KANSAS CITY — Consumers generally express positive perceptions of natural sweeteners like honey, stevia and sweeteners sourced from fruit. How positive may depend on product category and the consumer’s life stage.

“Shoppers are more likely to be enticed by reduced-sugar offerings that use sweeteners derived from sources they recognize, like stevia,” said Sarah Diedrich, marketing director, global sweetening and texturizing for Chicago-based ADM. “Other sweeteners with high consumer affinity are agave, honey, molasses and various specialty syrups.”

The importance of the sweetener used depends on product categories and sub-categories, she said. In the beverage category, 57% of consumers review the type of sweetener used on product labels, according to ADM’s Outside Voice research.

“Beverage shoppers even review the type of sweetener used more than they review the ingredient list itself,” Ms. Diedrich said. “These consumers also find sweetener type to be particularly important in carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks.”

Fifty-three percent of consumers review the type of sweetener used when evaluating new snack or baked foods purchases.

“For baked goods in particular, consumers want to see ingredients they can find in their pantries on ingredient labels, raising the bar for sweeteners to be familiar in order to be accepted,” Ms. Diedrich said.

ADM offers both SweetRight Stevia Edge-M and SweetRight agave.

“SweetRight Stevia Edge-M is isolated directly from the stevia leaf, which sets it apart from other Reb M options on the market that are produced by fermentation or bioconversion,” Ms. Diedrich said. “From that, our SweetRight Stevia Edge-M can be listed as ‘stevia leaf extract’ on product labels, supporting clean label goals.”

Consumers with children

Minneapolis-based Cargill last August conducted a survey involving more than 300 US consumers who do at least half of their household’s grocery shopping. The survey looked at both adult consumers and adult consumers with children.

When asked what they checked on packages, 58% said they either were extremely likely or very likely to check the Nutrition Facts Label, which ranked first, ahead of the ingredients list at 55%, total sugars at 53%, the amount of added sugar at 52% and calories at 50%. Which sweeteners were used ranked sixth at 47%.

The survey looked at net purchase impact of sweetener claims calculated by subtracting the percentage of consumers less likely to purchase a product because of a claim from consumers more likely to purchase a product because of a claim.

Naturally sweetened had the highest net impact at 61% and was followed by no artificial sweeteners at 57%, no added sugar at 55% and made with a natural sweetener at 53%. Claims of no artificial sweeteners have a high impact among the general population and different demographics as well, said Carla Saunders, senior marketing manager, high-intensity sweeteners for Cargill. Fruit juice may appeal to younger generations, too, especially those with children in the house.

“There’s this overlap with parents with children and millennials, and it comes down to life stage,” Ms. Saunders said. “Many millennials have kids in the household, and they are more open when it comes to ingredients and claims.”

When a snack bar was sweetened with fruit juice, 53% of consumers with children said they were more likely to buy the product compared to 35% for adult consumers only, according to the survey.

Honey ranked the highest in net purchase impact among adults with percentages of 58% for juice, 60% for cereal,61% for snack bars, 60% for sports and performance beverages and 64% for plant-based dairy.

“Honey is always the No. 1 ranked sweetener,” Ms. Saunders said. “It’s natural. It’s familiar.”

Stevia leaf extracts and monk fruit extracts also have a positive purchase impact, she said.

The National Honey Board, Erie, Colo., points to Mintel data showing consumers believe refined white sugar was the most processed and bad for you while honey was the most appealing and natural.

“Honey consistently ranks as a preferred sweetener, according to many consumer surveys,” said Catherine Barry, vice president of marketing for the honey board.

Plums emerge as options

Fresh plum concentrate and prune juice concentrate are two examples of sweeteners sourced from fruit.

“Fresh plum concentrate is made by concentrating the juices of fresh prune plums,” said Kate Leahy, spokesperson for Sunsweet Ingredients, which is part of Sunsweet Growers, Yuba City, Calif. “It’s a deep cherry color on its own, but when used in sweet baked foods, it does not impart a significant amount of color to batter.”

Prune juice concentrate is closer to the color of molasses and will darken sweet baked foods more than fresh plum concentrate.

“However, it will not turn a batter purple,” Ms. Leahy said. “Prune juice concentrate generally works best in chocolate or spiced baked goods, like brownies, chewy ginger cookies or gingerbread.”

Malts and molasses

Malt Products Corp. and International Molasses, sister companies based in Saddle Brook, NJ, both provide natural sweetener options.

“Our proprietary research shows that customers have positive associations with malt,” said Amy Targan, president of both companies. “It is considered to be a healthy and natural ingredient that evokes feelings of wholesomeness, health and vigor.”

Malt Products uses a batch-brewing process to fine-tune mash in the same way beer brewers have done for centuries.

“For brewers, the object is to create a particular profile of beer or ale from a set of ingredients whose characteristics change from year to year, from season to season, and from place to place,” Ms. Targan said. “We create particular profiles of MaltRite extract to meet our customers’ various specification, all the while confronting many of those same challenges that brewers face. The process is inescapably manual, some might even say, artisanal.”

She added, “Our proprietary research shows that customers have positive associations with molasses. It is an ingredient that the public is generally familiar with, and it evokes feelings of nostalgia, coziness and happiness — likely from its long history of being included in homemade goodies, the kinds of things that might appear at a holiday dinner.”