Recent confectionery launches featuring stevia as an ingredient include Coco Polo chocolate bars.

DUIVEN, THE NETHERLANDS — Despite widespread concerns over excessive sugar consumption, less than 7% of global confectionery launches last year were sugar-free, a similar penetration level to that in 2013, said Innova Market Insights, a Duiven-based research firm.

Across the confectionery category, sugar-free products accounted for 1% of chocolate launches, 7.5% of non-chocolate launches and more than 63% of new chewing gum products. In the hard candy market, sugar-free products represented nearly one-fifth of introductions.

As stevia has gained regulatory approval in more markets, including the United States, Australia and the European Union in the past five years, the sweetener is sweeping into more food and drink markets, with the exception of confectionery. Just over 1% of confectionery launches in 2014 included stevia as an ingredient, well behind such markets as soft drinks and tabletop sweeteners.

“Formulation problems and the bitter aftertaste of stevia are felt to have held back product activity in some instances,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights, “but some sectors have found this less of an issue, particularly licorice sweets and medicated confectionery, and improved formulations are now being introduced to allow more products in other areas.”

The United States leads the way with sugar-free products accounting for 11% of total confectionery launches in 2014. Stevia was featured in 2.6% of introductions, which, while modest, is twice the global average. Recent launches featuring stevia include Coco Polo and ChocoRite chocolate bars, Ricola Liquorice Pearls, SteviDent’s Stevita chewing gum, Rap Protein Gummies and Sencha Naturals Green Tea Mints.

Meanwhile, strides are being made in Europe. Last year, Wrigley launched its first European confectionery product featuring stevia with the introduction of Extra Professional Mints in fruit and classic mint varieties. The products debuted in Germany and are set to roll out in 20 European markets. Though Wrigley has used stevia in chewing gum sold in Japan, where the ingredient has been approved for use for decades, the launch marked the company’s first multi-country introduction of a stevia-sweetened product.

Fears over the safety of certain artificial sweeteners should further propel plant-based alternatives like stevia into the spotlight, Innova said. Moreover, new sweetener systems now offer solutions to improving the taste profiles.

“The confectionery industry has been perhaps slower to take on stevia sweeteners than originally forecast,” Ms. Williams said, “and it remains to be seen how take-up will develop over the next few years.”