Zevia soda
Zevia soda contains no sugar and features popular natural sweeteners such as stevia, monk fruit and erythritol.

DUIVEN, THE NETHERLANDS — The “clean label” trend is affecting the soft drink category globally, leading to more interest in natural sweeteners such as stevia and a backlash against ingredients perceived to be “artificial,” according to an Innova Market Insights report issued May 17. Also, sugar taxes have intensified the global focus on obesity and sugar intake in reduced sugar and diet drinks, according to the report.

The Innova report comes six days after the International Food Information Council Foundation released its 2016 Food and Health Survey, which found an increasing number of consumers saying they were trying to limit or avoid certain artificial sweeteners.

Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova

“Placing tax on unhealthy life choices such as tobacco and alcohol has been seen for many years,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Duiven-based Innova. “Its arrival in the food and drinks industry and its focus on sugar has been much more controversial but has certainly generated debate.

“The interest in sugar reduction has combined with the ongoing emphasis on clean labeling to boost the use of natural sweeteners in particular, with more sophisticated blends developed for specific applications increasingly in evidence.”

A 2015 Innova Market Insights survey found that in the United States sugar content influenced the purchasing decision of soft drinks for 57% of consumers. In the United Kingdom, where a sugar tax will go into effect in 2018, the percentage was 60%. In Mexico, where a sugar tax already is in place, the percentage was 57%.

Diet Hansen's sugar-free soda
Soft drinks sporting the sugar-free claim, such as Diet Hansen's soda, are on the rise.

Over 16% of global soft drink launches in the 12-month period ended in March used either a no-added-sugar, low-sugar or sugar-free claim, according to Innova. In juice and juice drinks, a sub-category, the percentage was close to 20%, including more than 30% in the United States.

Stevia extracts, which are natural high-intensity sweeteners, were featured in nearly 4% of global soft drink launches in the 12-month period ended in March. The percentage for stevia was 8% in the United States. In flavored bottled water, 13.5% of the global launches featured stevia.

Other natural sweeteners are being used in combination with sugar, stevia and/or other sweeteners such as erythritol, according to Innova, which mentioned honey, agave and monk fruit. In soft drinks, the United States accounted for 64% of global launches featuring monk fruit, more than 50% of the global launches featuring erythritol and more than 40% of the launches featuring agave in the 12 months ended in March.

Honest Fizz, Coca Cola Life, Blue Sky, sodas sweetened with stevia
Stevia is a key sweetener in several sodas, including Honest Fizz, Coca-Cola Life and Blue Sky Stevia Soda.

The focus on “clean label” formulations has worked against some non-caloric or low-calorie sweeteners and caused a backlash against some ingredients perceived to be “artificial,” according to Innova.

The International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2016 Food and Health Survey released on May 11 analyzed sweeteners as well. Greenwald & Associates conducted the on-line survey of 1,003 Americans ages 18 to 80 who were contacted March 17-24.

The IFIC survey, like the Innova report, found a rising interest in stevia. When asked what they were trying to consume, 9% in the 2016 IFIC survey said stevia, which was up from 5% in 2015 and 3% in 2014. However, when asked what they were trying to limit or avoid, 25% said stevia, which was up from 20% in 2015 and 16% in 2014.

Artificial low-calorie sweeteners did not fare well. When asked what they were trying to limit or avoid, 35% said sucralose, up from 25% in 2015, 42% said aspartame, up from 37%, and 28% said acesulfame potassium, up from 13%.

When asked whether their opinion of low-calorie sweeteners had changed over the past year, 33% said they considered them to be less healthful and 4% said more healthful. The percentages for natural sugars were 12% less healthful and 17% more healthful.