Podcast: Thom King on Erythritol Safety, Sugar Reduction and Formulation Strategies

Podcast: Thom King on Erythritol Safety, Sugar Reduction and Formulation Strategies

Food scientist and CEO of Icon Foods discusses evolution of clean label sweetening systems in foods, beverages, and gummies.

By Sean Moloughney, Editor04.03.23

In this episode I  talked with Thom King, the founder and CEO of Icon Foods, which is one of the largest importers, manufacturers and distributors of clean-label sweetening systems and natural sweeteners.

Thom has over 20 years of formulation experience. I asked him about the study recently published in Nature Medicine that claimed an association between the sugar alcohol erythritol and cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Thom and I also talked about sugar reduction and formulation strategies in various product formats.

We’re always happy to get feedback. You can email us at nutraceuticals@rodmanmedia.com with anything that’s on your mind.

Links & Resources:

Nature Medicine: The artificial sweetener erythritol and cardiovascular event risk

GRAS Determination of Erythritol for Use in Human Food

Use of the Term Healthy on Food Labeling

NW: Can you give me your assessment of this study, the erythritol study that found an association linked to heart attack and stroke?

Thom King, CEO, Icon Foods: Yeah, I mean, Nature.com—Super well respected. I use Nature.com as a resource, probably almost daily. So they posted a research paper that was published by the Cleveland Clinic—and Cleveland Clinic is also a highly respected institution for the study of cardiovascular health. And so I was very surprised. Well, I was very surprised to see CNN pick it up. And the headline was basically, “erythritol linked to heart attack and stroke. So I just jumped into the paper that was on nature.com.

I also have a lot of colleagues and friends that are PhDs that work in heart health. And I hit every single one of them up. What I’m seeing is the paper seemed to confuse correlation with causation.

That surprised me that they would even make it to Nature.com when it was purely correlation and it was correlation of bloodborne or endogenous erythritol as opposed to dietary erythritol.

Erythritol naturally occurs in the human body. A lot of polyols do, in fact, like, arabitol, inositol. I mean, endogenous erythritol levels in the human body naturally raise or elevate when there's been an episode of a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or a stroke.

So their sample group was men 60 to 70 years old; 30% of them had a prior cardiac event, and 70% of them had suffered from some sort of metabolic disease. All of these are triggers for elevated erythritol in the bloodstream. That's the correlation. That's sort of like the correlation between people that suffer heartache, and people that have teenagers. Correlation, yeah. Causation? Maybe not.

From my perspective, the FDA GRAS study that was done 30 years ago has hundreds of references to studies claiming that erythritol is safe. And this is backed up by the National Institute of Health that has several articles that are peer reviewed and vetted embedded that also state the same thing: erythritol is safe.

Additionally, the dosage level was between 30 and 100 grams, which—so bowel tolerance usually is hit at about 20-25 grams. So the amount of erythritol that was used in the study far exceeds what a normal person would be able to consume in an entire 24 hour period.

So there were a lot of holes in that study, but then as it made it up the chain to news outlets, which are trying to get eyeballs and click bait, that's when it turned into causation. That would be my assessment. In the 20 years that I've been in business and been one of the larger distributors of erythritol in the United States, we've never, ever seen an episode of a cardiac event or anything.

I would say quite the contrary. Our customers who use our products, in their products, generally have seen favorable results from people that consume them in getting their metabolic disease under control. I mean sugar is the main cause for metabolic disease, which can lead to heart attack, stroke, even neurodegenerative disease. So, it just seemed to be odd.

NW: Right. There's certainly been a lot of emphasis on sugar reduction in formulation of products. So this does seem to you like an outlier in that, the safety data and the GRAS designation should stand on its own, and this study grabbed a lot of headlines, but maybe shouldn't cause concern.

King: I don't think so, but I think the timing on it seems to be quite peculiar because when you look at the FDA potential guideline for front-of-pack disclosure of added sugars—when you look at that along with the USDA, putting limits on added sugars in the school lunch program to like 10 grams—that's never been done before.

They've always limited fats. Now they're looking at limiting grams of sugar. Sugar is a main input in a lot of mass-produced consumer goods because it's cheap and it takes up space, and human beings naturally gravitate to sugar and will want to consume more and more.

So I think the more pressure that gets put on these large CPGs, and maybe even the sugar industry, the more of these types of articles, if you will, and pseudoscience papers will be coming out.

NW: I was looking at some consumer data recently. This is from HealthFocus International. And this for U.S. consumers about their perception of sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol. And the vast majority, over half, 58% have a neutral perception of erythritol; 35% say it's bad; 8% say it's good. So there's a lot of people who are uncertain about sugar alcohols and whether they're good or not. How concerned are you about the impact this study could have on consumer perception?

King: Was that study done after—

NW: This was before (the erythritol study). This was 2022 data.

