A sweetener’s role always has been important in achieving a beverage’s desired taste profile, but now sweeteners’ responsibilities have expanded from just flavor enhancers to calorie control to being a part of a system to deliver functionality. Sweeteners also are a key contributor to beverages in the health and wellness category, including all-natural and organic formulations, and in addition providing a way for beverage companies to differentiate their brands.

With the influx of health and wellness beverages, and particularly all-natural varieties, the latest innovation to arrive in the sweetener industry is the introduction of zero-calorie Truvia brand sweetener. Jointly developed by Cargill, Minneapolis, and The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, Truvia is created using rebiana, a high-purity extract of rebaudioside A sourced from the stevia herb. Truvia can be produced consistently on a commercial scale, which responds to consumer requests for a natural, zero-calorie sweetener, the companies say.

“Truvia rebiana is the first high-purity and well-characterized form of rebaudioside A,” Leslie Curry, regulatory and scientific affairs director, Cargill Food and Ingredient Systems, said during a Webinar on May 15. “Well characterized or well defined, meaning we know exactly what’s in it each and every time.”

Rebaudioside A is a steviol glycoside, which is the sweet component of the stevia leaf. Native to Paraguay, stevia is commercially grown today primarily in China. Leaves from the stevia shrub are harvested and dried, then steeped in fresh water in a process similar to making tea. The process releases the “best-tasting part of the leaf,” which is then purified to make a food-grade ingredient, Cargill and The Coca-Cola Co. say. The finished product is rebiana, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar, the companies say. The natural sweetener is both heat and pH stable, and can be used across an array of beverage and food products.

Cargill and The Coca-Cola Co. electronically published research last month in the scientific journal “Food and Chemical Toxicology” to establish the safety of rebiana for general use to sweeten foods and beverages. The evaluation research — the first of its kind to examine rebiana — included metabolism, safety, intake, stability and human studies that complement the previously published research on purified steviol glycosides.

Using stevia as a sweetener isn’t a new concept either. Consumers in Japan have been using stevia commercially for more than three decades, and today stevia represents 40 percent of the country’s low- or zero-calorie sweetener market, Cargill and The Coca-Cola Co. say. In the United States, stevia currently is sold as a dietary supplement. Rebiana will be the first available sweetener for beverages and foods that has been purified from the stevia plant, the companies say.

Because rebiana derives from the stevia leaf, Cargill has built a consistent stevia supply chain in anticipation of launching Truvia. Currently, one stevia plant yields enough rebiana for 30 6-ounce cups of coffee.

“It’s this ability to control and predict the taste profile of rebiana that makes it possible to sweeten beverages and foods with a constant stevia leaf,” Dr. Rhona Applebaum, vice president and chief scientific and regulatory officer of The Coca-Cola Co. said during the May 15 Webinar. “From a formulation perspective, this is key. We want foods or beverages in one part of the country to taste the same in another part of the country, and we want them to taste the same whether in June or in January. As the world’s largest beverage company, with the world’s largest distribution system, we intend to combine our product formulation knowledge with this newest scientific development to explore the possibilities to develop new products that will expand and diversify our portfolio of beverages and offer new choices to our consumers.”

For 2008, Cargill will be launching a Truvia table-top sweetener and also holds the responsibility for product development in the food industry. Dr. Applebaum said during the Webinar that Coca-Cola is exploring options for its beverage portfolio, but for competitive reasons it could not discuss timing of a release.

Comeback kid

In tune with the request for natural sweeteners, another shift in beverage formulations is the return to cane or beet sugars. Bob Marginelly, Domino Foods Inc.’s vice president of industrial sales, says the main reason for the return to sugar is that it is perceived as natural, although the Food and Drug Administration, has not defined the term “natural.”

Beverages in the health and wellness category, such as sports and energy drinks, enhanced waters and teas, are launching with sugar or have switched back to sugar for either formulaic or the “pure and natural” positioning reasons, Marginelly says. Additionally, some niche products and even soft drinks, like Jones Soda, now use or have switched to sugar to differentiate the brands from others in their categories, he says.

Beverages that are using or switching back to sugar are doing so for a product positing reason though and not an economic reason, Marginelly emphasizes. While the price of sugar may have been the reason soft drink companies switched completely to high fructose corn syrup in the ‘80s, the economic advantage of HFCS to sugar was about 15 to 20 percent then, Marginelly says. The economic benefit has dissipated somewhat because of the pricing of the commodities in the past year — corn is more than $6 a bushel today and around $2.50 a bushel back then. It’s a contributing factor, but not the overriding factor of why companies are switching back to sugar, Marginelly says.

