In the nation’s fight against obesity, sugar is becoming a dirty word - a bitter pill to swallow if your business is based on the stuff.
Most confectioners will - rightly - point out that their products are treats and should be regarded as such by consumers, with many highlighting the roles parents, portion-control formats and front-of-back labelling should play in governing consumption.
Nonetheless, there is a growing demand for sugar-free products. Many gum brands have already embraced the trend, and major sugar confectionery players are now coming on board - with Haribo, for example, recently launching sugar-free Bonissimo into Tesco, tellingly, at the retailer’s request.
Use of natural sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol, which is used by mint and gum brand Peppersmith, is also set to increase.
“There’s growing consumer awareness of the dangers of the large amounts of sugar in our diets,” says Peppersmith co-founder Dan Shrimpton. “Consumers are demanding products that are better for them, the government is demanding retailers have a more proactive role in the nation’s health, and retailers want to adapt with this change of mood.”
Wholesaler Hancocks says sugar-free is a growing and important area and recently expanded its sugar-free range, which includes £1 bagged sweets such as chocolate eclairs and cola bottles. It uses traditional sugar alcohol sweeteners isomalt sucralose and maltitol syrup rather than stevia or xylitol.
“Increased health consciousness and growth in conditions such as diabetes are factors behind this development,” he says. “The market remains niche, however, and retailers need to understand their local shoppers’ requirements in order to establish the potential for sales - where sugar free is in demand, sales can be strong.”
Calorie-free natural plant extract stevia was heralded as the holy grail of sweeteners when the EU granted it approval in 2011. However, making confectionery using stevia is not as straightforward as replacing the sugar with an equivalent amount of steviol glycosides (the extract of the stevia plant).
A major issue is that steviol glycosides are 300 times sweeter than sugar, so other ingredients - often fibre - must be used to bulk out a product. Food developers must also take into account sugar’s other functions in a recipe such as adding texture and stability. Dutch chocolate brand Cavalier, for example uses a blend of steviol glycosides and sugar alcohol erythritol in its range of products, which include bars and pralines.
Stevia’s biggest disadvantage, though, is one that plagues virtually all sweeteners - it doesn’t taste like sugar. It has a bitter aftertaste that some liken to liquorice. This can be mitigated to a degree by adding sugar alcohols such as erythritol, maltitol and sorbitol, for example. But it means that while stevia is theoretically cheaper than sugar because much less is required, when the cost of bulking agents and alcohols are factored in, it can actually become more expensive.
Despite these complications, British retailers can expect to be offered more stevia-based confectionery products in the coming months, says Sue Bancroft, marketing director at sweeteners supplier PureCircle.
“Within Europe we have seen the development of stevia launches evolve in a similar way in several markets,” she says. “In general, the first category to work with stevia is table-top, closely followed by beverages and then the other categories tend to follow.”
The UK appears to be conforming to type. Stevia-based table sweeteners entered the market last year (although some have since fallen by the wayside). They were followed by soft drinks, including PepsiCo’s juice and stevia blend Trop50 and CCE’s stevia Sprite. “The natural progression will be to see confectionery product launches coming through within the next six to 12 months,” says Bancroft.
Some suppliers are ahead of the curve. The Cavalier chocolate range launched in the UK last year, and Swiss herbal sweets brand Ricola is offering two stevia-sweetened products through distributor SHS Marketing.
“Stevia will increase in popularity in the coming months and years - as will products using other sweeteners,” believes Andy Richman, Ricola country manager for UK & Ireland. “Consumers will demand the taste delivery but without the calories.”
While stevia is only just beginning to enter the confectionery aisle, another natural sweetener is well entrenched, particularly in the gum market. Like stevia, xylitol is plant-based - but is reported to have the added benefit of helping to reduce plaque and tooth decay. Some xylitol products have even been approved by the British Dental Health Foundation. Among these are Wrigley’s Orbit chewing gum and the Peppersmith confectionery range, which includes gum, mints and the Tingz children’s sweets.
Xylitol has the potential to revive the gum and mints category as consumers start to understand the health benefits (see pxx), argues Peppersmith’s Shrimpton. The brand enjoyed a boom in sales last year after articles in The Times and Daily Mail suggested the sweetener could help fight tooth decay, and namechecked Peppersmith.
“The way people buy these products has changed - from an impulse-only purchase to a planned one,” says Shrimpton, adding that this has ramifications for formats and mechandising. Peppersmith has just agreed a major listing that will see its mints dual-merchandised in the food and dental aisles.
Other mints will follow suit, predicts Shrimpton. “It’s an anomaly that sugar products still dominate in mints,” he argues. “I’d bet my hat that mints will follow the gum market and in 10 years be mostly sugar-free.”
