Just like choosing the most effective ingredients, choosing the most fitting promotion for a product with alternative sweeteners to sugar may take some work.

A study published this year in JAMA Internal Medicine focused on the need to reduce added sugars in products, but companies may wonder whether consumers will understand the term “added sugars.” Several companies, including PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., may promote products with natural sweeteners this year. Promoting products with less sugar or fewer calories is another option.

Whatever their promotional choice, companies should be ready to use several sweeteners, and not just one, to attain their goal.

“If you are looking to get sugar reduction, a single sweetener simply isn’t going to do it,” said Stefanie Ringo, technical services senior supervisor for Minneapolis-based Cargill.

Attention on added sugars

The study in JAMA Internal Medicine involved the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found average caloric consumption of added sugars is dropping in America but still too high. The study also revealed an association between added sugar intake and increased risk for death from cardiovascular disease. The study defined added sugars as those added in processing or preparing of foods and not naturally occurring, as in fruit and fruit juices.

According to the study, the average percentage of daily calories from added sugars stood at 15.7% in 1988-94 and increased to 16.8% in 1999-2004 before dropping to 14.9% in 2005-10. Compared to people who ate about 8% of calories from added sugar, people who ate about 17% to 21% of calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

The Institute of Medicine recommends added sugar make up less than 25% of total calories. The World Health Organization recommends less than 10%. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to less than 100 calories daily for women and less than 150 calories daily for men. According to the JAMA Internal Medicine study, sources of added sugar in Americans’ diets include sugar-sweetened beverages (37.1%), grain-based desserts (13.7%), fruit drinks (8.9%), dairy desserts (6.1%) and candy (5.8%).

Removing all added sugars from such products is possible, said Thom King, president of Steviva Ingredients in Portland, Ore. Blends of alternative sweeteners might be the best option.

“It’s finding the right combination of non-nutritive sweeteners that retain flavor profile, sensorial effect and mouthfeel that present the challenge,” he said.

Every sweetener has unique sensorial attributes, but all fall short as a drop-in replacement for sugar, he said.

“Like spices or flavors, each sweetener imparts its own taste and functional properties,” Mr. King said. “While sugar’s sweetness builds, rounds and drops off slowly, high-intensity sweeteners tend to hit sharply and then linger. The presence or absence of other ingredients can magnify or mute sweetener tendencies. When certain sweeteners are used in tandem, their value exceeds their solo contribution.”

Complications may arise around products with added sugar. No legal definition exists for “added sugar,” said Nate Yates, business director of North American sweetness innovation for Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill.

“The phrase ‘added sugar’ is very confusing, especially at the consumer level,” he said. “They don’t really understand what ‘added sugar’ means.”

He said all the sugar in 100% fruit juice may come from the fruit, but in some instances a 100% fruit juice will have more grams of sugar per serving than a juice drink with added sugars.

Ingredion last year launched its Dolcerra sweetness and texture system for reduced sugar juices. The system allows formulators to trim as much as half the sugar content in juices containing up to 25% fruit juice without compromising the consumer drinking experience. Dolcerra uses Ingredion’s Dial-In technology to optimize texture and sweetness.

A move toward natural

Insight on how consumers respond to natural sweetener promotions might be gaining this year, judging by comments from company executives earlier this month.

In a Feb. 12 earnings call, Larry Young, president and chief executive officer of Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Inc., Plano, Texas, talked about Mott’s new juice drink line, which has 40% less sugar and no artificial sweeteners.

In a Feb. 13 earnings call, Indra Nooyi, chairman and c.e.o. of PepsiCo, Purchase, N.Y., said the company is testing cola product variations that feature zero-calorie natural sweeteners blended with sugar.

In a Feb. 14 earnings call, Vince Byrd, president and chief operating officer of the J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, Ohio, talked about how a segment of consumers are shifting away from artificially sweetened products, which is affecting the company’s line of fruit spreads.

Ingredion pointed to a HealthFocus survey from 2013 that showed consumers willing to pay 5% to 10% more for natural products. Additionally, the survey found 71% of consumers said “all-natural” is an important/very important statement on product labels, which was up from 63% in 2011.

Taking artificial sweeteners out of products might give them a “natural halo,” Ms. Ringo said. The tactic might appeal to mothers seeking products for their children or to women over age 40, which she referred to as the “stevia crowd” that may be able to afford higher end products.

Stevia and erythritol often are paired together in products promoted for having natural sweeteners, Ms. Ringo said. Cargill offers a Truvia brand stevia product and a Zerose brand erythritol.

Jungbunzlauer Suisse AG, Basel, Switzerland, offers the two sweeteners in one ingredient. Erylite Stevia serves as a natural and zero-calorie alternative to artificially produced bulk sweeteners, according to Jungbunzlauer.

Checking for sugar content

Evidence shows consumers are checking the sugar content of products. For children’s products, some food and beverage companies want the level of grams per serving to be in single digits for such items as fruit snacks, granola bars and breakfast cereal, Ms. Ringo said.

Beneo conducted proprietary research in 2013 that indicated 6 out of 10 U.S. consumers always or usually check the sugar content of food products. Additionally, 63% try to limit their sugar intake, which is a higher percentage than those for consumers watching their fat intake (60%) or calorie intake (45%). More than half of U.S. consumers are “very concerned” about maintaining healthier blood sugar levels, according to the research.

Beneo offers Isomalt, which has half as many calories as sucrose and has little effect on blood sugar levels since it is digested only partially. Derived from sugar beet, Isomalt has the same sweetness profile as sugar and about 50% of the sweetening power of sugar.