Must it be sweet?

Caffeine and sugar, once invariably paired are better seen as separate. Since customizing every cup is the cornerstone of customer service, shop owners should train staff to present sweetener alternates as readily as they do skim milk. Still, no one wants an “eat healthy” lecture at the counter and prominently posting the 250-calorie count of a typical smoothie cuts into sales. Eight ounces of coffee contains only two calories*, Adding two tablespoons of milk raises the count to 20 with a gram of fat. Add the 49 calories contained in a tablespoon of sugar then fill a 16 oz. mug and your regulars waddle away with at least 670 extra calories in a five-day week. Tall espresso drinks can triple that tally.
A new report released in July called “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011,” by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that obesity rates increased in 16 states over the past year and did not decline in any state. In 12 states, obese people make up 30 percent or more of the population. Four years ago, only one state was above 30 percent.
Here are strategies that enable customers to simply make better choices.

Sugar alternates

C Says SweetLeaf Stevia founder Jim May. “Parents who want the best for their children and themselves are reading labels like never before. Stevia makes it easy to adjust to certain lifestyle changes and retailers recognize this. We are a valuable partner in appealing to people who are interested in their health and who prefer natural products,” continues Jim May.
Stevia, the much-heralded zero-calorie sweetener derived from plants, has not yet lived up to the hype it received following FDA approval in 2008. Since then 157 foods and beverages made with stevia have been launched in the U.S. Baristas complain of slightly bitter aftertaste that May attributes to the use of chemical extraction. Wisdom Brands, which owns SweetLeaf, uses a patented water extraction.
Stevia and the growing number of stevia blends, enzyme-modified stevia and alternates such as agave, honey crystals and monk fruit attest to the continuing search for the sweet spot.
“SweetLeaf offers fourteen liquid flavors, several of which are particularly good in coffee,” says May. “In fact, you can make the world’s skinniest mocha using coffee, skim milk and SweetLeaf Liquid Stevia Chocolate drops. By adding a few drops, you sweeten and flavor coffee without adding calories, carbs or impacting blood sugar.”

Flavor without sweets

“Why is sweet the default carrier for flavor?” asks InBru founder Howard Lerner. Flavor can stand on its own, InBru is made from natural American rice hulls that are cut and sterilized and then infused with natural aromatics and essential oils. Baristas mix a scoop with ground coffee in the filter basket prior to brewing.”
Inbru eliminates the need for a separate grinder for flavored coffee and shops that feature a house blend can flavor it on the spot.
He suggests keeping the choice to sweeten open. A quick consult with the barista for those with dietary restrictions enables the shop to ration expensive alternates like the Erythritol sweeteners (Sun Crystals™) or Xylitol (SmartSweet®, Xylopure®) favored by diabetics.
Dennis Weldon created Louisville, Kentucky-based Weldon Flavorings in 12 flavors without sugar or synthetic sweeteners, fats, sodium, or carbs. They are non-allergenic, gluten-free and there are no artificial colors “just liquid flavoring so that customers can use the sweetener of their choice,” says Brenda Weldon, marketing director.

Smoothies are a special case

“Clearly the demand is growing for better-for-me products,” says Robyn Hawkins, CEO of Big Train, a Lake Forest, Calif.-based manufacturer of beverage mixes. “Selling products with a lower calorie count or glycemic index helps shop owners differentiate themselves while giving them the new products that their customers are searching for.”
“Big Train will continue to test and evaluate sugar alternatives,” says Hawkins describing mixes that include Agave, stevia, coconut sugar, sucralose, and others. “Some of our products like our low carb and no sugar added products include variations of sucralose, luo han guo, and aspartame, for example.”
Based upon customer demand, Big Train will soon launch a pour-over real fruit smoothie product that includes Agave, which has a much lower glycemic index without sacrificing the sweetness that highlights the characteristic fruit flavor, says Hawkins.
To boost the nutritional benefits its beverages the firm offers a line of sugar-free virtually flavorless supplements for added energy, vitamins and minerals.
“Adopting alternative sweeteners and offering creative additives are great ways to achieve differentiation, boost margins, and create some excitement, while giving customers what they want,” says Hawkins.

Syrup Evolves

“Retiring baby boomers are concerned with the issue of aging well; mothers are increasingly interested in healthier, more nutritious items for their children. Restaurants are responding to consumer demand by adding healthy foods and beverages,” says Ilaria Merizalde, marketing manager at Monin Gourmet Flavorings. “In response syrup offerings are evolving.”
Monin recently introduced a line of organic agave nectar that is low glycemic and about 25 percent sweeter than sugar but contains only 60 calories per fluid ounce (the equivalent of two tablespoons).
What sells syrup is taste, not stats. “It provides a pleasant, somewhat nutty taste with honey notes; in fact, in Spanish agave nectar it is often referred to as “miel de agave” – agave honey,” says Merizalde. The nectar dissolves easily in iced and hot drinks and is versatile, complimenting everything from tea and smoothies to Aguas Frescas and lemonades.

Pricing for premium

Coffee retailers must balance the higher unit costs of “green” sweeteners on the condiment table with the enthusiastic customer response for all-natural, low-calorie alternatives to sugar while syrup manufacturers turn to sweetener combinations that replace synthetics.
“The challenge in our industry is that alternate sweeteners can be much more expensive,” says Big Train’s Hawkins. “We are testing combinations of sweeteners that get to the desired outcome of more nutritional options that still taste great while minimizing manufacturing costs wherever possible. We feel that as the trend grows and the market accepts more options to sugar, supply and demand will drive down costs over time. In our surveys and research, we have found a good portion of our shop owner customers are willing to pay more for certain alternatives.”
“Premium sweeteners may have a higher cost per ounce but it is not advisable to charge more for their use at the self-serve counter as this may discourage users from trying them and adopting them into their lifestyle,” advises Merizalde. “Calculate the average cost of all purchased sweeteners and adjust price accordingly for all. Premium flavored syrups should be offered in the context of a premium beverage program. Advertise flavored, premium specialty beverages through POP to increase impulse sales,” she says.
Dan Bolton can be reached at

Suggested Reading