[Video] Icon Foods CEO discusses state of sweetener market, responds to studies on health concerns

By Ryan Daily

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sweeteners Stevia erythritol Aspartame Sugar substitute

As consumers increasingly demand low and no-sugar products, CPG brands are responding to food and beverage development with an array of natural and artificial non-nutritive sweeteners, which have been the focus of several health studies this year, Thom King, CEO and chief food scientist for sweetener company Icon Foods, discussed in a recent FoodNavigator-USA video interview.

Overall, the sweetener market is growing with increased demand for healthier beverages with fewer calories. The sweetener market was worth $108.6bn in 2022 and is expected to grow to $157.7bn by 2032, growing at a 3.8% CAGR between 2022-2032, according to Future Market Insights​.

The demand for low-calorie sweeteners is also being supported by governments globally looking to reduce sugar consumption or putting front-of-pack claims about added sugar, King said. While the US is behind Europe, the UK, and Mexico in regulating sugar consumption, several recent developments from the USDA and FDA offer encouraging first steps to reducing sugar consumption in the US, he added.

When you look at the USDA and their stance on added sugars and the School Lunch Program, that's significant because it's never really been done before. And then when you also look at the proposed guidelines and the FDA having front-of-pack label calling out added sugars, I think that...big CPGs [are] starting to see that...less sugar is a thing.​”

Sweeteners face increased scrutiny

At the same time that government agencies are promoting a lower sugar diet, many natural and artificial sweeteners from aspartame and erythritol are being researched for their possible health impacts. Earlier this year, a study found those who had higher levels of erythritol in their blood had an increased risk of having a cardiac arrest within three years​, and the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared aspartame a possible carcinogen​. 

We probably move more erythritol than any other company. And so, when that article came out, ... I was pretty alarmed [and thought] ‘Oh, this is the end.’​”

While acknowledging he had “a huge amount of respect for​” the Cleveland Clinic that conducted the study on erythritol, King consulted experts in the medical field and scientists for their thoughts on the study and if it was conflating causation with correlation.

Upon review, he found that the “people who were involved in the study, most of them were men over 60 years old that had a prior cardiac event,​” he said. And when the body experiences a cardiac event or is under metabolic distress, the “body produces erythritol endogenously,​” he added.

Aspartame is “a little bit of a different story because aspartame doesn't naturally occur in the body,​” and for people who have “the inability to metabolize phenylalanine​” it can lead to health complications like seizures and brain damage, King said. While aspartame doesn’t contain any calories, it also doesn’t do anything for metabolic health, he added.

The brain actually triggers a response that's similar to sugar, so you will get an insulin spike after having aspartame, and I know this as fact because I wear a continual glucose monitor because I want to test everything that I formulate.  If I have aspartame, if I have sucralose, it always spikes my blood sugar levels. You get the benefit of calorie abatement, but you don't get any metabolic benefit from it.​”

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