Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the latest version of the country’s official dietary guidelines. Significant within the document was a call for Americans to limit their intake of added sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calorie intake.
Although most public health experts praised the government’s recommendations, some were concerned that the guidelines did not suggest better-for-you alternatives to cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup, each of which have low nutritional value and are the two most commonly used sweeteners in packaged food and beverages.
Natural alternatives account for just 1 percent of the global market for sweeteners, according to Lux Research, a Boston-based market research firm. However, whether out of concern for public health or simply because it’s a fit for their brand strategies, natural beverage companies are increasingly turning to alternative sweeteners for blending with innovative and healthy formulations. Here are four ingredients on the rise:
Maple syrup has a long history as a sweetener in beverages, ranging from colonial era switchel (an apple cider vinegar-based drink) to more recent, trendy juice blends designed for cleansing. While it’s still a very small part of the sweetener mix, the use of maple syrup is increasing, particularly among nut milk producers. Emerging brands including New Barn, Califia Farms, MALK and NuMoo prize maple syrup as ingredient that blends well with the consistency and flavor of almond milk.
Maple syrup is also employed as a sweetener by a handful of iced tea companies: Honest Tea uses it in the brand’s Assam Black Tea and AriZona formulates its “Oak Brewed” teas with maple syrup. Meanwhile, switchel is enjoying a minor renaissance, and producers like CideRoad are using maple syrup. Its fans say that it is a healthier sweetener, with more antioxidants and a lower glycemic index than cane sugar.
Notable in the rise of maple syrup is a recent boom in production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, maple syrup production rose by 6.3 percent in 2015, a year that saw the second largest crop on record. Observers of the maple syrup industry cite the rising demand for alternative natural sweeteners as contributing to the surge in output.
Although honey has long been employed as a flavoring in beverages, rising consumer faith in honey as a healthy sweetener has driven demand for the ingredient as an alternative to sugar. Beverage companies are finding new ways to formulate with honey and some are promoting the sweetener as laden with antioxidant and antibacterial properties, as well as a good source of vitamins and minerals.
The uptick in the use of honey is most apparent in new premium teas, including two varieties in Purity Organic’s recently launched “supertea” line and products in Jade Monk’s line of high pressure processed matcha drinks. Other beverage companies, including Honeydrop, a brand of cold-pressed juices and lemonades, are innovating by using both local and exotic varieties of the ingredient. Honeydrop labels each of its beverages with the name of the locale from where its honey is sourced, i.e. “Raw Texas Honey.”
Derived from the sap of coconut blossoms, coconut nectar is often promoted as healthier than other sweeteners because it is less processed and contains lower fructose content than agave nectar and maple syrup. It’s also a nutrient-laden ingredient that’s loaded with minerals, amino acids and vitamins.
Coconut nectar is increasingly in demand among organic beverage companies marketing healthy, innovative formulations and cutting edge ingredients. Temple Turmeric is one such company and describes the coconut nectar in its Tumeric Coconut Elixir as a low glycemic natural sweetener that, combined with other ingredients, enhances the absorption of curcumin, the active component in turmeric.
Meanwhile, REBBL, a brand of adaptogen-laden herbal elixirs and tonics, recently launched a pair of plant-based protein beverages that are sweetened with coconut nectar. REBBL co-founder Palo Hawken hailed the products as “completely free of the junk ingredients so typical of the category.” High pressure processed juice brand Daily Greens uses coconut nectar in the formulation of its hemp milk drinks, promoting the sweetener as “a good source of vitamins C, B1 and B2” and having “a low glycemic index of 35.”
Intensely sweet and antioxidant-rich, dates are, like maple syrup, finding favor as a sweetener among a number of nut milk and smoothie producers. Dried and finely ground into a powder, dates are sparingly infused into products like Forager’s cashew and almond blends as well as cold-brew coffee and almond milk, among other products. Dates are also the primary source of sweetness in Nutraw’s new “100% Raw” pistachio milk and NuMoo’s pecan milk and pistachio milk varieties.
Despite their effectiveness in nut milks, ground dates tend to clump when blended with liquid and cannot melt or dissolve in solution in the same way as other sweeteners. As such, it’s unclear how much runway the ingredient has for use in other beverage categories.