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Sugar - the bad boy on the block

Updated on June 25, 2015

With modern consumers ever increasing demand for clarity on what goes into their food products, and a desire to lead a healthy lifestyle growing with every nutritional publication, food and drink manufacturers are now under more pressure than ever. Alongside increasing food regulations, such pressures have forced manufacturers in recent times to reduce the sugar content within their products, and look towards healthier alternatives to sweeten their products.


Despite there being long-held knowledge attached to the risks associated with sugar, this came to a head in 2014 where it became a major health topic that was much publicised in the UK press. This stemmed predominantly from the campaign group Action on Sugar, who warned of the extreme amount of sugar that was present in retail food and drink, and claimed that its excessive consumption is a large contributing factor towards weight problems, diabetes and heart disease.

Mintel reports that the vast media coverage was noticed by over two fifths of UK consumers, resulting in a reported six in 10 of those going on to display behavioural changes in either monitoring or reducing their sugar intake in the last 12 months. This is consistent with the downturn in the sugar market, where from 2013 a decline in the value of sales rapidly accelerated in 2014. Does this indicate a changing of times? Will the sugar market continue to shrink from here on in, and will healthier alternatives come in and take its place as the most popularly used sweetener? We believe this is very unlikely.

Action on Sugar’s claims were refuted by Sugar Nutrition UK, who asserted that associating sugar with numerous lifestyle diseases lacked evidence, that obesity was linked to the over consumption of calories and not specifically sugar, and that replacing sugar in foods and drink may lead to the products containing even more calories. Noteworthy however is that the organisation is generally funded by sugar manufacturers.

Scientists argue that it is more of a mental issue, as the human attachment to sugar has become instinctive. When ingested, sugar fires up the billions of neuron nerve cells in the brain to improve cognitive function. Furthermore, our brains are said to be compelled to find certain things pleasurable, where their consumption stimulates the reward pathway of the brain. They say the human brain has evolved from when food was scarce, unlike now where resources are readily available to us, which can lead to self-gratification. However, the reward centre of the brain in some people can go into overload which leads to addictive behaviours, much the same as the effects tobacco or other recreational drugs have on us. This can lead to higher levels of consumption each time, as certain receptors in the brain become less sensitive, meaning more is needed in order to achieve gratification.

With the most commonly used alternatives to sugar having long been artificial sweeteners, this represents another volatile topic altogether.

Artificial Sweeteners

Much has been made of the detrimental properties that artificial sweeteners have on the human body over the years.

Despite having zero calories and no effect upon the body’s blood sugar levels, being known as ‘artificial’ instantly sheds a negative light upon the products, whilst their complex compound names only serve as yet another stick to beat them with. They have been linked to many health risks; cancer, strokes and seizures to name a few; yet those claims are still disputed to this day.

For example, one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market is Aspartame, and since its initial approval for use in 1974 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it has come under intense scrutiny, where it wasn’t until 1981 that it got re-approved for dried goods and 1983 for beverages. It has been linked to a host of adverse effects, some being; seizures, dizziness, migraines and loss of hearing. Worse yet, its use has also been associated with life threatening conditions, most notably there being a reported rise in brain tumours since its introduction into the food and drinks market.

These sweeteners are however said to still be in use for a good reason. All sweeteners in the EU will have gone through a thorough safety assessment process before they can even be used in food and drinks, by either the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or its predecessor the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF). Furthermore, claims regarding their association with cancer have been dismissed by both Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institution, claiming numerous studies has shown no evidence of cancer risk in humans.

Today they are still bought by over a quarter of households in the UK. However, this figure may diminish in the near future. Since falling by 5% in 2013, artificial sales have continued to decline, much like the sugar market.

Sugar Alcohols

These are carbohydrates that are found naturally in certain vegetables and fruit, which are extracted through the fermentation process. Despite the name, sugar alcohols contain no ethanol, as their cellular structures merely resemble that of sugar and alcohol. They have a positive heat of solution, meaning they have a very strong cooling effect, so will have a much quicker impact upon hot liquids than sugar. Due to this, they are very difficult to dissolve in cool liquids. The only trouble with the following is that over consumption can lead to some uncomfortable GI side effects, so like all things it is best to use in moderation.

1. Erythritol

Naturally found in certain fruits, namely pears, watermelons and grapes. However, due to its rising popularity, it is mainly produced at an industrial level, extracted through the fermentation process. It is around 75-80% as sweet as sugar, and is widely used in chewing gum products, as well as baked goods, for which it can withstand temperatures up to 160oC. As well as being good for your teeth, it also has 0.2 calories per gram, compared to sugar has 4 calories per gram.

The product comes in granulated and powdered forms, although it is not readily available to purchase from many UK retailers, but can be found from various trusted e-tailers. There are certain products such as Truvia, where erythritol is mixed with stevia extract and sold as a table top sweetener.

Erythritol is easier to digest than most sugar alcohols, as it is largely absorbed in the small intestine, meaning that only a small amount tends to reach the colon, thus there is a significantly less chance of ill side effects occurring.

2. Xylitol

Naturally found in berries, plums, corn, oats, mushrooms, and lettuce. It is commonly used in sugar-free gum, breath mints, baked goods, cough syrup, mouthwash, and toothpaste.

It is manufactured into and sold as a white powder; it looks and tastes very similar to sugar (despite the cooling aftertaste). It is as sweet as sugar, but contains fewer calories at around 2.4 per gram, around two-thirds that of sugar. It is readily available for purchase in most retailers but otherwise is available via various e-tailers.

It has been found to be beneficial for dental health, where numerous studies have shown it to fight tooth decay and help prevent cavities, whilst certain studies have found it to even aid bone density. However, it must be noted that xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs, having a dangerous impact upon their blood sugar levels, whilst also causing both seizures and liver failure. Effects can be fatal, and may be of reason as why the sweetener is not used across a greater range of products at this moment in time. Despite this, its global consumption is expected to rise further over the next few years. Valued at US$670 million in 2013, by 2020 the market is expected to reach approximately US$1 billion, representing a CAGR of more than 6%, which would firmly place it as one of the biggest sweeteners in the market.


By and large, the latest craze to hit the sweetener market in the past few years is stevia, although its use stems back centuries. Having been sold in Japan for the past 40 years, approval was gained for use in the US in 2008, and in 2011 in the EU respectively.

A natural sweetener extracted from the herb Stevia Rebaudiana, is largely sourced from various regions in South America and Eastern Asia. It is known to be around 300 times sweeter than sugar, due to containing the ultra-sweet glycosides stevioside and rebaudioside A, thus only small doses at a time are required. Despite this, it has zero calories, no carbohydrates and no bearing upon ones blood sugar levels, consequently being suitable for diabetic patients, whilst studies have shown it to even help prevent the growth of mouth bacteria that is associated with tooth decay.

It has been used a lot recently by major soft drink manufacturers. Coca-Cola have used it to flavour Sprite and their new product extension Coke Life, whilst Britvic also use it for their new SOBE V Water range. Also sold as a table sweetener, it is readily available for purchase through various different brands and supermarket own-brands, across various retailers in the UK. It can be purchased most commonly in pills, granulated or powdered form, but is also available as fresh/dried leaves or in liquid concentrate. It can also withstand high temperatures up to 200oC, so can be used for cooking and baking whilst also having a long shelf life.

The market in 2014 was valued at US$347 million, and is expected to reach US$565.2 million by 2020, which represents a CAGR of 8.5% year on year.

Overall, we believe this debate is set to continue for some time to come. Whoever succeeds in balancing consumers’ desire for less sugar with taste and health benefits will win the battle for market share in this highly competitive sector.


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