Ben Eastick Written by Ben Eastick

Why artificial sweeteners can cost more in the long run

Many food and beverage manufacturers choose artificial sweeteners because they are perceived to be cheaper than pure sugar products. However, when examined in more detail, this perception may not be true, particularly considering the trade-offs manufacturers make by choosing the artificial sweetener option. In the long term, are artificial sweeteners really cost-effective?

Artificial sweeteners – are they only cheaper at face value?

Multiple factors determine why artificial sweeteners can be less expensive than pure sugars, including:

1. These artificial products use chemicals and additives to replace the natural sugar flavour that comes from the necessary investment into the resources and natural, seasonal processes that go into growing sugar beet or cane.
2. During the import/export process, artificial sweeteners do not face the same tariffs as pure sugars. When viewed in purely financial terms, without considering utility and quality, artificial sweeteners are perceived to be the best solution.
3. Some governments subsidise processed and artificial foods. For example, in 2010 the US government spent close to $300 billion supporting the production of cheap, processed foods derived from corn and soy. This choice may drive down costs for manufacturers and consumers, but it may also sacrifice health benefits and quality.

Using pure sugars in recipes provides many more benefits beyond natural and authentic sweetness, such as preservative and humectant qualities and improving the texture and mouthfeel of products. Artificial sweeteners do deliver sweetness and bulking benefits, but not the other far-reaching functional benefits. These include:

• flavour
• colour
• viscosity
• mouthfeel
• moisture retention/control
• lowering freezing point
• slowing protein coagulation
• increasing start gelatinisation temperature
• helping to incorporate air

To replace these natural functional benefits of pure sugars, additional alternative preservatives and additives are required. So, several different artificial ingredients would need to be added to a recipe to perform each of the jobs that natural sugar achieves in one.

Clearly, buyers must consider that cost-benefit equation, choosing to pay more for the quality and functions of sugar or to pay the cumulative price of artificial sweeteners that comes from buying and using additives and preservatives, rather than relying on the functional properties of sugar, which are difficult to replicate. This debate goes far beyond purely financial costs and requires an understanding of all aspects of ingredient choice.

Taste differences and the true cost of inferior products

The initial attraction of replacing natural pure sugars with artificial sweeteners because they are perceived to be low cost is countered by the impact on the end product. The first and possibly most significant effect is the taste. It has been proved that artificial sweeteners cannot perfectly replicate sugar’s natural flavour.

Alongside cost, taste is how consumers judge food products. Brand marketing and promotion might drive initial sales, but if the taste isn’t right, consumer satisfaction and confidence will fall and so will sales. This is particularly true if products have previously used pure sugar products and then switch to artificial sweeteners. A reformulated product that loses quality will lose existing customers, especially as most food and beverage markets are so saturated with product options that consumers can easily find more flavoursome, natural alternatives.

A notable example of this was the angry backlash that Lucozade received when it changed its formulation from pure sugar syrups to artificial sweeteners – thousands of consumers even signed a petition to bring back the old recipe.

Bottles of a well known brand of energy drink - Lucozade - on a supermarket store shelf

Thousands of consumers petitioned for the return of the previous Lucozade formulation after sugar was swapped for artificial sweeteners.

There are also consumers who when confronted with a cheaper product will ask why it is so cheap. The rise of the ethical consumer means customers are increasingly questioning the source, ethics and health of the contents of their shopping basket. In the UK alone, ethical spending and finance reached a record high of £98 billion in 2019, with the numbers of people planning to shop Fairtrade rising by 13% in the last year. The development of higher quality products generates long-term consumer trust and loyalty, which in turn increases sales and brand value.

Investment in superior products creates opportunities

An investment in pure sugar ingredients is an investment in a higher quality product, meaning a more positive reception and improved product performance. There are many examples of recent food product launches that demonstrate an investment in quality ingredients with transparent supply chains and sustainability standards which are drawing support from the consumer markets they target.

The pandemic has also accelerated this trend as consumers have spent more time considering the origins of their food, as well as delivery disruptions leaving market gaps to be filled by strong, quality and in some cases challenger brands. While there will always be a place for formulations that meet the needs of budget-conscious consumers, there is a growing segment increasingly willing to pay more for quality food.

Interested ethical consumer couple reading product label on jar while choosing groceries in supermarket

Trends show consumers are increasingly considering the cost, origin and ethics of their food.

Choosing artificial sweeteners because they represent perceived cheaper primary product input costs may be a false economy, as over the product lifecycle this decision may ultimately cost the business in falling sales and loss of brand value.

The health costs of cheaper products

In addition to the impact on taste and function of choosing artificial sweeteners, there may be negative health impacts. Natural sugars are an essential part of a human diet, but artificial sweeteners are not. Indeed, pure sugar is extracted from cane and beet plants, whereas most sweeteners are produced artificially to create sweetness.

What impact can this have on our health? Well, reformulating end products with synthetic sweeteners that include soluble fibres and dextrins, such as polydextrose, mean reduced sugar but can result in higher calorie content than the original product. Whereas other manmade alternatives, such as HFCS, have high calorific content and yet offer none of the nutrients and fibre in pure sugars.

Furthermore, those sweeteners that are high in fructose can lead to increased food consumption. This is because fructose suppresses the action of the hormone, leptin, which tells your brain when you are full. In other words, your brain lets you consume it without a limit. Moreover, fructose easily converts to fat which is harder to convert back into energy and can exacerbate health problems or cause new ones when too much builds up in the body.

In the case of Lucozade, there were also unintended and unforeseen consequences to the reformulation of its product. Lucozade had previously been popular for treating diabetes-related hypoglycaemia, offering the recommended amount of sugar to boost blood sugar levels in 100ml of the drink. The reformulation not only changed the taste but also meant that the product, which had previously been recommended by health care professionals as a quick and convenient treatment, lost some of its convalescent appeal.

Woman in lab measuring, weighing and testing the health effects of sweetened beverages.

Reformulating end products using manmade sweeteners can have an adverse health impact.  

Artificial food products may have other side effects that are not immediately obvious but can seriously impact our health. Research suggests that artificial sweeteners can overstimulate the sugar receptors in our bodies, making them less receptive to natural sugars and even making perfectly normal foods like vegetables or bread, taste unpalatable. By limiting the sensitivity to complex tastes, the human body may reject other food and instead crave more of these non-nutritive sweeteners and additional sources of calories.

Consider ingredient choice holistically

It is important that food and beverage products remain commercially viable to maintain business investment into new products and offer a wide range of consumer options, including affordable ones. However, choosing low-cost artificial products may not be the long-term sustainable solution. When selecting sweeteners, considering the options in the context of the whole product lifecycle can highlight the hidden costs and impacts. This means artificial ingredients perceived to be cheap can actually become more expensive.

Ragus has manufactured pure sugars and syrups for over 90 years. Contact the customer services team on +44 (0)1753 575353 or enquiries@ragus.co.uk to discuss your product requirements or arrange a sample. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.