Mother Nature's liquid sweeteners are blooming in popularity
Attracted by the health halo surrounding honey and maple syrup, consumers have positively flocked to sweeteners over the past few years, according to market intelligence agency Mintel.
The honey segment grew by an impressive 57 percent (and its sales surpassed that of sugar substitutes) from 2011 to 2016, according to Mintel's December report, "Sugar and Sweeteners -- U.S." In the maple syrup segment, sales also rose by double digits -- 11 percent -- from 2014 to 2016.
The honey and syrup categories can thrive even more if retailers promote their suitability for diverse usages, the report suggests. For example, liquid sweeteners such as these dissolve easily in cold beverages like the ever-popular chilled coffees and teas.
Honey was the second most-used sweetener type after white granulated sugar, Mintel found in an Internet survey of 2,000 adults it conducted in September.
While 71 percent of consumers reported using white granulated sugar in the previous month, 59 percent used honey in the same period. Maple syrup was the fourth most-used sweetener, with 53 percent reporting they used it in the previous month.
Additionally, 75 percent of consumers indicated they believe honey is a healthy product.
Survey respondents said they used the sweeteners in hot drinks and cold drinks, and as a topping on prepared food and in recipes.
The United States imports about 70 percent of its honey, reports Gordon Marks, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based True Source Honey LLC, a not-for- profit organization that certifies the origin and quality of its client companies' honey and promotes pure, traceable honey in the marketplace.
A few years ago, honey was at the center of one of the largest food fraud cases in the United States. Despite federal crackdowns, millions of pounds of illegally sourced honey and honey of questionable quality entered the United States from China.
Because of this, retailers want an audited supply chain, says Greg Mohr, vice president of business growth for Bee Maid Honey Limited, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a member of the True Source Honey program.
"This is on trend with consumers wanting to know where their food comes from. Consumers are demanding more natural products and honey is on trend for use in cooking and sweetening," Mohr says.
Retailers are concerned about quality and are becoming more aware of issues such as illegal transshipments that have harmed the honey industry, says Chris Olney, vice president of sales and marketing for Honey Tree Inc. in Onsted, Mich., and also a member of the True Source Honey program.
"Many private labels now feature True Source Certification on their honey labels. This logo shows that honey has been honestly and ethically sourced," Olney says.
Product introductions featuring flavor and format variety in the honey category show that the segment is strong, according to Mintel.
Phil de Vooght, chief commercial officer for Natural American Foods in Onsted, Mich., agrees. Retailers are looking for ways to stand out in a crowded field of more than 536 honey brands, de Vooght says. "As a result, we're fielding more customer requests for unique and specialty honeys, such as mono-floral, raw and certified fair trade varieties," he reports.
"Although it hasn't translated to store brands yet, we're seeing some new offerings that add portability features to the honey category," de Vooght adds. "Brands like (Natural American Foods') Buzz + Bloom are now offering single-serve packets of certified organic and non-GMO honey that make it easy for consumers to carry honey in purses or backpacks."
Consistency, availability and variety are what retailers demand in their private brand maple syrup, says Bill Hill, USA director of sales and marketing for Great Northern Maple Products in Saint-Honor'-de-Shenley, Quebec.
As they do with branded product, retailers also require high-quality private brand maple syrups, Hill says. Attractive labels help convey that private brand product quality is at least as good as branded, he adds.
While more expensive to ship, glass packaging also continues to signify high-quality product, Hill notes. Great Northern Maple Products packs its most popular syrup sizes (8 ounces and 12 ounces) in glass and offers plastic jugs for larger sizes.
"As the category grows, I expect there will be multi-packs with two or three bottles, enabling new trial with new flavors," Hill says.
Great Northern Maple Products follows food and flavor trends and, consequently, now offers kombucha, maple-coconut, agave nectar and maple-agave organic syrups in private label, Hill adds.
Health and safety
The younger generation is boosting sales of organic and natural maple syrups, Hill notes. "They recognize the health benefits compared to table syrups that contain additives. They like it natural -- right from Mother Nature. Health is key to purchase decisions today and a main reason for the rise of organic/ natural maple syrup sales."
Overall, consumers are showing more interest in the origins and sourcing of their foods, de Vooght says. "Honey is uniquely able to capitalize on this trend because of the pollen that's present in honey in its natural state," he notes. "As such, we're seeing strong growth in sales of honeys that are raw or unfiltered, reflecting a lower degree of processing than has been the norm for the industry historically."
Desiring to know where your food comes from, whether sourced locally or from specific regions around the globe, is a trend, says Olney, who notes that concerns about residues in food, particularly sweeteners, have been increasing.
Consumer apprehensions about white sugar are contributing to positive interest and sales in the honey category, de Vooght adds.
"Our research indicates that although honey is composed of natural sugars, consumers perceive the product as more natural, wholesome and beneficial than traditional granulated sugar," he notes.
look for ways to make own-brand honey stand out in a crowded field.
Underestimate the importance of attractive labels on maple syrup to convey that private brand product quality is at least as good as branded.
Cvetan is a freelance writer based in Barrington, Ill.