Will that be one stevia or two?

Stevia and other natural sweeteners are getting more space in grocery aisles

ADDICTIVE.” “TOXIC.” “Deadly.”

With plenty of nasty adjectives to describe sugar, many people are thinking twice about how much of it they eat.

“In the ’90s, it was all about ‘fat is bad,’ ”says Cristina Sutter, a Vancouver sports dietitian. But now sugar is getting a bad rap.

Partly it’s the media. A few months back, Maclean’s ran a cover story called “Death by Sugar,” and books such as Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease are bestsellers.

But health experts are weighing in as well.

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In September, the Heart and Stroke Foundation warned that Canadians are getting too many calories from added sugars, linking overconsumption to heart disease, obesity and other preventable ailments.

But Canadians aren’t willing to let their collective sweet teeth go unsatisfied. “They’re not necessarily eating fewer sweeteners overall. They’re looking for different or better choices,” says Sutter.

Consumers don’t have to look far. Not long after Ottawa approved stevia as an everyday ingredient in 2012, a small flood of stevia-sweetened products hit the market, along with tabletop sweeteners under brand names such as Truvia (developed by Cargill and Coca-Cola) and PureVia (developed by PepsiCo and Whole Earth Sweetener Company).

Other sweeteners are getting more shelf space, such as coconut palm sugar, xylitol, agave and monk fruit. Indeed, the recent Canadian Health Food Association show in Toronto was flooded with examples.

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Among the newest: a zero- calorie sweetener, made from the monk fruit melon, and available in a box of 40 one- gram packets. Its maker, Groupe Krisda, already sells stevia sweeteners.

But a company representative noted an important difference: monk fruit does not come with the unpleasant aftertaste of stevia. According to a Cargill survey done by Vision Critical a year ago, 67% of Canadians prefer a sweetener from a natural source. An April Packaged Facts survey of Americans found 41% have upped their use of agave over the past year or two and 28% use more honey.

Indeed, Canadians are buzzing about honey. Dollar sales are up 8%, according to Nielsen (see chart). Sugar, meanwhile, is down 4%, while sugar substitutes (natural and artificial) are up 3%.

It’s difficult to estimate how much of the rise in sugar substitutes comes from natural sweeteners such as stevia.

There is little data available to say one way or the other. Regardless, though, natural sweeteners still aren’t showing up in everyone’s shopping carts the way sugar still is.

One problem is familiarity. A report from research firm Mintel states that some natural sweeteners just aren’t well known, since many of the products are new to the market. There’s also confusion “related to consumer understanding of the products’ safety, largely due to the influence of the artificial products in the segment, which have historically experienced negative press,” the report says.

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“When consumers see a brand name they don’t recognize in this category, their automatic presumption is it’s another artificial sweetener,” says Kenneth Wong, marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “And that is the antithesis of what these products are.”

Katie Woolery, global marketing and communications manager at Truvia, says that since natural sweeteners are still new to Canada, advertising and publicity are needed to raise awareness and trial.

“Once consumers have tried Truvia calorie-free sweetener, they tend to repurchase,” she says. “It leads us to believe we can be successful for the long term.”

Julie Reid, director of sales at Xylitol Canada, believes natural sweeteners aren’t just for people who shop at health food stores. Xyla, the company’s brand name for xylitol, is now sold at retailers such as Loblaw’s, Costco and Save-On-Foods.

“We’ve seen substantial growth year to year. I think momentum is only going to build.”

Mintel says the natural sweetener segment should be ideally positioned for strong growth. It says advertising and education that highlight the benefits of each product are needed to turn the segment around.

“It’s going mainstream,” says Reid. “I just think it’s going to take time.”

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