The health and wellness trend has sweeteners top of mind for consumers. In an effort to moderate their caloric intake, consumers are surveying products and purchasing according to their personal priorities. Many have embraced more naturally positioned products, which in some instances can be higher calorie sugar-sweetened products that shoppers consider to be healthier alternatives to artificial sweeteners, Mintel International Group reported in a January webinar on “Sweeteners and Sugar.”

“Many consumers are ‘swapping calories’ from the traditional nutritive beverages to more non-nutritive offerings thus causing a subsequent impact for the relative sweetness requirements in beverage formulations,” says Mary Lynne Shafer, manager of beverage strategy and business development for Corn Products International, Decatur, Ill. “Another key trend is the aging population, which is driving consumers to look for more balanced health offerings in their diet, i.e. good for you, low calorie, reduced sugar, etc., and having the right sweetness choice for beverage manufacturers provides them the opportunity to tailor their brand offerings meeting these consumer needs.”

According to Mintel’s Global New Product Database, beverages formulated with sweeteners, which encompass ingredients such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia, were most likely to make a low, no or reduced calorie claim with 106 of the 226 new products released from May 25, 2010 to 2011. Non-nutritive sweeteners appealed nearly evenly across categories with carbonated soft drinks having the top draw with 39, meal replacement and other drinks with 27, beverage mixes at 26, fruit and flavored still drinks with 25 and flavored water rounding out the Top 5 at 23 offerings.

For sugar and other nutritive sweeteners, the total of products mentioning the ingredient category is 492. The most popular claims for sugar-sweetened beverages were ethical/ environmentally friendly packaging, kosher as well as all-natural product and no additives and/or preservatives, according to GNPD. Carbonated soft drinks maintain the top spot with 96 products, malt and other hot beverages at 65, fruit and flavored still drinks with 58, beverage mixes at 45 and meal replacements and other drinks at 37.

Through research The Corn Refiners Association, Washington, D.C., has found that consumers believe a sugar is a sugar, explains Audrae Erickson, president of the association. The Corn Refiners Association has conducted research that found that while one in four consumers look for sugar on labels, less than 3 percent of consumers look for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) on product labels, Erickson says. In line with beverage industry trends, the association is working to promote the natural status of HFCS, she says.

In addition to consumer demands, the sweetener landscape also has been affected by commodity price increases, particularly related to sugar, Mintel found in its December 2010 U.S. Sugar and Sweeteners report. The research firm reports the price of sugar increased to a 30-year high due to low crop yields in growing countries, such as Brazil, Russia and Western Europe.


Blending benefits

Aligning with the combination of consumer trends and increasing commodity prices, ingredient suppliers predict mid-calorie formulations will emerge as consumers seek to stay natural, but also reduce caloric intake.

“It really is the mindset of all or nothing,” Jim Kempland, managing director of Cote Brillante Consulting LLC, St. Louis. “The soft drink industry has the traditional mindset of it’s either diet, whether that’s artificial or natural, or full calorie. It really hasn’t clicked, based on some of the research I’ve seen, that consumers are looking for a possible third choice, and that would be that all natural product. People will buy a 50 calorie product versus a 150 calorie product as long as they know it tastes great and it’s all natural.”

To fit in with health and wellness trends, beverage-makers should be open to formulating with a range of sweeteners, says Karl Kramer, president of innovation and commercial development for Tate & Lyle, Decatur, Ill. Kramer is on the board of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation where the topic is top of mind.

“There’s no magic bullet for weight loss, it’s all about calorie reduction and moderation,” Kramer says. “Consumers are starting to be healthier, which provides beverage-makers with a place to discuss the tools in our tool box to help with fat and sugar reduction and calorie balance.”

Tate & Lyle provides a lineup of sweeteners, including saccharin, cyclamates, aspartame, sucralose, crystalline fructose and a family of corn syrups that can be formulated into a range of applications. Kramer also recognizes the trend toward mid-calorie formulations, he says.

“Reduced calorie is solving the taste problem,” Kramer says. “It’s provides the option of moderate amount of calories versus going all the way to zero-calorie, but sacrificing taste. There’s not any one single solution, but combinations are probably a useful approach.”

Kempland says mid-calorie innovations do not need to address the diet category, but rather innovate around reducing the calories in full calorie, full sugar products. The emergence of mid-calorie options will depend upon combinations of natural sweeteners, such as sugar and HFCS blended with stevia or monk fruit, he says.

Tate & Lyle recently announced a partnership with New Zealand-based BioVittoria Ltd. to offer a monk fruit derived sweetener. Marketed under the Purefruit name, the sweetener is a calorie-free ingredient that is fruit-based. Purefruit’s base in monk fruit allows it to carry the label “sweetened with fruit extract,” which is particularly appealing for reduced calorie juices for children, says Dave Tuchler, vice president of marketing for Tate & Lyle.