King: I'm not overly concerned about it because there aren't a ton of options out there. You can use sugar, but I mean, sugar has been associated with a lot of disease, which only leaves you the option of—you know, if you're using something to replace bulk in a formula, you're going to need a bulking type sweetener and there's really only two FDA GRAS status sweeteners that you can use at this point. And one of them is allulose, and the other ones are the polyols, which are going to be erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol.

Erythritol being the one that has the lowest GI impact of all the polyols. So really in a food product, you only have two options, and that's going to be allulose and erythritol. Allulose is not approved outside of the United States at this point as a sweetener. And Allulose is also not Whole Foods (Market) approved.

So, food manufacturers that are looking for options, there's really, you don't have an option except for erythritol at this point if you want to sell your products into Whole Foods.

NW: Yeah looking at labels and, and new products, we see allulose a lot more. Do you see that as welI?

King: Yeah, I love allulose. I would say the supply chain on allulose is still not as stable as I would like to see it. And I think that the reason that the supply chain for allulose isn't stable is because each manufacturer uses different intellectual property in the crystallization of allulose.

So allulose is a completely different sort of sweetener; it's an actual saccharide, so it falls into the sugar—it's just your body doesn't metabolize it, but it functions very much like sugar. It burns at a lower temperature, meaning for baked goods. There's a little more challenge to using it.

I like allulose quite a bit. I like the combination of allulose and erythritol because then you're kind of straddling two separate worlds—you have one that's a saccharide that's going to participate in maillard, and is going to allow for browning, even like activation of leavening in baked goods.

But then by adding a small amount of erythritol, you suppress that tendency to burn quickly, and the combination of the two function really well in tandem. And in frozen desserts, like ice cream, the combination of erythritol and allulose are perfect because the allulose increases overrun—that's like the fluffiness in ice cream, the amount of air that you get—and the erythritol helps lower freezing depression-point, and that means that your ice cream is scoopable when it's below 32 degrees. So I love allulose. I love the combination of both.

NW: Yeah. You mentioned the supply chain. Can we dig into that a little bit and maybe talk about how allulose is derived, where it comes from, and how it's manufactured?

King: Yeah, so allulose and erythritol are pretty similar in the way that they are created. And so both of them use a glucose substrate or a starch substrate that is treated with a bacteria or an enzyme that converts that glucose into either a polyol or it can convert it into allulose.

And so allulose is going to the metabolite that's left behind after like a corn glucose substrate is inoculated with a particular bacteria. So what's left behind though is a syrup. And so allulose syrup is very easy to make. You just basically are using the bacteria to ferment glucose and the result is going to be allulose.

The challenge, if you will, is getting the allulose to crystallize. It's a super inefficient model. And so when you think about the crystallization of allulose, it's very similar to the experiment that you might have conducted in science class when you were in grade school where you created a super saturated environment. Basically you took water, put in a bunch of sugar, it exceeded 21% of the total solution, and then you put a string. And then you drop one seed crystal, which would be like you just drop in one little crystal of sugar and then you come back in a couple days and you've got a string that's covered with crystals.

And so that is the method that is used in creating a crystalline allulose. Each one of those seed crystals and each process is individual intellectual property that is owned by each manufacturer. So when you look at the process, that's where the bottleneck is. So a lot of companies are able to manufacture allulose syrup. A dozen or more companies do that efficiently. To get it to crystallize and to maintain the crystal is where the challenge is. And that is where the supply chain starts to get a little wobbly.

NW: Got it. Interesting. Now, allulose doesn't count toward the added sugar content on Nutrition Facts panels, is that right?

King: Yeah, that's correct. So in 2019, the FDA passed a ruling that allulose no longer needed to be reported as an added sugar. It still shows up as a carbohydrate. But a lot of manufacturers that we work with will actually show allulose on a separate line. And that gives the consumer a way to calculate net carb impact.

So you're not impacted by the carbohydrates that are in allulose like the carbohydrates in a Snickers bar or something. So you can pull it from your total carbs and the result will be your net carbs.

NW: The popularity of gummy supplements continues to be really strong. What do you make of efforts and strategies to reduce sugar content in gummies?

King: Well, I've worked on dozens of gummies and gummies can be pretty challenging. Erythritol is not an option for gummies, just because it has a low molecular weight. And what happens is you can make a gummy with erythritol. By the morning, you'll have a puddle of water. Like it just will pull every bit of water out of it.

Even when you look at some gummy manufacturers that like to put a sanding sweetener on the outside of their gummies, don't use erythritol, because your gummies will just disappear into the vapor overnight.

I think the sugar-free gummy category—what I've seen is a lot of people using a lot of fiber. So fiber is super effective in making sugar-free gummies. But the problem is that if you use one particular type of fiber—like let's say you used gum acacia, or chicory root fiber. If you're just using that to hold the gummy together what will happen is the dosage level of those gummies will be super low.

