Hitting the Sweet Spot—Sans Sugar

By Lisa Schofield, Contributing Writer | January 1, 2013

The alternative sweetener market has progressed to the mainstream, fueling reformulations of all types of products.

In 2013 and beyond, consumers of varying demographics will continue to purchase packaged foods in order to fit meals and snacks more easily into hectic lifestyles. According to Mintel’s September 2012 market report, “Sugar and Sweeteners - US,” taste trumps calories as the most important factor in selecting a sweetener; 83% of survey respondents, and 86% of women, all pointed to the taste-factor as their top decision-maker. “Therefore, taste represents the major marketing message for any sweetener marketer,” the report concluded. The third most influential factor? Price.

However, more and more consumers are receiving a boldly alarming message: sugar is deadly. Excessive sugar consumption is to the human body what rust is to iron-bound structures; constant exposure leads to destruction. From many tomato sauces to supposedly healthy whole-grain cereals to packaged cookies and pastries, and sundry food products in between, the sugar lurking within adds up in the bodies of many unsuspecting consumers.  

Ironically, Mintel said in its report, although awareness that sugar can wreak bodily havoc is acute, “sugar sales are consistently rising while sugar substitute sales are declining. The sugar and sweetener market is challenged to find its place and its voice in this conversation. One solution is in its infancy, combining sugar and sugar substitutes for lower-calorie sugar/sweetener blends. If the price is right to consumers, this may lead the sugar substitute market out of the skids and help consumers meet their diet goals.”

The sugar and sweetener market, according to Mintel’s report, was expected to reach $5 billion in total U.S. retail sales in 2012; Mintel expects the market will continue to expand to reach $5.6 billion by 2017.

The Sweetness Factor
The sensation of sweetness can come from simple carbohydrate sources such as sucrose, glucose and fructose, or amino acids like alanine, glycine and serine that are mildly sweet, and from high-intensity sweeteners that may be up to 25,000 times sweeter than sucrose. There are two types of high-intensity sweeteners: artificial sweeteners—such as alitame, cyclamate, aspartame, neotame, potassium acesulfame (Ace K) and saccharin—and natural high-intensity sweeteners extracted from various plant sources—such as stevia and luo han guo (monk fruit).

If taste is king then low- to zero-impact on blood glucose can be considered queen. The combination should allow for some high-intensity food and beverage development for a massive consumer audience loathe to give up the sweetness yet wanting to decrease risk of type 2 diabetes.

Beyond those two primary attractions, manufacturers of non-sugar sweeteners know these materials need to work in a wide variety of consumables, from liquid supplements to ice creams. Depending on the product launch or a “new and improved” version, each non-sugar sweetener provides certain characteristics to the end product. In general, Joseph O’Neill, president and general manager, BENEO Inc., Morris Plains, NJ, said it’s understood that when sugar is removed from a formulation, the taste, texture and even appearance may be compromised. However, the options for replacing that sugar without needing to compromise are growing.

Viable Options
According to James Kempland, vice president of marketing, Sweet Green Fields, Bellingham, WA, “high-intensity sweeteners work differently from sucrose in two ways: perceptual taste in beverages, such as mouthfeel (syrup coating), and bulk in foods. All high-intensity sweeteners, including stevia, work perfectly in beverages as water makes up the bulk in a beverage.”

To attain attractive mouthfeel in beverages, xanthan gum is often used to create the perception of a sugar coating. In foods such as ice cream and baked items, bulking agents pose a challenge either because of calories, artificial nature or for some sensitive folks, laxative effects. In all cases, Mr. Kempland said, “stevia extracts work perfectly well in any application where the former artificial sweeteners have been utilized, with one exception, the natural source of the sweetness. Our extracts meet the same needs as sugar in the form of stability, whether heat or frozen, blending with other key ingredients and solubility in aqueous solution.”

The company has a U.S. patent for its high-purity extraction method and recently launched two new proprietary stevia-based compositions, Optesse HPS and HPX, which can be used with varying levels of sugar by food and beverage manufacturers.

Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California Ingredients, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, said her company’s Good&Sweet high-purity (99%) stevia extract, launched in 2008, has been selling at a rapid clip since its Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) confirmation in 2009. Products containing this natural, high-intensity sweetener require “very small quantities to reach the desired sweetness level, and for some products it may require some taste masking. That said, Good&Sweet has been developed not to impart a strong after taste or metallic problems as synthetic sweeteners. Stability is excellent even for baking and normal manufacturing processing.”

Truvia stevia leaf extract is capable of sweetening a wide array of beverages and foods, according to Sally Aaron, Truvia marketing manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, MN. The ingredient is also very effective in carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, dairy products such as yogurt and ice cream, fruit spreads, confectionery and baked goods. Truvia stevia leaf extract is stable over a wide range of pH values along with conventional food heat processes such as pasteurization, sterilization, ultra-high temperature, hot fill and retorting. It is stable in frozen applications as well.

Overall, Ms. Aaron said, “Stevia leaf extract is compatible with all major ingredients except formulations with high concentrations of acids in solution which may reduce stability. The most successful applications tend to be in reduced- or no-added-sugar applications where there is some level of sweetness derived from carbohydrate sweeteners. For instance, Truvia stevia leaf extract is positively synergistic with Cargill’s Zerose erythritol sweetener in zero calorie beverages.”

According to stevia pioneer James May, founder of Gilbert AZ-based Wisdom Natural Brands, stevia is stable in a pH of 3 to 9 and can be used in cooking or frozen foods with a shelf life of at least two years. However, he cautioned, it does not brown in baking; therefore, a blend of stevia with sugar should be utilized for the best outcome of baked goods. “Since stevia glycosides both sweeten and enhance the flavor of the food or beverage to which it is added, it is sometimes difficult for food and beverage manufacturers to discover just the right blend of stevia to the other ingredients while maintaining the desired taste of the finished product. Using too much stevia can result in a slightly bitter after taste.”

Wisdom Natural manufactures SweetLeaf stevia, a blend of glycosides derived from USDA-certified organic, non-GMO stevia leaves. “Stevia is the only sweetener on earth to have been scientifically proven to improve the health and well-being of the human body, including helping to control blood sugar,” said Mr. May. “When the glycosides are extracted from the stevia leaves the sweetener is 300 times sweeter than sugar, therefore, in order to produce a table-top sweetener a carrier must be utilized. Instead of using other sugars or sugar alcohols, we use inulin, which is an all-natural soluble fiber from chicory root that is also a primary food supply for the good intestinal flora, thus, improving health and well-being.”

Maria Teresa Scardigli, executive director, International Stevia Council, Brussels, Belgium, said she sees an encouraging summary of stevia innovation in consumables. The major stevia-containing product launches include carbonated drinks, flavored milks, flavored waters, teas and juice drinks, table top sweeteners in different forms, chocolate, yogurts, cereals and ketchups. “The launches are taking place as both new products and reformulations. For reformulations, stevia may be replacing sugar or other sweeteners, depending on the product and brand strategy.”

She added that popular brands are stewarding stevia into beverages including Sprite, Nestea and SoBe. In other categories, examples include Danone yogurts, Haribo candies, Knorr ketchup and Cavalier chocolate. “In the next 6-12 months, the leading products will continue to be drinks and table tops, but we will see more breakfast cereals, snacks, desserts such as ice cream, confectionery and chewing gum, jam and jelly,” Ms. Scardigli predicted.

Globally, food and beverage stevia product launches have grown by 606% since 2008, according to Jason Hecker, vice president, Global Marketing and Innovation, PureCircle, Ltd., Oak Brook, IL. “In 2012, PureCircle expects EU launches to account for 50% of the world’s stevia launches, with at least 165 of these launches occurring in the beverage category where stevia has shown strong initial development since its approval. Broadening usage can actually be seen across categories; stevia is being launched in ketchups, sauces, yogurts, confections and jams. Consumer awareness of stevia is growing in major markets across the region.”

