Will This New Sugar Substitute Help Truvia Win the Sweetener Wars?

Honey-based offering launches as stevia gains ground on competitors

Stevia-based sweetener Truvia fired a new salvo in the sweetener wars this week when it launched Truvia Nectar, the first reduced-calorie honey blend.

Over the past few decades, brands in the crowded sweetener category have invested countless marketing dollars trying to stand out in the space. Truvia hopes to do so by emphasizing its all-natural ingredients and capitalizing on honey's buzz (pun intended) in the food space with its new product.

"People are looking for cleaner ingredients: natural products wherever they can find them, and foods they can feel good about. When you look at the sweetener market, everything from sugar to honey to zero-calorie sweeteners, honey is the one that rises to the top. It's popular because people are looking for more natural products, and they're looking to reduce sugar from their diets," said Brian Nau, global Truvia brand leader at Cargill, Truvia's parent company.

Old-school sweeteners like Sweet N'Low and Equal are made with saccharin and aspartame, respectively, and Splenda, which launched in 1999, is made with sucralose. Truvia is a natural sweetener, made with leaves from the stevia plant and sugar alcohols. While artificial sweeteners have been linked to cancer in the past, there's actually no scientific evidence that they cause cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. 

Nonetheless, that perception still lingers for some, and research shows that consumers are eschewing aspartame-based sweeteners in favor of more natural alternatives. The market for stevia-based sweeteners, like Truvia, is expected to grow to $275 million by 2017, up from $110 million in 2013, while aspartame-based sweeteners' market share has declined over the past five years, according to Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research.

Truvia has used its natural ingredients as part of its marketing platform since the brand launched nine years ago. The brand has also focused on launching new products, such as a baking blend, which has real sugar in it but fewer calories than sugar, and a brown sugar blend. "We stay ahead of the competition through innovation," Nau said. "We continue to bring new innovations to the market, and new reasons for people to try Truvia. Truvia Nectar is one of them."

It's innovation, not the all-natural peg, which will help sweetener brands succeed in the long run, according to Brian Wansink, professor and director of Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design.

"Sweeteners are trying to differentiate themselves by not having any alleged side effects, but you can't really say that stevia makes you healthy any more than you can say that aspartame gives you cancer," he said. "For sweeteners, anything that gives a new product buzz is something that marketers are looking for. It's not much different than what other food brands do in crowded categories. What Truvia is doing is trying to make a boring category exciting again."

For now, Truvia Nectar is being marketed primarily through social media, and the company will launch advertising campaigns in the fall as it builds distribution across the country.