Almost two thirds of Americans are concerned about the safety of artificial sweeteners, a factor that could potentially impact the expected continued growth of the sugar-free market, according to a new Mintel report.
Published last month, the report suggests that there remains a market opportunity for what could be considered the 'safest' sweetener.
"While the sugar-free market is expanding, there is concern and confusion among some medical professionals and consumers as to the safety of these products. The public is confronted with an array of facts and statistics that elevate health concerns and raise the issue of whether sugar-free is worth the potential risk," said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior analyst for Mintel.
However, although 64 percent of Americans claim they are concerned about the safety of artificial sweeteners, so far sales do not appear to have been negatively affected.
"The uncertainty is not stopping people from using sugar-free products, but as far as consumers are concerned, moderation is key once they have chosen the substitute they feel is safest," said Mogelonsky.
"The majority of consumers believe that some artificial sweeteners are safer than others, giving producers the chance to win customers' trust by focusing on their safety," she added.
The market for sugar-free foods and beverages in the US was last year valued at $5.9bn, a slight but steady growth totaling 24 percent since 1999.
According to the report, the biggest factors for purchasing sugar-free goods are diabetes and weight management. Around 6 percent of the US population currently suffers form diabetes, while almost 60 percent were classed as overweight in 2002.
And consuming artificially sweetened products is one way to satisfy consumer desire to make small changes in daily eating habits to lose weight and improve health, said Mintel.
Indeed, taste remains a secondary priority when it comes to purchasing decisions in this category. According to the market researcher, consumers do not buy sugar-free goods for what they taste like, but for what they almost taste like.
Some 80 percent of Mintel's survey respondents feel that foods made with sugar actually taste better than sugar-free products. But together with safety concerns, taste remains an area of perceived sacrifice, said Mintel.
But one area of concern remains satiation.
"While sugar-free foods are often used by diabetics unable to process sugars, the category is also a staple for many dieters. However, some studies suggest that sugar-free products do not satiate a person's appetite, which could mean that sugar-free food and drinks are actually a liability to dieters," said the report.
Indeed, the best-selling book French Women Don't Get Fat, rails against processed foods (including foods containing artificial sweeteners) and preaches the importance of satiating cravings with small portions of the real thing.
According to Mintel, the future will likely bring research investigating the theory of 'sweetness threshold' and other research results demonstrating the importance of perceived satiety among dieters as a key to diet success.
"The sugar-free industry should be ready to face these challenges," it said.
Currently, the sugar-free market in the US is headed by sugar-free soda, with Coke and Pepsi alone accounting for 65.2 percent of the total market. Sugar-free soda currently sells around $4,594m at retail per year (excluding Wal-Mart sales), while the sugar-free gum market stands at $642m.
The artificially-sweetened dessert market saw $242m in sales in 2004, which is actually a decline of 4 percent in constant terms since 1999.
"It is likely that weight watchers would rather splurge on a smaller version of the real thing when it comes to dessert, as opposed to eating a sugar substitute version," said Mintel.
Women remain an area of opportunity for sugar-free goods, according to the report, as this category of the population has the highest calorie consciousness. Indeed, around 40 percent of female consumers reported using sugar-free gum or mints while dieting, in order to avoid snacking.
Oral care also presents an ongoing opportunity, especially when it comes to marketing sugar-free gum products that target different oral care needs at different times of the day, said the report.
According to Mintel, the sugar-free market is forecast to grow 12 percent to reach $7.4bn by 2009. It added, however, that unforeseen concerns about the safety of artificial sweeteners and new product innovations could shift the forecast.
Mintel also published a report in January this year on the sugar and artificial sweetener market in the UK.