But some suppliers are less bullish. When Perfetti Van Melle quizzed parent focus groups on their attitudes to sugar substitutes, “they were wary of the various different ones discussed, which they saw as artificial even when they were not”, says a spokesman. “They were much happier to have natural sugar in their confectionery and to be confident that they could monitor portion control for themselves or their families.”
The key factors for consumers are quality and price, adds Sainsbury’s senior confectionery buyer Vanessa Pearson. “Moving to sweeteners has an impact on taste, texture and manufacturing process,” she says, adding that if Sainsbury’s was to develop products with sweeteners as opposed to sugar it would want to maintain current taste profiles. “Technology is evolving and we may see the efforts of this appear in market within the next two to three years,” she added.
Whether it takes years or - as others suggest - just months, confectionery containing a natural alternative to sugar is set to become a growing part of every retailer’s offer.
Shoppers shun sugar as stevia hits sweet spot
When it comes to concerns over weight gain, the spotlight is as much on sugar as on fat, it seems.
According to Mintel research, 60% of UK consumers who had tried to lose weight in the past year said cutting back on sugary food and drink was top of their agenda, while 34% said they made an effort to eat more products labelled as low in sugar, fat or calories.
“Many diet or light food and drink products rely heavily on non-nutritive sweeteners (those with no nutritional benefits or calories) to achieve lower levels of sugar and calorie content,” says Laura-Daisy Jones, global food science analyst at Mintel. “While these ingredients mimic the sweetness of sugar, the majority are artificial - and many consumers are keen to move away from artificial ingredients.
Artificial sweeteners are often criticised from a health and safety perspective, even when they have regulatory approval, said Mintel, and growing consumer scepticism about such ingredients has started to correlate more closely with mounting interest in healthy eating and natural ingredients.
Some 43% of British consumers say they are more likely to trust a food product if it contains no artificial ingredients.
This trend, and the recent introduction of natural alternatives such as stevia, has brought a dip in the use of two of the most popular artificial sweeteners -acesulfame potassium and aspartame - which are often use in combination in confectionery products.
Acesulfame potassium appeared in 83% of non-sugar confectionery launches in 2009 but has been used in just 59% so far this year, while the use of aspartame has dropped from 83% to 74%.
Stevia, meanwhile, has shown impressive growth since its approval in November 2011. “While it has yet to make real impact in the UK confectionery market, it has featured in 10% of all UK food and drink products launched this year that contain a non-nutritive sweetener,” notes Jones.
UK consumers are becoming more interested in stevia and other natural low-calorie sweeteners, she adds. “Forty seven per cent are willing to try products made with natural alternative sweeteners such as stevia, and 29% say they would like to see more natural low-calorie drinks available.”
Launched last month in response to a request from Tesco, Haribo’s Bonissimo is a range of sugar-free gum and jelly shapes in pineapple, orange, lemon, grape and strawberry flavours. The products, which are sweetened with malitol syrup, are available in 330 of the retailer’s stores in 70g bags (rsp: 79p). “Bonissimo allows us to continue to cater for the needs and wants of consumers who enjoy a sweet treat but in a sugar free alternative,” says Haribo marketing manager Katy Clark.
Kingsway sugar free
Hancocks Cash & Carry expanded its sugar-free offer in the spring with six new Kingsway lines, taking its sugar-free total to 24. New products include: Fruit Salad Chews, Tropical Fruit Sherbet and Fizz Pops. “Sugar free sweets are an important part of the market. While overall sales might not be huge, many retailers find this to be a growing niche,” says purchasing director Jonathan Summerley. Cavalier chocolates
Supplier: House of Sarunds (UK)
Dutch supplier Cavalier produces a range of about 50 chocolate products that contain no added sugar and are sweetened with herbal extract stevia. The line-up, which is exclusively distributed in the UK by Dorset-based business House of Sarunds, ranges from assortments, tablets and bars to snacks, seashells, hazelnut spread and premium Belgian pralines.
Ricola Luxurious Liquorice
Swiss supplier Ricola produces a range of sugar and sugar-free sweets. Its Elderflower, Cranberry, OrangeMint, and LemonMint sugar-free sweets are sweetened with aspartame, while its Original and Liquorice sweets use stevia. Available since the start of the year, the stevia products (rsp: £1.35) are stocked in retailers including Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
” There’s growing consumer awareness of the large amounts of sugar in our diets” Dan Shrimpton, Peppersmith
” Stevia will increase in popularity over coming months and years, as will other sweeteners.” Andy Richman, Ricola
“We may see the efforts of this appear in the market within the next two to three years Vanessa Pearson, Sainsbury’s