Fi Global Insights is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Striking the sweet balance: Reducing sugar while maintaining sweetness

Article-Striking the sweet balance: Reducing sugar while maintaining sweetness

© iStock/Dokmaihaeng RS, sugar, sweetness, reformulation, sweetener, Dokmaihaeng, iStock-519220264.jpg
Despite consumer demand for reduced sugar products, no one ingredient has been able to replace sugar and all its functionalities. Reformulation is not always easy, but key innovations are underway in the industry.

Weijia Qin, market analyst at Innova Market Insights, and Karen Pardoe, technical and scientific consultant at KPS Consulting, joined an Fi Global Insights webinar to discuss the latest technologies, product development strategies, and consumer insights driving innovation in the realm of sugar reduction and reformulation.

Consumer demand for healthy choices driving sugar reduction

Qin began her presentation by discussing consumer attitudes toward sugar. Sugar is the number one ingredient global consumers are most consciously limiting in their diet, according to Innova Market Insights. In addition, there is a clear demand for healthier dietary options, with 62% of global consumers having a preference for reducing their sugar intake.

Consumer behaviour is also shifting towards prioritising health-conscious choices —   nearly 40% of consumers are open to exploring sugar alternatives to enjoy a sweet treat while reducing calorie consumption. Qin explained consumers' criteria for what they believe makes a product healthy: “Our research shows that 22% of consumers globally prioritise low levels of unhealthy ingredients like sugar, salt, and fat in healthy food and beverages products.

“Interestingly, this focus is even more pronounced in indulgent products: over 30% [of consumers] believe that reducing these unhealthy ingredients is key to [making the products] healthier,” she added.

Highlighting the appeal of natural sweeteners, Qin added that when looking at the latest food and beverage product launches, cane sugar, brown sugar, and stevia were the most accepted natural sweeteners among consumers.

No added sugar, sugar-free, and zero-sugar claims on the rise

Sugar-free is emerging as the fastest growing claim, suggesting a strong consumer shift towards more stringent sugar reduction approaches. As for products with sugar reduction claims, Qin explained that “no added sugar” is the leading claim.

When it comes to product categories with reduced sugar formulations, producers of sports powders, juices, and nectars have increased their attention toward reduced sugar formulations.

Flavoured alcoholic beverages are also experiencing growth in sugar reduction efforts, with brands incorporating zero-sugar options to cater to consumer demands for indulgence without compromising on health considerations. Qin pointed to SVNS Hard 7UP, a product combining these trends— a sugar-free lemon-lime flavoured vodka drink, that contains 7% alcohol.

Future sweet innovations expected from fibre and plant-based ingredients

“Sweet proteins are emerging as a beneficial alternative to traditional sweeteners. They have garnered attention for their potential to revolutionise how sweetness is added to foods,” Qin said.

Qin also discussed Nestlé's patented enzymatic technology introduced in 2023, which, according to the company, reduces intrinsic sugar in malt, milk, and juice, leading to a 30% sugar reduction and an increase in prebiotic fibres, without compromising taste. These approaches offer dual benefits by reducing sugar content while enhancing products' health profiles. By leveraging such strategies, companies may be able to meet consumer demands for more nutritious products without sacrificing taste or quality.

Looking toward the future, Qin expects that companies will need to innovate and adapt to meet the evolving demands of health-conscious consumers. Plant-based sweeteners, fibre ingredients such as inulin from chicory, and innovative natural ingredients are expected to play a central role, catering to consumer demands for clean-label products and sustainable sourcing practices.

Sugar’s properties extend beyond sweetness

While Qin covered consumer and market trends, Pardoe’s presentation covered the technical considerations of sugar reduction.

First, Pardoe explored the composition and functional attributes of sugars and their role in food formulation. She said that while most people assume sugar is white-granulated sucrose, it is far more complicated. There are various sugar classifications: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides all of which have different roles in food formulations. These sugars serve as more than sweeteners: they impart texture, colour, and flavour to food products.

“Sugar is also important in fermentation. [...] it mixes with yeast to provide food for us to aid fermentation in bread and beer making,” she said. “Sugar is used as a preservative in jams and sauces, because otherwise if you just had made something with fruit, it would go bad very quickly.”

Sugar alternatives often come with drawbacks

Pardoe discussed the main types of alternative sweeteners that can be used to replace sugars, which are typically already in use: bulk sweeteners; intense sweeteners; and sweeteners derived from food.

Bulk sweeteners, often polyols, have a similar sweetness to sugar and offer multifunctional attributes, beyond sweetness. But there is potential digestive discomfort that comes from excessive consumption of polyols and a need for clear labelling to inform consumers of this. Intense sweeteners have different orders of magnitude but offer no other functionality other than sweetness. Sweeteners derived from plant extracts do offer functionality beyond sweetness but there are challenges in extraction and stability.

Stringent regulatory standards exist for sugar alternatives

Sugar reduction initiatives are complex, according to Pardoe. Regulatory, stakeholder, and consumer landscapes all shape formulation decisions.

Drawing attention to regulatory scrutiny, Pardoe highlighted the importance of compliance with labelling requirements and additive regulations. Regulators often focus on sugar reduction. However, replacing sugar comes with its challenges, and regulators will be interested in ensuring that the alternative used is safe for human consumption.

There are also challenges for shareholders, who are generally most interested in brand protection, and innovation in pre-sales Pardoe explained. “They do not want to lose reputation. They do not want things to cost more to make. They want to keep consumers on board or actually get more consumers. They want healthy choices. They want value for money. They want reduced calories, great taste, [and] recognisable ingredients.

“Each of those factors will have a different influence on the NPD [new product development], depending on the product that needs to be reformulated,” she said.