Sugar has been a major topic of 2016, with within the food industry and in the mainstream media. From the revelation that sugar industries previously paid researchers to downplay the role of sugar in diet-related illnesses, to the introduction of sugar tax, 2016 has been the year of the sugar dispute. As the past year has revealed just how detrimental this substance is to our health, the question remains as to how the industry will respond in 2017.
A recent study by Mintel of the top seven trends likely to shape European consumers’ spending in 2017 was dominated by findings that healthy alternatives to sweetening food will be a major priority for the food and drink industry in 2017. They found that the bad press attributed to sugar is already impacting consumer behaviour across Europe, with 63 per cent of Polish and Spanish customers, plus 60 per cent of Italians, 55 per cent of French, 54 per cent of Germans and 53 per cent of UK citizens saying they are now actively reducing their consumption of sugary food and drink.
With high-sugar carbonated drinks and from-concentrate fruit juices being one of the major sources of free sugars in the modern diet, altering our drinking habits may be more of a priority than monitoring our sugar through food intake. But besides the simple intention to reduce sugar intake, how exactly are consumers and industry players to achieve this in 2017? He we break down the top five trends for low-sugar drinks in 2017 to find out.
Hyper-functional health beverages
Unsurprisingly considering the shocking exposés of 2016 pertaining to sugar, 2017 is set to be a year focussed on health and nutrition. According to Well and Good, the sphere can get set to “forget sugary, vitamin-dusted waters — new hyper-functional, ultra-healthy, virtually medicinal beverages are about to flood the market.”
They continue, “Whether you’re in need of an energy boost, focusing your thoughts, or quality shut-eye, there’s a drink for that—no specialty store required.” Packed full of nutritional fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices to target any number of ailments. For example, turmeric may be used to counteract allergic symptoms as it is an anti-inflammatory, and winter smoothies may be promoted containing ingredients such as lemon (anti-septic), honey (soothing for coughs) and ginger (anti-nausea). Other ingredients are likely to be included as immune-system boosters all year-round, from Echinacea to spinach.
Mintel’s global food and drink analyst, Jenny Zegler, predicts that calming properties will also be prominent in food and drink in 2017. According to Big Hospitality, she cites herbs such as chamomile and lavender proliferating from teas into other products. Soft drinks, smoothies and infused health waters are likely avenues for this trend, where calming drinks will appeal to the busy professional who is looking for a nourishing beverage that will also prevent stress.
Fruit and botanicals for nutrition
Importantly, Zegler asserts that the health-conscious focus in the majority of consumers is not likely to shift in the foreseeable future. She foresees one way of producers catering to this consciousness being an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and botanicals in food and drink. Although sugar is now regarded as an unappealing substance, Food Manufacture, report that Mintel’s analysis found that products based on milk or fruit will not be impacted by these perceptions, making them more appealing to consumers both at home and in the restaurant.
Food Business News explain that it is not sugar per se that is problematic for consumers, but rather artificial sugars. “Interest in naturalness and clean label continues to feature strongly,” Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights, told them. “It has become somewhat of a running theme through our trends forecasts in recent years.” Thus we can expect to see no-added-sugar fruit-based drinks to grow this year, with new players entering the industry with alternatives that are altogether more wholesome and natural than the smoothies and juices currently on the market.
Fresh flavour combinations
2016 has seen a wave of interest in unusual drinks such as matcha tea, and this experimentation among consumers and drinks outlets is not set to cease any time soon. The Guardian suggests that unusual flavour combinations will be a mainstay of the 2017 food and drinks spheres alike:
“Healthy chia seeds and grains (including ready-prepared grain bags), coconut flour, cactus water – a berry-tasting low-sugar alternative to fruit juice, seaweed and a “veggan” diet (vegan but including eggs) all emerged as top food trends of 2016.” They predict that these trends will be followed in 2017, with both unusual new ingredients and somewhat forgotten flavours being championed by consumers. Cold-pressed watermelon juice, for example, is likely to be popular following the celebrity endorsement of Beyoncé, who recently bought a stake in the WTRMLN WTR brand.
As Waitrose tells the Guardian, “vegetable yoghurts flavoured with carrot, beetroot, sweet potato and tomato are also expected to be a big new seller.” This may also cross into the drinks industry, with the already-notable presence of vegetable-based juices growing, with more unusual combinations to be expected. London’s Cafe Royal has recently teamed up with Givenchy to create 10 fragrance-led cocktails that have garnered significant press attention, creating a phenomenon of ‘perfumed’ beverages that Waitrose predicts will catch on in the UK next year. All of these ingredients offer sweetness and distinctive flavour that allows drinks manufacturers to forego added sugars, in-keeping with the demand for low sugar options.
According to Prepared Foods, natural sugars are set to become increasingly popular alternatives in 2017, both in the home and in drinks purchased at bars, cafes and in shops. They report that a recent survey found 93 per cent of consumers consider honey a natural sweetener. Although this survey was commissioned by The National Honey Board, it was successful in measuring consumer perceptions of honey as a sweetener in a variety of packaged foods, including yogurt and beverages. Although these findings may appear biased due to their source, various bloggers, experts and consumers have touted the superior health benefits of natural sugars such as honey and agave syrup throughout 2016, and this is likely to spread beyond cooking and baking into the drinks industry in 2017.
Senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, Katya Witham, specialises in the German market, and comments that here, too, less processed and more natural forms of sugar such as honey, agave syrup, and maple syrup are perceived as healthier, making them important for food and drink products that have to juggle expectations of health and indulgence, such as smoothies and snack bars. The health factor of such alternatives is balanced by their flavour appeal, making them ingredients with longevity of appeal, rather than being a passing health fad.
Transparency with ingredients
As well as seeking an active reduction in sugar throughout 2017, the packaging and rhetoric surrounding of the soft drinks industry is expected to see shifts in the New Year – at least for those brands who have enough foresight to adapt to the low sugar trend. Innova Market Insights sees demand for transparency in ingredients permeating throughout the food and beverage supply chain. According to Food Business News, next year we can expect that shorter and more comprehensive ingredients lists may no longer be enough for health-conscious consumers.
Consumers want to know not only what is in their drinks, they also want to know the exact quantities, where ingredients were sourced, and how they have been treated. Food Business News claim that trending supply chain claims now include “environmentally friendly,” with a compound annual growth rate of 72% from 2011-2015, and “animal welfare,” which has grown 45% over the same period. Evidently, brands must not only serve their customers’ personal health, but must also prove an all-round ethical integrity to appeal to the 2017 consumer, who is more aware than ever of the problematic effects of non-sustainable trading.
With these dominant five low-sugar drinks trends of 2017 comprising health benefits, botanical ingredients, fresh flavour combinations, natural sweetening alternatives, and brand transparency, it is clear that in 2017, beverage brands must become increasingly responsive to consumers’ growing consciousness of health and ethical issues. All the while, with personalisation remaining a key pull, industry players must maintain the range of choice available to consumers in order to create a dynamic and adaptive presence that can sustain this vibrant industry.