Stevia: Will It Ever Replace Sugar?

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Stevia’s Sweet Struggle (and Why It Probably Won’t Replace Sugar)

steviaStevia manufacturers probably thought they hit a sweet spot in the sugar market: A natural sugar substitute that has zero calories, yet is 200 times sweeter than sugar sounds like a solution to organic eaters and serial dieters alike. But though stevia products sell well, they haven’t caught up to sugar sales–and it’s unlikely that they will. A report by Future Market Insights predicts that stevia will make 15 percent of the sweetener market by 2020. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not the results that an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener should have.

Could stevia’s struggle be in the demographics? What we know about sweetener and the way people buy and use sugar gives a glimpse into why stevia isn’t as popular as it should be (and why sugar will remain everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure).

Fickle Food Consumers

The most important thing to understand about food consumers is that they’re extremely conservative. Think about the last time you went grocery shopping: What percentage of your shopping cart was made up of tried-and-true products, and how many were new foods that you’ve never tried? Unless you’re extremely adventurous, your cart contains products that you’ve consumed for years–maybe as far back as your childhood.

In short, food consumers don’t like trying new things. And stevia–for all intents and purposes–is a new thing. Consumers who purchase bags of sugar for their homes have been doing so for generations, and that’s a hard habit to break. In fact, only 62 percent of Americans are even aware that stevia exists; 100 percent know that sugar is a time-tested sweetener, for better or for worse.

Lack of Regulation

Stevia manufacturers have a real opportunity to market and sell their products in the “organic” and “all-natural” space. Health-conscious shoppers who want a more natural diet are more likely to purchase alternative products. The caveat? The term “natural” isn’t regulated in the United States, and only a handful of stevia-based products have been certified as organic.

Most stevia-based products still add preservatives to ensure a longer shelf life, which can deter those who are truly looking for an organic option. The stevia leaf is all-natural, but most packaged products contain things like erythritol and/or dextrose.

Cost and Consumer Education

The average sugar buyer isn’t checking health news sites and reading up on the latest health benefits of stevia. Therefore, stevia manufacturers have an uphill battle when it comes to consumer education. Most consumers will first experience stevia when they come across it in the grocery style. At first glance, the product can be cost-prohibitive and loath to stack up against larger bags of cheaper sugar. Soylent is facing similar marketing issues.

Without proper consumer education, it’s hard to convince buyers to spend more on a smaller volume to replace a product that already works well. Marketing efforts should center around targeting the right type of consumer (those who want a healthier lifestyle) and educating them on the benefits of a product like stevia (natural, no-calorie, and sweeter than sugar).

It’s unlikely that stevia will ever be able to usurp the position currently held by sugar (153 million metric tons of sugar are sold each year). Still, if stevia manufacturers are able to create the ideal customer profile and combine that profile with excellent consumer education, stevia can replace sugar in some scenarios. As stevia hits the mainstream, a candy-coated reputation will go a long way in inspiring consumers to ditch the sugar and perhaps experience a sweet surprise.

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