Hitting the sweet spot

May 3, 2018

Opportunities increase for natural sweeteners in snacks and dessert options, since they impart a range of flavors and offer an alternative to processed sugars.

Sweetener Infographic

Natural sweeteners are making a bigger splash on restaurant menus and in packaged snacks and dessert products as consumers seek dietary alternatives to processed sugars.

Honey, agave, maple syrup, dates and molasses have all seen double- or triple-digit growth in menu penetration during the last four years, according to Chicago-based research firm Datassential. Maple syrup and agave — the latter of which has been used more in beverage items — have been the biggest gainers in that time span, with increases of 106 percent and 101 percent, respectively.

Suzy Badaracco of research and consulting firm Culinary Tides, says she believes the sweeteners she calls “sweet browns” — honey, maple syrup, caramel and others — have comfort food qualities which she expects will give them staying power in the year ahead, as cited in her recent forecast report on 2018 culinary trends.

“The tones are a softer hit on the palate compared with refined sugar, which has a much higher-pitched voice,” she says.

Consumers, while seeking to cut back on sugar consumption overall, still crave indulgent treats and often will opt for natural sweeteners if they are available, Badaracco says.

Following are some examples of how natural sweeteners are impacting today's snack options and dessert menus.

1. Added flavors

Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston and author of “Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar,” says she primarily uses honey and maple syrup as natural sweeteners. Among the dishes she has created using these alternatives to processed sugars are:

  • • Maple-pear tarte Tatin
  • • Honey mixed-nut biscotti
  • • Raspberry frozen yogurt
  • • Lemon pistachio buttons
  • • Maple sticky toffee pudding cake

“The advantages are that they add immense flavor to whatever you are making,” Chang says. “Sugar has no actual flavor, whereas honey and maple both lend their characteristic warmth and richness and buttery tastes to whatever you add them to.”

They also have more nutritional value than plain, white sugar, she says, because they contain antioxidants and minerals.

Chang says she often starts with a one-to-one replacement of sugar with honey or maple syrup, and then adjusts her recipes from there through trial and error.

Recipes often need to be tweaked because of the added liquid, and these natural sweeteners can also make foods brown faster.

“The end product is often so flavorful that it's worth the time spent experimenting,” says Chang.

2. A taste of honey

The many different flavors that honey can acquire based on its origins can also be an asset in the kitchen.

Badaracco of Culinary Tides divides the trending honey varieties into three classifications — each of which can contain a range of flavor profiles:

  • • Rooftop
  • • Flower-specific
  • • Regional

These different varieties create opportunities for the creation of flavor variations in snacks, dessert products, and prepared dishes, says Christine Couvelier, global culinary trendologist at research and consulting firm Culinary Concierge.

“There are so many different honeys available right now that you could change up the flavor by changing up the honey,” she says.

Couvelier cites a Key West black mangrove blossom honey she recently enjoyed.
“It is deep, deep, deep coral-orange, and you can smell the flower blossom as soon as you open the lid,” she says. “If you put that into a cookie or a granola bar, that flavor would continue and it would be fabulous.”

3. Alternative natural sweeteners

Couvelier says she was impressed with a date syrup product she saw at the 2018 Winter Fancy Food Show, which she said could have applications as a sweetener in snacks or dessert products as well as in savory applications.

Date honey — also called date syrup, rub or silan — has long been used as a sweetener in Middle Eastern and Israeli cuisines in baked snacks and desserts and as a topping for vegetables or chicken. In Libya a traditional dish made using date syrup — where it is called rub — is asida, a boiled flour pudding often eaten during religious holidays.

In the United States date syrup has found its way into smoothie recipes as a natural sweetener packed with flavor.

In addition, Couvelier suggests that birch syrup — a more savory cousin of maple syrup — is worth looking into as an ingredient for certain applications.

“I would not put it on French toast or pancakes, but if I were roasting Brussels sprouts, I would drizzle some birch syrup on them,” she says. “I recently made a cocktail with bourbon and birch syrup, and it was amazing.”

Other potential applications she suggested include combining birch syrup with mustard to create a glaze for salmon, or putting it into a crème caramel for added savory notes.

4. New technologies

Consumers’ increasing awareness of added sugars in the foods they eat is leading to new technological advances with natural sweeteners, including products made from monk fruit and other sources, says Badaracco of Culinary Tides.

“The technologies which are coming are moving at a pretty good clip,” she says.

In addition, some products, such as beverages, have begun to appear containing hybrid sweeteners that combine both sugar and natural sweeteners.

Such products can address consumer demands for sweet flavor while helping to address health concerns, says Badaracco.