For decades, no one thought twice about adding sugar or sweetener to their food and drinks. New nutrition studies have been coming out for years that decry the hazards of sugar, but it’s only recently that the public perception surrounding these sweeteners has begun to shift. How is this opinion shift regarding sweeteners impacting the food industry, and what changes can the industry expect to see in the coming year?
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Perception of Artificial Sweeteners
The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners for production. These include:
- Saccharin — Often marketed under the brand name Sweet ‘N Low;
- Acesulfame — Often marketed under the brand names Sunett or Sweet One;
- Aspartame — Often marketed under the brand names NutraSweet or Equal;
- Neotame — Created by NutraSweet, it is chemically similar to aspartame, but is not widely used in food products; and
- Sucralose — Often marketed under the brand name Splenda.
While the companies that created these sweeteners have advertised them as a healthy alternative to sugar, studies have shown they can adversely affect a person’s health. One study found individuals who drink more than 21 diet drinks a week with artificial sweeteners in them are more likely to become obese than those who didn’t drink diet soda at all.
The public perception of artificial sweeteners is mainly negative, due to a large number of studies that have emerged in recent years that blame these sweeteners for everything from obesity to cancer. By and large, these additives are safe—after all, the FDA considers them safe enough to sell—but that hasn’t shifted public opinion of these artificial sweeteners.
Perception of Sugar and Added Sugar
Sugar has been the villain of the story for a long time. Much of the global shift toward artificial sweeteners occurred because sugar takes the blame for several health issues, from Type 2 diabetes to heart disease. An average American gets 14 percent of their daily caloric intake from sugar, but the way consumers are eating sugar is changing.
As of 2016, more than 60 percent of consumers surveyed were monitoring their sugar intake, and roughly 25 percent of those surveyed were actively seeking out foods with lower sugar content. More than half of them also base their food choices on what sweetener is in the ingredients list.
Perception of Low-Calorie Sweeteners
As of the time of this writing, there is only one FDA-approved low-calorie sweetener, marketed under several different brand names, from TruVia to Pure Via and Stevia in the Raw. While stevia is a natural plant extract, many people are still skeptical about its health benefits versus sugar.
There is also a distinct lack of research when it comes to stevia as a sweetener. Researchers have had decades to look at the effect of sugar and other artificial sweeteners on the body. However, stevia is a relative newcomer in the industry, so it hasn’t been around long enough to assess any long-term effects this sweetener might have.
Projections for the Coming Year
What do these changing perceptions mean for the food industry for the coming year?
In general, consumers are trying to reduce their overall consumption of things like sugar and fat. The U.S. even adds a “sugar tax” to some unhealthy foods, making them more expensive. There is no one sweetener that is more or less popular than the others, in spite of marketing that might claim otherwise.
Big food companies are starting to look at sugar again, but in a whole new way. Nestlé has claimed they have developed a way to re-engineer sugar so it tastes the same, but has fewer calories. This change to sugar’s crystalline structure will also make it dissolve more rapidly. The goal is to make their sweet foods more nutritious without changing how they taste.