Growing restaurant beverage trend demands brands rethink sweeteners

| by S.A. Whitehead
Growing restaurant beverage trend demands brands rethink sweeteners

Like an increasing number of diners, I also love beverages — and not necessarily boozy ones. In fact, a nice iced vanilla chai tea is often as much a pleasure to me as the meal accompanying it. That's why I am so heartened by the restaurant industry's increasing focus on both beverage innovation and variation. 

It's also why I remain baffled that so many restaurant brands still insist on only offering gals like me super-caloric sugar-sweetened beverages or those that are artificially sweetened. This is particularly hard to comprehend in a day when that metaphorical "cup" runs over with low-calorie, naturally derived sweetener options today sourced from plants like stevia and agave.

Likewise, at most brands even IF you can find an unsweetened drink, I dare you then to also find anything but those ubiquitous packets, colored white for regular table sugar, yellow for the sucralose (artificial), pink for saccharin (artificial) and blue for aspartame (artificial). And this is also the case even at restaurant brands that flaunt their "healthful" offerings and "natural" ingredient sources. 

Culinary nutritionist and Chef Diane Hendericks is also baffled. In fact, at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago last month, she hosted a number of "hands-on" drink preparation classes using a new stevia product, known as Splenda Naturals, one of several stevia-based sweetener brands available. Splenda also makes the aforementioned yellow-packet sweetener, sucralose, but its entree into the stevia game is a sign of the increasing popularity of these more naturally derived sweeteners. 

"I am always looking for that balance between overall health and eating well and my passion is to teach how to eat well without sacrificing flavor and one important component of that is sweetener," she said in an interview at the show.

"Stevia is a great sweetener. ... You can even grow it in your back yard and just drop the leaves into your drinks and that's why -- particularly with recipe development one of my fortes —when I have anything that needs sweetener and  I don't want to add a ton of sugar, stevia is a wonderful alternative. That's particularly true now with these two trends of using natural ingredients and cutting sugar so big for consumers, especially with younger generations."

In fact, Henderiks said more than 41 percent of the current alternative sweetener market is now made up of stevia-based sweeteners, which are intensely sweet and lower in calorie than garden-variety table sugar. As Hendericks sees it there are numerous reasons for restaurant brands to either use natural sweeteners in restaurant beverages or offer unsweetened drinks, with a choice of artificial and natural sweeteners.

She said some of those reasons include: 
•    Through 2019, all-natural and natural ingredients top consumers' food wishlist. 
•    51 percent of consumers think healthful diets are low in sugar. 
•    The average American uses more than 13 percent of his/her daily calories in sugar, but it should be under 10 percent. 
•    The use of stevia in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the last 10 years, with the overall natural sweetener marketing growing 10 percent each year and low-calorie count the primary consumer demand. 

Exotic healthful low-calorie beverages: A 'natural' for QSRs today

And with good cause, since the calories in all those wonderful sugar-laden drinks we all love are hefty. For instance, Henderiks said some of the world's most cherished cocktails, like margaritas and Moscow mules, run around 400 calories a piece before you even start adding the 100-calorie-an-ounce alcohol. 

But most liquor licenseless limited-service brands would be dealing largely in non-alcoholic drinks, and that's where the beauty of natural low-calorie sweeteners, like stevia, really shine for a restaurant industry newly smitten with more exotic liquid concoctions to drive sales. 

For instance, the two previously mentioned creations — the margarita and Moscow mule — make fine drinks without the booze, which — when sweetened with stevia — would rack up just 10-to 25 calories, saving the consumer 321 calories.  

"It's great for people like me who'd rather not have the extra sugar," she said. "So for restaurateurs, I recommend putting packets on a service bar and then letting people add the stevia as they want it. 

"If you add it (to drinks before giving them to diners), your diners won't even notice there's not any sugar in it, either. But adding these kinds of really creative beverages are helping to lead to higher restaurant checks."

Additionally, Henderiks said for QSR brands, adding exotic drinks like those concocted with liquor is a nice option for diners and can be as easy as an LTO promotion. As fodder for restaurateurs' own creative thinking around this potable subject, Henderiks provided a few examples. 

For instance, summer is a great time to add a refresher like an alcohol-free version of an Arnold Palmer, which she dubs the Orange Palmer. It has freshly brewed tea, a little lemon juice, orange juice and stevia or other natural sweetener. 

Likewise, she said the most well-received drink she's ever concocted is a variation on that Moscow mule, called the watermelon mule, using fresh grated ginger, club soda and stevia muddled with watermelon and lime juice 10-calorie concoction.

She also suggested that smoothies made with these types of sweeteners hold amazing potential for quick-service brands now with the huge popularity of these concoctions. But Henderiks said many consumers don't partake in the traditional renditions of smoothies if they either have added sugar or are unsweetened. In these cases, natural sweeteners give diners the best of both worlds. 

"They're lean and green and the demand is really on the rise right now for green smoothies and without some sweetener those won't go over big for a lot of people. So I love to blend almond milk, spinach,, some apple, avocado, cinnamon and Splenda Naturals for those," Splenda Naturals are that brand's new stevia-based sweetener which Henderiks appearance at the show was sponsored by. 

There is one final bit of information that Henderiks passed on regarding stevia that provides restaurateurs with an idea of just how much consumers currently use these types of naturally based sweeteners: Stevia-based sweeteners account for 40 percent of the low-calorie sweetener market with projections aiming straight up in the years to come. It is a clear indication to restaurateurs that this is an option many diners will embrace.

Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Food Safety, Health & Nutrition, Hot Products

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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