Sweeteners are top of mind these days. From “sugar-sweetened” beverage taxes to a push to reduce calories to natural sweetener alternatives, the beverage industry has come a long way from just classifying its beverages as regular or diet.

Due to the obesity epidemic, especially in regard to children, many beverage-makers are considering reducing calories in their beverages as well as added sugar in their formulations.

“Beverage companies have been more active in reducing calories and sugar because they see the increased demand from their customers to do so,” says Ihab Bishay, director of business development and application innovation at Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLC, Chicago. “Furthermore there are pending legislations which are proposing to reduce or limit sugared beverages to varying degrees. Reducing sugar allows them to be proactive and meet their consumers’ demands.”

Beverage companies have been reformulating the sweeteners in their products to reduce calories and sometimes to remove high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). During the past few years, many consumers’ negative perception of HFCS has driven beverage formulators to remove the ingredient. The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), Washington, D.C., has been working to set the record straight.

“We’ve been engaged in a nationwide multimedia effort to provide science-based facts to consumers that really spans everything from television to print to online efforts because there has been significant confusion about what this sweetener is,” says Audrae Erickson, CRA’s president.

Confusion in the press and between other sweeteners has generated many of consumers’ concerns about HFCS.

“What we’ve found is that when people do get the facts, maybe they’ve seen our ad or they’ve received information about what other independent associations like the American Dietetic Association or the American Medical Association, they are favorably inclined toward HFCS and their concerns are waylaid,” Erickson says.    

High intensity sweeteners
Historically, beverage manufacturers have re-evaluated their choices of sweeteners on a regular basis, and this has not changed, says Dave Tuchler, vice president of marketing for Splenda sucralose at Tate & Lyle, Decatur, Ill.

“This has particularly been the case lately due to the increasing and very visible emphasis on a calorie control diet related to weight management, as well as the increasing need for product cost management brought about by the economic downturn,” he says. “While beverage manufacturers continue to assess some of the new sweeteners available on the market, overall the sweetener choices for reformulated and new products that have existed for the last several years are following historic trends.”

While new product introductions slowed during the recession, this trend has started to recede, and new product introductions are increasing. It’s not surprising that many new product entrants have lower levels of calories.

“There are numerous new and hybrid beverage products whose concepts incorporate lower calorie delivery, such as functional waters,” Tuchler says.

Products that are currently full calorie can optimize high potency sweeteners, such as sucralose, by replacing a proportion of nutritive sweeteners. Formulators can reduce calories by as much as 30 to 40 percent using Splenda sucralose without compromising on taste or texture, Tuchler says.

“The target is generally not to find the mid-point between diet and full calorie, but to determine the optimal level of nutritive sweeteners that can be replaced without affecting the flavor profile and other characteristics of the beverage,” he adds.

Sucralose can be used across most beverage categories, and is starting to appear more in sports and performance beverages, says Hugh Zhang, general manager of JK Sucralose Inc. USA, Edison, N.J.  

“It is an ingredient in an array of recently introduced new products as well as reformulation, and is used in products positioned as reduced calorie and diet, as well as in so-called ‘regular’ products, where it can help reduce product costs by replacing some of the sugar,” Tuchler says.

New forms of sucralose also are being used in beverages. Niutang Chemical Inc., Brea, Calif., introduced a liquid sucralose product through Viachem Ltd., Plano, Texas. Viachem currently is Niutang’s primary sales and marketing company for its full line of high intensity sweeteners in the United States and Canada.

“Beverage manufacturers are eagerly awaiting Niutang Liquid Sucralose because it blends so easily with other ingredients,” said Larry Davis, Viachem’s vice president of sales, in a statement. “Its flavor characteristics are identical to Niutang’s zero-calorie powdered sucralose, which is in high demand because of its flavor profile.”

With more sucralose in production now, the cost of the ingredient also has decreased, JK Sucralose’s Zhang says. In general, using high intensity sweeteners can reduce sweetener costs in a beverage by 15 percent or more, says John Curry, president of Sweetener Solutions LLC, Pooler, Ga. High intensity sweetener prices have been more stable than nutritive sweeteners, allowing manufacturing to maximize savings, he says.

Another high intensity sweetener, aspartame, is a low-calorie sweetener that works in blends with sugar and other sweeteners and offers a sugar-like taste. “The main concern for beverage formulators will always be taste,” Ajinomoto’s Bishay says.

Sweetener Solutions provides a range of specific high intensity sweetener blends to meet the formulation needs of a product. The most popular of its blends are its neotame blends, which are used to reduce nutritive sweeteners and caloric values by 20 to 30 percent, Curry says.

“It does take a lot of work to get the formulation where the taste would remain the same when you take the nutritive sweetener out, whether it be HFCS or sugar, to have it emulate the nutritive sweetener as closely as possible and also work in concert with other ingredients in the formulation,” says Mike Coffield, Sweetener Solutions’ vice president of technical sales and quality assurance. “Each formulation is different. Each flavor base is different, so the solution for the high intensity sweetener has to be individually tailored for that particular beverage.”

Stevia makes gains
The growing trend toward all-natural products and consumers’ needs for no- and low-calorie beverage offerings are driving the market toward stevia. Tabletop stevia sweeteners, including Truvia from Cargill, Minneapolis, and PureVia from PureCircle, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have helped to make consumers more familiar with the sweetener.

