Sugar: the next ingredient set to come under fire for its climate impact?

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/izv
GettyImages/izv

Related tags: Sugar, sugar alternative, Stevia, Sweeteners

Meat and dairy are regularly targeted for their environmental impact. In the UK, for example, the government’s Committee on Climate Change has recommended a 20% cut in meat and dairy by 2030, rising to 35% by 2050 for meat only. Sugar may be next, warns a report from AI data firm Spoonshot.

Sugarcane - the source of most of the world’s sugar - is the most produced food crop in the world, significantly more than even rice or wheat. And sugarcane yield has actually risen 15% over the last decade, although sugar crops have many uses outside of the food space, such as in making biofuels and bioplastics.

This has left an environmental mark, claims Spoonshot, which delivers food & beverage innovation intelligence by leveraging AI and food science.

Sugarcane and sugarbeet are both water- and land-intensive crops, its analysis notes. Spoonshot calculates that the global average water footprint of producing 1kg of refined sugar from sugarcane is about 1,782 litres of water, the equivalent of two years' worth of drinking water for one person. 1kg of sugar from sugar beet takes about 920 litres.

Meanwhile, the large tracts of land cleared to grow only sugar crops impacts local biodiversity, and the crops also require large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides when the soil's natural supply of nutrients run low. On top of the emissions during processing, the chemicals also pollute land and water bodies, including groundwater and drinking water supplies.

“The long and short of this is that sugar crops are increasingly becoming unviable in an era when environmental and climate issues are at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” ​the report said. “Sustainability has stopped being a nice-to-have buzzword and is increasingly becoming an important measurable metric for consumers. As a result, we’re seeing companies across food and drink sectors pledging to go carbon neutral or even carbon negative - where they sequester or remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit.”

Business interest in the carbon negative topic has increased by 63% in the last year, claimed the report.   

Opportunities for sugar alternatives

Revelations about sugar’s environmental impact could, however, open up opportunities for sugar alternatives.

“At some point, in the not-too-distant future, this scrutiny will turn to sugar manufacturers, giving sugar alternatives a real leg up in promoting their sustainability credentials,”​ the report wrote. “As ingredients used in the production of other foods, companies may look to them as a means to bring down their own carbon footprint, which in turn, can be communicated to consumers.”

That’s good news for the new types of sugars, sweeteners, and technologies that have emerged over the last couple of years, in response to growing calls to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet to improve the overall health of the population.

New solutions for sugar reduction include utilizing new ingredients to make sweeteners, new technologies to make extraction more efficient, and methods to trick the brain into thinking that a product is sweeter than it actually is.

Consumer and investor interest in this space is set to continue to grow. According to Spoonshot, consumers are less likely to be interested in artificial sweeteners due to the various health issues associated with them. Its deep dive into online conversations about sugar alternatives revealed consumers were more prone to highlight natural substitutes than artificial sweeteners. Stevia was the leading ingredient, accounting for 21% of conversations. Coconut sugar followed, accounting for 12% of conversations. Natural sweeteners were talked about in 9% of conversations.

“This preference for natural sweeteners is being played out in the various strategies seen as well, as companies and research are very specific about the base source of the sugar substitute, even if it is created in a lab,”​ noted the company. “Plant-based, clean label, and non-GMO claims are also common among these emerging sweeteners.”

But it added there’s no silver bullet. “Finding a single replacement for sugar that can perform all these functions while also being inexpensive has been nearly impossible,” ​it observed.

“What we expect to see in the space of sugar reduction/replacement in the coming years is a move away from looking for a single alternative ingredient. Instead, we’ll see greater acceptance of a combination of ingredients that will perform the functional and sensory roles of sugar. These combinations will likely also change depending on category and specific requirements.

"While this is likely to push up costs for manufacturers and maybe even prices for consumers, it is only a matter of time before more efficient processes emerge to increase production yield of these ingredients. We’re already seeing this happen for more prohibitively expensive ingredients with potential. Improved efficiency will definitely help bring down these costs in time.”

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