“Sugar pricing is still not going to be an advantage,” he says.

“It’s a functional reason,” he continues. “It’s not an economic reason. Most of those people, if not all of those people, are paying more for their sweetener than what they did before.”

Cane sugar may have an advantage over beet sugar in the natural arena moving forward too, because some beet sugar manufacturers will be growing beets made from genetically modified seeds. “This could be the cause of why even cane sugar next year is going to be the sugar of choice going into these various beverages,” Marginelly says, adding that Domino Sugar is strictly cane sugar.

Niche and organic options

Beverage companies seeking to establish their product in the health and wellness category also are using organic sweeteners for their beverages. Organic sugar works well in richer beverages like soy milks, coffee, chocolate, teas and traditional lemonade vs. very light fruit flavored or clear beverages, says Nigel Willerton, chief executive officer of Wholesome Sweeteners, Sugar Land, Texas. “This is because the residual molasses [that is] not chemically refined out of organic sugar can add additional color or flavor, which may be undesirable,” he explains. “Organic sugar also delivers that richer depth of color and flavor that can significantly enhance some beverages and not just sweeten them.”

The organic and natural ready-to-drink tea category is growing and so is its use of organic cane sugar, Willerton says. “Energy drinks is another area where each is looking to differentiate itself from the competition and using organic, and now this is extending to Fair Trade certified ingredients,” he says. “Vitamin-enhanced waters are the latest sector looking at sweetening with organic cane sugar. Wholesome Sweeteners is working on projects to supply organic cane sugar free of all molasses and impurities through using physical filtration and supplying crystal clear organic cane sugar.”

Wholesome Sweeteners also offers an Organic Blue Agave Nectar, a fructose sweetener that is 25 percent sweeter than sugar. Wholesome Sweeteners’ Organic Blue Agave Nectar has a low-glycemic index (39) that makes a beverage less likely to spike blood sugar, which is a concern for many consumers, including diabetics, Willerton says.

Most applications to date for Organic Blue Agave Nectar tend to be premium beverages that do not require a crystal-clear sweetener, he says. This includes superfruit-based beverages like acai, and vegetable drinks as well as canned, carbonated energy drinks. Organic Blue Agave Nectar’s strength of color and mild honey flavor would be the biggest challenges for sensitive beverage applications, Willerton says.

Blend is in

One ongoing strategy is the blending of sweeteners to deliver the best taste.

“The trend in the market is about blending sweeteners,” says Jordi Ferre, Tate & Lyle’s vice president of sales and marketing for sucralose. “It’s really the key to what’s enabling the sweetness goal and to support different beverage applications.”

When sweeteners are blended, many times formulators are able to achieve more versatility in the taste they want to deliver, Ferre explains. For example, many sweeteners, including sucralose, are being blended with sucrose. “It’s certainly to obtain certain sugar tastes, but yet deliver certain functionality with less calories.”

As well, the trend for high intensity sweeteners (HIS) has shifted from the single-sweetener-approach to using multiple sweeteners. “These could be in the form of a similar blend of aspartame/ace-K as is used in Coke Zero or ace-K/sucralose/neotame blends as used in CSDs and flavored waters,” says John Curry, president of Sweetener Solutions LLC, Pooler, Ga. “This multiple sweetener approach tends to flatten or abate some of the off-notes the individually used HIS tend to give. Sweetener Solutions markets several HIS blends for this exact reason.”

Calorie reduction remains an important function of sweeteners as well, but not in the same way low-calorie beverages were marketed three or four years ago, Tate & Lyle’s Ferre says. Beverages in the better-for-you or health and wellness category are using low- or zero-calorie sweeteners, but instead of positioning the products as diet or low calorie, beverage companies are focusing on the beverage’s functionality. For example, sports and energy drinks and enhanced waters may use zero- or reduced-calorie sweeteners, but tout their vitamin, mineral and energy content instead. Additionally, Tate & Lyle is working with sucralose in no-calorie beverages that would enhance a product’s functionality beyond just taste by working on value-added delivery systems, some of which include fiber.

“It’s a way of delivering a product that has a value added into it, but also delivers less calories,” Ferre says. “The main benefit of the product is not necessarily the less calories, but it’s more of the value-added benefit in the product.”

When it comes to weight management and nutritional profiles of new beverages, progress has been made incorporating vitamins, minerals, pre- and probiotics in combination with calorie reduction using HIS blends, Curry says. “Although off-notes may be present with vitamins, minerals and some soy beverages, there will be several new launches in the coming year that will demonstrate compatibility of all of these ingredients,” he says.