“Since the launch of Truvia natural sweetener, consumers have quickly jumped on board,” says Ann Tucker, marketing and communications director for Truvia at Cargill.

Research by PureCircle also indicated that stevia awareness has been growing steadily, says Jason Hecker, marketing director at PureCircle USA Inc., Oak Brook, Ill.

“Nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults now indicate that they are aware of the ingredient,” he says. “And this awareness is being driven by a number of areas, including tabletop marketing, broad media coverage of food trends and the very successful introduction of new products to market across an increasing number of categories by major global manufacturers.”

PureCircle has conducted research across more than 60 food and beverage categories and beverages consistently demonstrated among the highest fit scores for stevia, Hecker says.

“Because stevia is a natural ingredient, it allows manufacturers the ability to use it in conjunction with other natural sweeteners to completely eliminate calories or simply reduce them, while maintaining a natural claim,” he says.

Stevia holds many possibilities for beverage formulations, says James Kempland, vice president of marketing for GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver.

“Much of the potential comes not only from a natural, zero-calorie product formulation but from natural sugar blends,” he explains. “…Beverage manufacturers can blend stevia and sugar, reducing the caloric value of their products by 60 to 70 percent while still providing a great product with a natural caloric reduction.”

Stevia works in a variety of beverage applications with many flavor types.

“Lightly sweetened beverages, such as enhanced waters, are a great fit for stevia,” says Shanyn Seiler, senior scientist at Wild Flavors Inc., Erlanger, Ky. “Consumers want a low level of sweetness without the calories. Another great application is calorie-reduced juice beverages where, before stevia, the only way to reduce calories was with artificial sweeteners. In addition, iced teas are also a good fit for stevia as the tea notes round out lingering sweetness.”

Stevia is stable over a range of pH values between 3 and 7. In beverages, stevia also withstands heat processing, including ultra-high temperature processing, as well as extended storage without refrigeration, Cargill’s Tucker says.

In some beverage applications, formulating to zero calories without impacting the product’s taste can be difficult using stevia as the sweetener. One solution is that beverage-makers can blend stevia with sugar. Tropicana Trop50, Silk Light Chocolate Soymilk and Crystal Light Pure Fitness drink mix are examples of stevia and sugar combinations, Hecker says.

Blending stevia and the sweetener erythritol is another method beverage formulators are using. Corn Products International Inc., Westchester, Ill., offers Enliten, which is a greater than 95 percent stevia extract rebaudioside A (reb A) high intensity sweetener. The company also offers Erysta erythritol.

“Given that erythritol is 0.2 calories per gram, has a high digestive tolerance and pleasant sweet taste, it has found its way into many of the fortified flavored water products on the market today,” says Elizabeth Ford, director of strategic ingredient development at Corn Products International. “It is commonly used in combination with natural high intensity sweeteners, such as reb A, to provide a well rounded sweetness and mouthfeel.”

Sweetener Solutions also offers a reb A erythritol blend called SucraSweet Natural. “We also use a masking flavor to make the product taste more like sugar,” Coffield says.  

Taste modification technologies also have been developed to work in conjunction with stevia sweeteners available on the market, says Jessica Jones-Dille, senior manager of industry trends and market research at Wild Flavors. Stevia alone has a late onset of sweetness, lingers in sweetness and has off notes, such as earthy, licorice and bitter notes, the company’s Seiler says.

“By utilizing taste modification technologies, formulators can improve on the upfront sweetness, adding body lost when sugar and other sweeteners are removed or reduced, while blocking the off notes that are associated with stevia,” she says.

While stevia helps to answer the solution of a natural, zero-calorie sweetener, an organic zero-calorie stevia option is not yet commercially available.

“While stevia is a low-input crop, organic availability is currently low,” GLG Life Tech’s Kempland says. “However, we will likely soon see a shift of part of the supply moving to organic.”

Unlike other organic ingredients, stevia will not be difficult to source, he says.

“Organic stevia will likely emerge in GLG Life Tech’s product portfolio within the next few years,” Kempland says. “It is part of our constant drive to have the best seed to shelf product and offerings in the stevia industry. As demand increases, it is a natural progression for organic to become part of our product portfolio given the low-input nature of the crop. Organic stevia will be a viable part of our portfolio.”

Along with the projected growth of stevia’s use in beverages, suppliers and beverage companies continue to explore new sources of natural sweeteners. This month, Fruit-Sweetness from BioVittoria, Hamilton, New Zealand, will hit the shelves in FlatBelly Protein Shake from Maverick Brands, Palo Alto, Calif. Fruit-Sweetness is an all-natural, calorie-free fruit concentrate made from monk fruit that received U.S. Food & Drug Administration generally recognized as safe status in February. BioVittoria also is developing an enhanced flavored water formulated with Fruit-Sweetness for Talking Rain Beverage Co., Preston, Wash., the company says.

In addition, PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats division has developed a method of modifying oats using enzymes to derive a potent natural sweetener that could have applications in beverages. Cargill also has filed an application to patent a sweetener using specific stereoisomers of monatin, a naturally occurring high intensity sweetener from a plant native to South Africa. This sweetener also has applications for beverages as well as tabletop sweeteners and food.BI

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