New Orleans Company Offers Consumers An All-Natural Sugar Substitute

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — There's a wheelbarrow full of sugar in the lobby of Swerve Sweetener's office in Gert Town, serving as a reminder of how much added sugar Americans typically consume annually in processed and prepared foods.

         The New Orleans-based Swerve offers consumers an alternative: an all-natural, zero-calorie sweetener that can be used for baking and cooking, measures cup-for-cup like sugar and has no bitter aftertaste.

         Developed in 2001 as an all-natural sugar substitute for a line of healthy drinks, Swerve "tasted so good that we actually took it out of that protein shake and started packing it on its own," said President and CEO Andress Blackwell.

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         In recent years, alternative sweeteners have shifted from the supplement aisle to the mainstream, as consumers have looked to reduce their sugar consumption to cut calories. Swerve is made from a blend of ingredients that do not contain genetically modified organisms and are derived from fruits and vegetables.

         "We are not anti-sugar," Blackwell said. "It's about understanding how much you are consuming and trying to cut back on that consumption."

         After a slow start, the company got its first big break in 2007, when Whole Foods Market in Baton Rouge invited it in. Now, Swerve and a powdered sugar substitute are available in more than 4,000 retail stores.

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         Simply getting on grocery store shelves required "a tremendous amount of cash flowing out of the company with no revenue coming in," Blackwell recalled. "The need to really put the marketing funds behind promoting the product caused a huge demand for capital, and as a small self-funded company, we just really didn't have the resources to put behind that."

         Enter Rick Farrell, a New Orleans businessman who is also a partner in the Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar and Happy's Irish Pub chains, which have locations in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

         Farrell, a retired energy trader, was initially approached about investing in the company but ultimately acquired it for about $750,000. His involvement led to a rebranding effort and helped Swerve scale up for a wider distribution.

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         Since then, Swerve has grown from about $80,000 in sales to $2 million last year, a mark that Farrell said already has been reached this year.

         Looking ahead, Farrell is optimistic that sales will hit $5 million in two years. Ultimately, he's hoping to catch the attention of a big-name food manufacturer interested in using Swerve as a sugar alternative in a prepackaged food.

         A 16-ounce bag of Swerve, which contains about two cups, sells for just under $10 on Amazon.

         "Everybody's going in that direction," he said. "It's a great product. I've just got to get it in people's mouths, and once I get it in people's mouths, they'll come back."

         For manufacturers of sugar alternatives like Swerve, there's a global market that continues to grow: 70 percent of respondents in a recent Nielsen survey reported that they were actively adjusting their diet to prevent health conditions like obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. And 68 percent were willing to pay more for foods or beverages to avoid undesirable ingredients.

         Swerve's backers claim key differences over its competition: It doesn't have a bitter aftertaste, which some consider a drawback of products from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, and doesn't cause digestive issues like some sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, sorbitol and maltitol.

         As that shift has happened with consumers, it's made Blackwell's job easier. "People love the way the product tastes," she said. "They want to understand the ingredients."

         Blackwell, 42, previously worked in radio before getting interested in the nutrition business. "When I walked in there and looked at the shelves full of potions and pills that I had never even heard of, it was definitely a humbling moment," she said. "I felt quite ignorant, and immediately I launched headfirst into trying to understand nutrition."

         So far, Swerve has mainly targeted two segments of consumers: proactive shoppers who understand nutrition and are trying to make healthier decisions for themselves and their families, and those who are addressing health issues like diabetes. For the latter camp, Swerve is appealing because it's non-glycemic and doesn't raise blood sugar levels, the company says, making it a safe option for people living with diabetes.

         It's also proven popular with the low-carb, gluten-free crowd, Blackwell said.

         A cup of Swerve has 51 calories, compared to about 773 calories in a cup of sugar. Federal labeling requirements allow for Swerve to be considered "zero calorie" because it contains less than 5 calories per labeled serving.

         The use of all-natural sugar alternatives has gained a bigger following since 2008, when federal regulators approved Truvia and Pure Via, new zero-calorie sweeteners developed by the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo, respectively. Both products use an extract from the stevia plant.

         "In a world of high-calorie products, it does give a lower-calorie choice," said Leigh Anne Burns, a medical nutrition specialist with LSU Health New Orleans.

         For people trying to cut down on sugar, finding the right alternative often comes down to personal taste and preference. "It gives them an alternative to sugar. I use it in practice as an alternative. I don't necessarily encourage it, but I don't discourage it," she said. "It's strictly up to the option of the patient."

         But Burns recognizes one of Swerve's big selling points: "It's heat resistant, so you can cook with it," she added. "To me, that's a real advantage."

         Swerve, which has six employees, moved into a 10,000-square-foot office and warehouse last year on South Rendon Street. The facility is equipped with a test kitchen, where employees take turns trying out new recipes, like crème brûlée, to check how Swerve stacks up. The finished product is packaged in the Chicago area.

         Despite being developed in Louisiana, a state where fresh government data showed more than 36 percent of adults were obese last year, the highest in the country, Blackwell said Swerve has been warmly received, in part because of the culture of cooking.

         "People still prepare meals, they still bake and cook at home, whereas on the West Coast, it's very much a packaged grab-and-go food society," she said.

         – by AP/ Reporter Richard Thompson with The New Orleans Advocate

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