As mentioned in regard to sugar and HFCS, economic changes are playing a role in sweetener blending as well. “We are seeing several beverage segments interested in reducing amounts of HFCS 42 and 55 due to availability firstly, but more significantly for a cost savings by utilizing several of our aspartame/ace-K/ neotame blends,” Curry says. “Using HIS blends to reduce HFCS in percentages of up to 30 percent can be a significant overall sweetener cost savings for customers who were never able to realize such savings before.”

Natural options in HIS blends are also in development at Sweetener Solutions. The company is awaiting the approval of new grades of stevia in the form of rebaudioside-A. “Stevia powder can tend to have a licorice aftertaste that is tempered quite a bit in the rebaudioside-A powder…” Curry says. “We are currently working on sweetener blend taste profiles and hope to have a rebaudioside-A blend on the market this year.”

Weight management

With the rise of obesity worldwide, consumers continue to search for beverages and foods with reduced calories. For weight management, Danisco Texturants & Sweeteners, Elmsford, N.Y., offers Litesse polydextrose, a low-calorie, low-glycemic, prebiotic fiber ingredient that has the added benefit of inducing satiety, says Donna Brooks, the company’s regional director.

“Litesse is ideal for use in weight-management beverages as it reduces calories, improves the nutritional profile of the beverage and can even help improve the mouthfeel of the beverage,” she says. “Low-glycemic and high-fiber foods and beverages help moderate fluctuations in blood sugar levels and suppress hunger longer — thus reducing the temptation to overeat and assisting with weight management.”

Additionally, Litesse also can help mask off-notes in beverages that come from the addition of vitamins and minerals, Brooks says. Reduced-calorie ingredients, such as Litesse polydextrose, can be used in combination with HIS to help provide the body and sweetness when replacing sugar in full-sugar sweetened beverages, she adds. Calorie counting isn’t the only factor consumers are concerned with in regard to weight management. Recognition of the potential role fat plays in myriad diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the value of attaining a personalized healthy weight also are playing a role.

Consumers are looking for convenient, natural, healthy weight-loss solutions, says Sharon Rokosh, business development manager at Glanbia Nutritionals, Monroe, Wis. Weight-management products are increasing on mainstream levels, she says.

Glanbia Nutritionals offers Prolibra weight-management solution, an all-natural specialized whey fraction, which provides a multi-faceted approach to weight loss. Prolibra targets fat, lowers post-prandial glycemia and addresses satiety, Rokosh says.

“Prolibra’s market is healthy weight loss — people interested in achieving healthy, natural, sustainable weight loss,” she says. “The synergistic effect of Prolibra’s unique components, including proprietary whey peptides, contributes to significant fat loss, preserves lean muscle mass and significantly lowers post-prandial glycemia. Targeting fat loss and lowering your glycemic response while retaining lean mass provides a healthier scenario for weight loss.”

Consuming foods with a low-glycemic index is another approach for achieving healthy weight loss and may aid weight loss through the control of appetite, the delay of hunger, and the reduction of insulin levels and insulin resistance, Rokosh says.

Another set of functional ingredients helping consumers to stay satiated for a longer period of time are Super CitriMax and ChromeMate from InterHealth Nutraceuticals Inc., Benicia, Calif. Both ingredients offer weight-management benefits, and Super CitriMax earlier this year was granted a patent for its ability to promote fat oxidation or fat burning. Super CitriMax is an all-natural, weight-loss ingredient that contains standardized levels of hydroxycitric acid, an extract from the South Asian fruit Garcinia cambogia, which is bound to minerals calcium and potassium.

In addition to InterHealth Nutraceuticals’ research showing Super CitriMax as a fat burner, the ingredient suppresses appetite and inhibits fat production, without stimulating the central nervous system, the company says.

InterHealth Nutraceuticals also offers ChromeMate, which the company says has been proven to reduce body weight through fat loss while maintaining muscle mass. ChromeMate also has been shown to lower cholesterol, LDL and triglyceride levels while increasing beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, as well as lowering blood pressure, InterHealth Nutraceuticals says.

Paul Dijkstra, chief executive officer of InterHealth Nutraceuticals, agrees that maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is critical for people wanting to manage their weight. “They are able to avoid blood sugar spikes with related food cravings, often leading to eating too many of the wrong sugary foods,” he says.

“Using functional foods and beverages as a way to actively stay satiated for a longer period of time, feel fuller, or to limit caloric intake to prevent weight gain and control body weight is gaining in popularity,” Dijkstra continues. “Functional beverages, including waters, that help prevent weight gain, are increasingly popular … People like the convenience and the flexibility that these products offer as long as they taste great. They can incorporate it into their daily lives without thinking about remembering to take supplements.”