Sugar-reduction efforts pick up steam ahead of update to Nutrition Facts panel

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Food and beverage brands of all sizes and across categories are scrambling to reduce sugar in their products before FDA regulations mandating they indicate added and total sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel goes into effect in July 2018, according to product development consultancy Imbibe.

“Lower sugar content has been a consumer demand for a long time, but now with the changing Nutrition Facts panel,” which will make “added sugars” a line item, “there will be even greater emphasis on reducing sugar content across product categories,” Laura Dembitzer, marketing director at Imbibe, said Feb. 7 during a webinar on the top ingredient trends of 2017.

To illustrate how widespread sugar reduction has become, Dembitzer pointed to Pepsi’s decision last fall to embrace “a marketing nightmare” to rebrand its existing Pepsi Max line to Pepsi Zero Sugar to “very clearly communicate to consumers that the product has no sugar.”

It also announced last October that by 2025 at least two-thirds of its drinks will have 100 calories or fewer from added sugar per 12 ounces -- a move that is similar to the Coca-Cola Co.’s declaration that by 2020 it would offer low- or no-calorie options in every market that its products exist.

In addition, Nestle announced it is patenting a sugar reduction process that will allow it to cut sugar across categories by 40%, which it hopes to use in product development starting in 2018.

Even “product lines where sugar is an essential component of the product identity are being forced to reformulate in order to stay relevant to today’s consumers,” Dembitzer said. She pointed to Smucker’s offering a low-sugar jam line and repositioning its products as “naturally sweetened with honey,” which has a better reputation than sugar in many consumers’ eyes.

Recasting products with claims

In addition to reformulating products, manufacturers also are using marketing to downplay the sugar in their products, Dembitzer said.

“Marketing claims around sugar reduction on the front panel have increased dramatically over the past few years,” with sugar-free claims climbing 14%, low-sugar up 32% and no sugar added up 21% between 2011 and 2015, she said.

Reflecting on this trend, Dembitzer noted, “interestingly, the no sugar added claim doesn’t really say much about the sugar content of the product because, especially on juice-based products where the majority of the sugar is coming from the juice.”

Yet, she said, the cold-pressed juice brand 1915 declares on its green juice made with romaine, cucumber, spinach and kale that no sugar is added, even though the natural sugars amount to 25 grams per serving, or half the new daily recommendation.

“Other ways brands are communicating about sugar reduction is through sugar content comparison and saying X grams less sugar or less sugar than the original version,” she said.

“In order to get more natural positioning,” she added, “brands also make the claim no artificial sweetener.”

Technological advancements ease sugar reduction efforts

Luckily, companies trying to reduce sugar in the products have several technologies to choose from, depending on their goals, but they all come with some tradeoffs, Dembitzer said.

Companies that want to cut sugar and have a clean label increasingly are leaning towards honey, agave and fruit juice. While these are all recognizable to consumers, honey is actually more caloric than sugar and it, along with agave, are not as sweet as sugar, which can make it difficult to maintain a flavor profile that consumers expect, Dembitzer said.

In addition, she warned that when the new Nutrition Facts panel goes into effect, companies sweetening products with fruit juice must do so with juice that is a single strength and not from concentrate, otherwise, it will fall under that added sugar line.

Non-nutritive high-intensity sweeteners also are a “major trend” right now, Dembitzer said.

Specifically, she noted that stevia is undergoing “a tremendous amount of innovation and development in order to improve the taste profile,” and create derivatives that can be listed as natural flavors in ingredient statements as long as predetermined use-rates are met.

Monkfruit is another common option, but, like stevia has a strong aftertaste and is not legal in the EU – thus limiting its application.

Surprisingly, sugar alcohols, which have been around “are becoming popular again because they don’t have a strong aftertaste and they have an even sweetness like sugar,” and can be used to mask off-flavors, Dembitzer said.

Finally, she noted newcomer allulose is gaining traction as a viable option in limited applications.

She explained that allulose is new to the market and not yet widespread because it has limited GRAS certification, but that it provides a mouth feel similar to sugar along with about 70% of its sweetness and it browns like sugar, “which makes it attractive for certain applications.”

Overall, Dembitzer said, manufacturers' reformulation to reduce sugar have many tools to choose from, but they should be careful to ensure they also follow the strict regulations that apply to them, as well as balance other consumer desires for taste, low-calorie and non-chemical sounding ingredients. 

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