If sugar is bad and artificial sweeteners are bad, what’s a sugar-addicted America to do? Here’s an interesting article from The Economist about the business side of artificial sweeteners.
The sweetener battle
Sweet and lowdown
The competition to make the most natural fake sugar
Jan 28th 2010 | CHICAGO | From The Economist print edition
AMERICANS have a sweet tooth and odd expectations. They slurp caramel macchiato as coffee and believe that candy, when placed in a bowl, becomes cereal. Strangest of all, many want their beloved artificial sweeteners to be less artificial. Merisant, which makes Equal, an aspartame sweetener, declared bankruptcy in January 2009, having been caught out by changing tastes. This month the firm emerged from bankruptcy ready for a comeback. It is betting heavily on the industry’s new divine ambrosia: a fake sugar that is natural.
Artificial sweeteners, now a $1.1 billion business in the country, have been part of Americans’ diet for decades. In 1957 saccharine made its debut as Sweet’N Low; the 1980s brought aspartame in Diet Coke and in Equal’s blue packets. The arrival of sucralose in 2000 upended the market. Manufactured by Tate & Lyle and marketed as Splenda by McNeil Nutritionals, sucralose had many advantages. Unlike aspartame, it did not fall apart when baked. Splenda’s slogan, “made from sugar so it tastes like sugar”, created a natural image. By 2007 Splenda had seized 61% of sugar-substitute sales in grocery and drug stores according to Information Resources Inc, a research firm.
There have been dark spots, however. Splenda-sweetened Diet Coke was a bust. The sugar lobby and Merisant sued McNeil, claiming that its slogan was misleading (McNeil changed it). Buoyed by a ruling from the International Trade Commission last year, other firms are now producing sucralose to compete with Splenda. And now there is another white hope.
The latest pretender is stevia, a shrub, and a sweetener extracted from it that was cleared for use by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2008. In some ways stevia is ideal. It contains no calories. It is natural. It also happens to taste like odious liquorice. Yet America’s food giants have thrown their weight behind it. Merisant, partnered with PepsiCo, and Cargill, with Coca-Cola, promptly introduced PureVia and Truvia, improving stevia’s taste with natural ingredients.
In supermarkets, green-and-white boxes of PureVia and Truvia now beckon to shoppers with promises of being “all natural” and “nature’s perfect sweetness”. Wary of being left out, McNeil and NutraSweet, a big producer of aspartame, have rushed to offer stevia products. Truvia, Cargill and Coca-Cola’s product, is in the lead. Food processors, used to working with Cargill, are adding it to their ingredients. In December Truvia captured 58% of retail sales in the stevia-sweetener market, according to ACNielsen, a research firm.
Still, Truvia accounts for just 6% of retail sales of sugar substitutes. If stevia sweeteners are to become truly popular, they must overcome two obstacles. First, they cost more to make than their rivals. Second, most stevia products still have a distinct flavour. Merisant reckons it can solve both problems. Yet when Craig Petray, NutraSweet’s chief executive, is asked whether stevia tastes good, he replies gently: “I would say it tastes really different.”