Purecircle recently introduced Stevia 3.0, which is designed to improve Rebaudioside A’s capabilities in certain categories and formulations by blending stevia ingredients in the company’s portfolio to achieve great taste and deeper calorie and sugar reductions. In fruit nectars for instance, sugar can be completely substituted through application development with PureCircle’s Stevia 3.0.  

Alongside stevia, experts said another natural, high-intensity sweetener, monk fruit (also known as luo han guo), can be easy to incorporate into formulations. Hamin Hwang, associate food scientist, Applications, for U.K-based Tate & Lyle, explained that PUREFRUIT monk fruit extract is heat stable, can be used in foods over a variety of pH levels, and works particularly well in bakery formulations and beverages.  “As with any bakery goods, high-intensity sweeteners require other ingredients to provide the missing solids typically provided by sugar. And as such, this is also an opportunity to use our PROMITOR soluble corn fiber to enable formulation of naturally sweetened, reduced-calorie foods with added fiber.”

Those sweeteners that are not as potent in taste can also hold up in a variety of processing situations. For example, Splenda sucralose provides attractive stability during high-temperature processing and long-term storage, even in low pH products, said Mr. Hwang. Splenda provides sugar-like sweetness and flavor profiles and provides bitter and off-taste masking for flavor-sensitive products like dairy and nutraceutical beverages. “You can reduce sugar by as much as 50% in some products while maintaining the same taste profile as the full sugar version,” Mr. Hwang noted.

Cargill’s Xtend sucromalt, which is low-glycemic and insulinemic, has 70% of the sweetness of sugar and functions similar to other carbohydrate syrups, according to Deborah Schulz, specialty carbohydrate product line manager. The product offers good binding qualities and is acid stable so it will not break down over time in a low pH system, unlike sugar.

“Carbohydrate content is roughly 50% from higher saccharides and 50% from sugars. For those considering tabling the sugar for an alternative, while still wanting to stick as close to the original formula as possible, BENEO’s ISOMALT, oligofructose or Palatinose may maintain the taste, texture and mouthfeel and may be generally processed without major adaption, according to the company’s Mr. O’Neill. All three ingredients provide bulk like sucrose and impart a mild sweetness, which requires only small changes to the reference formulation. In addition, Palatinose and ISOMALT are low-hygroscopic (don’t lump), which facilitates storage and formulation. Oligofructose shows a better solubility than sucrose and doesn’t crystallize.

Meanwhile, Zerose erythritol, from Cargill, has some limitations in bakery due to forming denser dough; however, erythritol can be used adequately in fillings and frostings. Partial sugar replacement in bakery is possible with great results, said Tim Bauer, polyols product line manager. Erythritol has a cooling effect in some foods due to its highly negative heat of solution (meaning that when the solid dissolves it absorbs energy, which leads to a cooling sensation in your mouth).

Mr. Bauer noted that Cargill has developed solutions to offset this cooling effect in key applications. Erythritol works well in frozen items, as it has good freezing point depression while replacing sugar and calories. Erythritol also offers different melting characteristics, compact dough, higher hardness and less crunchy cookies, without spread.

Erythritol is not a standalone bulk for sugar replacement in bakery applications. It works best in combination with other sugar alcohols like maltitol or isomalt. “Adding inulin or polydextrose with erythritol has several advantages,” said Mr. Bauer, including “a fiber claim (if added sufficiently), assistance with browning and spread, and both will reduce or minimize cooling effect of erythritol in the final product. The cooling effect is masked with hydrocolloids like carrageenan, however hydrocolloids will affect baking performance, as they will increase viscosity of dough. Protein in any form will help reduce the cooling effect, as well as fat to a certain extent.”

Many consumers love minty treats, and more love chocolate, which is considered a blissful indulgence and a recognized mood lifter. “This is why it is even more important to offer a product that fulfills the expectation of indulgence,” said Mr. O’Neill. “Even though consumers are increasingly on the lookout for healthy foods, when it comes to the indulgence (chocolate) they are generally not willing to sacrifice taste in favor of better nutritional properties.”

