opposed to sweetness, makes a food or drink delicious.”
According to Mintel, brands across Europe are also innovating with products that get their sweetness from functional fibres such as inulin. Product launches containing this ingredient have tripled in the past five years, rising to 9% in 2020. These products also play into the growing trend for foods that improve gut health, Neha said. “Consumers are aware of the importance of fibres in maintaining gut health. Brands can leverage this awareness by repositioning them as a multifunctional health ingredient that helps reduce sugar content in food and drink whilst improving gut health.”
Stevia, a plant-based sweetener, also has the potential to appeal to European consumers as a sugar substitute, Mintel found. “Stevia continues to gain traction in food and drink launches because of its naturalness and zero calorific value,” Neha said. But it’s not without its challenges. “Its bitter and lingering aftertaste remains a significant barrier. Recent patent innovations to improve taste issues and physicochemical properties, like purity and solubility, to produce next-generation stevia may help overcome the challenge.”
Drinks brands such as natural energy drink company Crave Drinks and alcoholic seltzer brand Naughty Water have found success with stevia by combining it with naturally sweet flavourings, such as vanilla, pineapple and passionfruit.
“Creating a sugar-free, yet a delicious drink was an obvious choice for us with health-conscious consumers reducing their sugar intake,” said Anita Rae, founder and CEO of Crave Drinks. “We spent numerous hours in the lab and sampled our products with our key demographic in order to find a right balance of sweetness, function and flavour. However, the work is never finished as new sweetening agents and flavourings come out, we need to keep agile and innovate in order to stay on top of the game,” Anita told Speciality Food.
The growing innovation around ‘no added sugar’ claims can be a challenge for consumers to navigate. “There still seems to be a lot of confusion around ‘sugar’ content on nutritional tables,” Squirrel Sisters’ Gracie said. “It’s important to look at the ingredients and where the sugar content comes from; natural fruit eg. dates is better and not metabolised in the same way as refined or processed sugars.
“So although some ‘no added sugar’ snacks have sugar content, this is not the same or equivalent to the sugar content in snacks that have any refined or ‘free’ sugars,” Gracie said. For fine food retailers, learning the basics around these claims and helping consumers understand which products are right for them can help the food and drink industry move towards a healthier future.