Focus on: Sweeteners

The sweetener category is an evolving one. Classics like sugar and honey have long been staples in restaurant kitchens, but more recent additions include agave nectar and a range of sugar substitutes. While honey is getting attention for its local sourcing aura and the many varietals produced, and agave nectar has gained popularity for its novelty and natural pedigree, sugar substitutes—or zero calorie sweeteners—are becoming an ever-expanding purchase for restaurants. The boom in coffee chains and the importance of hot and cold beverages on all menus adds up to more foodservice usage of these products.

The leading zero calorie sweeteners are based on one of four primary substances—aspartame, sucralose, saccharin or stevia—and packages are color-coded to make them easy to identify: blue, yellow, pink and green respectively. Sweetening coffee and tea, both hot and iced, are the major end uses. “It’s a question of personal taste as to why customers prefer one over the other,” says Bill Buehner, director of foodservice for Merisant, the supplier of two major brands—Equal and PureVia. Until recently, only the “blue” aspartame sweetener was under the Equal brand, but now Merisant markets “yellow” sucralose and “pink” saccharin with the Equal name as well. All-natural “green” stevia has the PureVia brand name. “The appearance and sweetening power of all four products is very similar,” Buehner adds.

“The blue, pink and yellow segments are all mature,” says J.J. Betts, brand director of Merisant. “Green is where the growth is happening now. The natural stevia sweetener seems to be taking customers away from yellow and bringing in people who normally use sugar.” While PureVia is more expensive than the other zero-calorie sweeteners, bundling all the colors together under the Equal umbrella will provide buyers with greater efficiencies and better pricing and shipping costs, he adds. Since the custom is for operators to give away free packets of sweetener to customers, cost savings are welcome.

Typically, zero calorie sweeteners are sold in individual packets or “sachets” packed 2,000 to a case. Every sachet contains a 1 gram serving—the sweetening power of 2 teaspoons of sugar. Although typically used in the front-of-the-house at service, operators are now looking at the sweeteners for back-of-the-house applications. “They’re especially interested in PureVia as an ingredient and Merisant is working with customers to develop menu items such as muffins and smoothies,” Buehner reports. In step with that trend, Pure Via is about to launch a 1-pound bulk package; it will also be available in 25-pound drums. The Equal sweeteners are all sold in bulk as well.