He went on to say that sweeteners derived from beets (Palatinose) offer a mild sugar-like sweetness, desirable mouthfeel, and also look appealing; Palatinose also melts in the mouth the way consumers expect and features the typical “snap” when biting or breaking a chocolate bar. “For the production of Palatinose chocolate, the original recipe does not need to be modified considerably. The production parameters remain unaltered, as it can be processed in standard equipment without major adaptations.”

In the future, Ric Boyd, technical service specialist with Ingredion Incorporated, Westchester, IL, predicted consumers will start to see “sugar” used less and less on labels due to outstanding stability of non-sugar alternatives. “The use of natural high-intensity sweeteners like Ingredion’s ENLITEN Reb A and combinations with other sweeteners like Ingredion’s ERYSTA and other polyols and/or dextrose can produce very good, quality tasting foods. These sweeteners exhibit high levels of stability in a wide range of products.” For example, he noted that Ingredion has several successful campaigns in chocolate milk, fruit beverages, frozen ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages, energy drinks, canned fruit, dessert chocolates, soups and sauces. “ENLITEN and combinations stand up very well to process heat at retort temperatures, as well as freezing.”

Remaining Challenges
The wide-ranging versatility of non-sugar alternatives for the food and beverage manufacturing industry is highly encouraging. Yet, suppliers concede there are still some processing challenges to overcome.

“The challenge going forward is about bulking,” said Ingredion’s Mr. Boyd. He explained that sucrose has other important properties, in addition to sweetness. The bulking from sucrose that is generated in a food product creates the familiar mouthfeel and appearance consumers expect—and desire. Sucrose’s action of caramelization through heat processing also adds other unique flavors. The caramel flavors can be sourced in other ways, but the bulking affects are difficult to overcome without adding calories.

The answer is a low- or no-calorie bulking agent that provides similar characteristics to sucrose yet doesn’t add too much non-digestible fiber, which can cause a laxative effect. “This ideal bulking agent has so far eluded the industry,” he admitted. “Texturing solutions and various fibers can compensate for some of these shortfalls, but new bulking solutions are still an area for investigation.”

Sweet Green Fields’ Mr. Kempland agreed, adding the bulking agent issue “will always be a challenge in non-aqueous based products where sugar is removed, but cookies, cakes, breads and other baked goods have found excellent means for bulking.”

Specifically, when it comes to stevia, Blue California’s Ms. McCollum explained, “The main challenge a formulator encounters when reducing sugar calories is replacing sugar volume. Beyond taste, sugar has a function in baking and cooking, so when sugar is replaced by very small amounts of Good&Sweet soluble fibers, apple sauce and other ingredients must be used to retain moisture and add bulk. These two characteristics impart the mouthfeel, the texture that consumers find appealing, and are therefore imperative to achieve in the process.”

Frozen delicacies may pose problems with some non-sugar sweeteners. According to Tate & Lyle’s Mr. Hwang, when replacing sugar with Splenda in a frozen product, there may be a change to the freezing point. However, using a combination of Splenda with KRYSTAR crystalline fructose allows the manufacturer to maintain the freezing point desired while reducing the amount of calories and sugar in the finished product.  

Erythritol’s low solubility presents challenges when used in liquid form or syrups, according to Cargill’s Mr. Bauer. However, since erythritol is used in relatively low-use percentages, this is not an insurmountable problem. In addition, from a consumer comfort standpoint, “as a polyol, erythritol is lumped into the negative connotation of having poor digestive tolerance. This is not true; erythritol has the highest digestive tolerance of any polyol (two to three times higher), and even has tolerance better than some nutritive sweeteners (i.e., lactose).”

Further, Ms. McCollum noted the challenge for food and beverage manufacturers to understand the biophysical impact of sucrose and to pledge to lessen its use dramatically. “Understanding the function of sugar in our bodies is important for all of us, including product developers,” she said.

Improvements can always be made, Mr. Boy offered. “Research into sweetness perception on the palate and how the structure of natural compounds fit into this perception will yield new products.”

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