If fat was the dietary enemy in the 80s and 90s, sugar is certainly the modern scourge and many people are now trying to reduce their sugar intake, either because they want to or because they need to - type II diabetes now effects nearly 1 in 10 Americans1.
Sugar substitutes have existed for a surprisingly long time. While honey is arguably the first natural sweetener, the Romans are known to have used lead acetate as an artificial sweetener some 2,000 years ago2. Modern, synthetic artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, acesulfame K and aspartame are not without controversies. In recent years, more naturally derived sugar substitutes have come to the fore, such as maple syrup, erythritol and steviol glycosides. The higher cost and natural variation of these can be a problem for the food and beverage industry, but do consumers want sugar substitutes at all?
An Innova Market Insights survey found that three in five American consumers would prefer to reduce their sugar intake rather than replace it by consuming artificial sweeteners3. As a result of this trend, new product launches featuring "low/no/reduced sugar" label claims jumped 45% in 2017 compared to five years prior, as reported by Kerry4. This trend is also reflected in the most recent data on European patent filings, showing that while patents assigned to the “sweetener” IPC class rose three fold from 1999 to 2017, the number of patent filings in this category dropped considerably thereafter, and looks set to return to 1999 levels (or lower) very soon. So, what next for the food and beverage industry?
While artificial sweeteners may be attractive to help meet industry “low sugar” targets, it is clear that consumers are wary of these. This has led to a shift away from “traditional” flavours. For example, the soft drink industry has already seen sweeping changes with matcha green tea, coconut water and kombucha now available in most supermarkets - all noticeably less sweet than most traditional ready-made soft drinks.
Looking at trademark applications filed at the USPTO and UK IPO over the last 10 years, we see an increase in the number of applications which include sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners in their specification of goods. Applications mentioning more naturally derived sugar substitutes such as stevia and erythritol out-number those identifying synthetic artificial sweeteners. Merisant, parent to brands such as Canderel® and Equal®, and Purecircle, a manufacturer of stevia products, were the most prominent filers of applications during the period, demonstrating the value attributed to protection of product names.
There will, of course, remain a need for companies to protect their intellectual property. Most recipes are closely guarded trade secrets and the move away from patentable artificial sweeteners and other such additives will mean that companies have to rely more heavily on other IP rights, such as designs, copyright and trademarks to protect their brand. This may mean, for example, that we see more high-profile trademark disputes for unusual marks such as shapes, colours and sounds in the future.
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