Like you might be able to have 2 or 3 of those gummies, but if you exceed that, you're definitely going to be hitting a bowel tolerance level. Not so much drawing moisture into your bowel, but more fermentation, meaning that you're going to be sort of monoculturing one particular bacteria in your microbiome. And the metabolite is going to be gas. It's gas and bloating.

So that seems to be one challenge, but most of the gummies that I've done, I've used crystalline allulose with allulose syrup. I've used a digestive resistant maltodextrin derived from cassava, and then gelatin. Gelatin really works amazingly well in formulating sugar-free gummies. And pectin—you can use that in formulating a no-added-sugar plant-based gummy.

NW: Where does monk fruit factor into the equation for reduced sugar—in gummies or in other food and beverage products

King: Monk fruit is fantastic. I use monk fruit in a lot of different formulas. There are some off notes to it. The thing that somebody needs to consider also is if you're formulating a gummy or formulating a beverage or anything that you're trying to employ clean label sugar reduction—monk fruit extract is about 300 times sweeter than sugar.

So to put that into perspective, one eighth of a teaspoon is going to equal approximately 1 cup of sugar. So if you're pulling out all of that volume, right, what do you fill that space with? So a lot of times using high intensity sweeteners like monk fruit and even stevia, you have to find something to use as a bulking sweetener, like allulose or erythritol, to take up that space that those high intensity sweeteners just aren't able to do.

NW: Where do you see the stevia market today and how it's evolved over the years?

King: I think that it's more exciting now than it has ever been, mostly because of bioconversion. Being able to actually create a steviol glycoside from other glycosides—like I'm thinking about Rebaudioside M, because Reb M seems to be a super interesting glycoside right now because it works really well as a sweetness modulator.

So it plays well with other glycosides. If you blend Reb M with monk fruit, they have a tendency to mask each other's off-notes. They hit the palate at different times. So it's pretty exciting how using bioconversion and fermentation and taking a lower-grade steviol glycoside and being able to convert it to a specific glycoside is amazing.

I mean, it's efficient, it's driving down the cost, it's still clean label, it's still non-GMO. And I’m excited where that's going because the off-notes are becoming less of an issue. And the bigger issue is just filling up the space that's left behind. Do you put in a fiber? Do you put in a bulking sweetener?

NW: Yeah. Masking those off-notes is really important these days, considering the growth in plant-based products.

King: Oh, huge. To your point about plant-based products, when you look at protein drinks, like plant-based protein drinks, most of them are using pea protein. And pea protein requires a lot of masking. And using a sweetening system that contains both steviol glycosides and mogroside V, which is found in monk fruit—using the combination of those two actually helps mask some of those bitter off-notes that you would pick up from pea protein.

NW: Was there anything that we didn't talk about that you wanted to add? Did I miss anything in terms of what you'd look out for, or expect, or any other combinations, ingredients that you think are worth people's consideration or understanding?

King: One thing that I've been working with—a sweetening system that I'm in the process of bringing into the lab, actually bringing it to the next level, is for a beverage company. I'm working on a reformulation. I'm using thaumatin in combination with Reb M, and I'm using the digestive-resistant maltodextrin as the carrier in that.

But that combination of thaumatin and Reb M has been pretty amazing for me. In a beverage environment, it's just very, very neutral. And the sweet profile aligns really well with the sort of temporal effect that you would get from just using sugar.

That's the one that makes me pumped to go to work. Like, let's see what we can do with this. So thaumatin I think is probably going to be the next big thing in the next couple of years..

NW: Interesting. The number of beverages that we see at shows/events like Expo West is really incredible. There's so many that come onto the market. And many of them contain herbals, adaptogens. And many times these have different flavor profiles, bitter notes. What challenges do you see on that front in terms of herbals in beverages and how to overcome them?

King: Yeah, that's a really good question. I've formulated everything from baked goods to bars, to cookies, to beverages. I would say that I'm pretty good in all those categories, but beverages—that's my hotspot. And particularly energy drinks where they're maybe using vitamin B—B12’s got some interesting off-notes—or even adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha.

I had a formulation that used amla, which was super bitter, liposomal vitamin C, which is always hard to overcome. But honestly, I've got a lot in my toolkit. With these particular beverages and these off-notes where they’re a challenge, thaumatin has saved my butt. I've gotten into some formulations where I'm like, I can't do anything with this. I've used different combinations of rebaudiosides. I've used different combinations of monk fruit and I can't seem to quite cover it. And in the end when I get something that close, I will drop in a small amount of thaumatin and it is sort of as easy to use as sucralose.

I don't use it just because it doesn't follow the ethos of our company, but sucralose is one of those things where you can be a pretty bad formulator and throw in some sucralose at the end and it's like, “oh, that's magic. It's better now.” That's thaumatin for me.

I can get all the way to the end and still have some off-notes, and I'll drop in the smallest amount of thaumatin and it clears it up.

NW: Tom, I really appreciate all your insights. Thank you very much.

King: Yeah, it was absolutely my pleasure, Sean.

Related Searches:
Suggested For You