Stevia steps up

During a January webinar, Mintel reported stevia introductions were increasing in North America, where the sweetener is still not as popular as it is in Asia, according to David Jago, director of innovation and insight in the “Trends & Innovation: Stevia’s application in food and beverage” webinar. Globally, non-alcohol beverages make up a quarter of the product launches that are formulated with stevia, Mintel reports. Stevia’s use in beverage products in North America began a steep increase in 2009, which it continues today at a rate that outpaces Asia.

Stevia makers also see the trend toward blends for reduced calorie options. PureCircle USA Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., concurs that stevia’s natural lineage positions it to consumers who appreciate natural positioning. In addition to granulated and powdered stevia, PureCircle also offers sugar-stevia blends.

“We work with customers to select the best ingredient form for their product and processing system and price point,” says Jason Hecker, vice president of global marketing for the company. “We also work with sugar suppliers on sugar-stevia blends to satisfy growing demand for companies looking to reduce the sugar on their nutrition labels without significantly changing the taste.”

PureCircle says its stevia solutions are applicable in any beverage application from powdered drink mixes to dairy beverages to all-natural juices with reduced sugar, Hecker says.

GLG Life Tech Corp., Vancouver, Canada, is one of the largest growers of stevia in the world and also can provide assistance in product blending with a number of natural sweeteners, says Sam Newberg, vice president of the company. Newberg also foresees the market growing for mid-calorie formulations.

“I think beverage companies are looking for reduced calorie solutions and you’ve seen that in the marketplace,” Newberg says. “Trop50 is a great example of what’s happening in the States. We’ve launched some products in Mexico that are reduced calorie. My sense is that there is a space in between the full calorie and zero-calorie that’s being explored right now.”

GLG Life Tech offers BlendSure, which was developed to provide a natural sweetener with no calories, carbohydrates and a zero glycemic index at a price point comparable and competitive to sugar, the company says. It created BlendSure by isolating various components of the stevia plant and then blending them in a proprietary ratio to deliver consistent, balanced and sucrose-like taste profile, the company says. The solution is both heat and pH stable and also is particularly suited for carbonated beverage formulation, GLG Life Tech says.

Sweet Green Fields, Bellingham, Wash., partnered with Zevia, a stevia-sweetened line of carbonated soft drinks, to formulate its zero-calorie products. The ingredient supplier offers a lineup of Reb A-based stevia products, including RA 97 percent and RA 80 percent options. RA 97 percent is Sweet Green Fields’ highest purity product that has a natural high intensity, no calories and no bitter aftertaste, the company says. Its RA 80 percent product formulates well with products requiring a zero-calorie sweetener as it is pure Reb A with a less refined finish, Sweet Green Fields says. 

“We also have a factory produced RA 99 percent plus, which is the highest purity,” says Mike Quin, vice president of sales and marketing for the company. “It reduces even more off notes and allows companies to get up to 7 percent brix. So getting closer to, I think, a better balance of being able to sweeten with Reb A and some level of sugar or their current sweetener system.”

Its RA 99 and RA 97 are tailored to sugar reduction, explains Mel Jackson, vice president of science for Sweet Green Fields. Sweet Green Fields, which is the first company to commercially grow stevia in California, used its proprietary technology to create a prototype of a 33 percent reduced sugar chocolate milk, which is part of its dedication to solutions that save on calories, but not sacrifice on taste, Quin says. It also has created prototypes for 33 percent to 50 percent sugar reduction in diet tea, juice, milk and carbonated beverages, says Alex Wu, vice president of application for Sweet Green Fields.

These reduced sugar solutions also can help alleviate escalating sugar costs, Quin says. In addition, a blend of stevia with sugar will maintain the properties, such as viscosity and mouthfeel, that sugar provides, but with the caloric and cost reduction that Sweet Green Fields’ stevia offers, he explains.

The reduced sugar products also have the appeal that they can be labeled as “naturally sweetened,” Wu says. The company works with beverage-makers to establish the proper blend of Sweet Green Fields’ stevia as well as congruent flavors and taste modulators to achieve the ideal solution, he explains.

The consumer appeal of natural also applies to Minneapolis-based Cargill’s Truvia rebiana stevia-based sweetener option. The company has discovered how to manage the quality of Truvia rebiana to make it consistent across multiple food systems, says Ralf Loeffelholz, Truvia rebiana global commercial manager for Cargill Health & Nutrition. Truvia is water soluble, heat and pH stable in beverages and can be used in liquid as well as powder applications, Loeffelholz says.


Range of possibilities

Cargill also developed the TasteWise platform specifically dedicated to reduced calorie products. The solutions provide an option for Cargill to help beverage-makers create reduced calorie beverages that provide a taste experience more similar to that of a full-calorie beverage, says Andy Del-Rosal, team leader of Cargill’s beverage applications scientists.

Recognizing the importance of taste to consumers, Cargill built a deeper understanding from research of three key factors affecting taste experience in beverages: sweetness, flavor and mouthfeel. The research gives Cargill the ability to look at all three factors from a holistic perspective by uniting the company’s expertise in sweeteners, flavors and texturizers, Del-Rosal says. TasteWise reduced calorie solutions are suitable for all beverage categories and are customizable based on a customer’s goals and application, he says.

Reduced calorie formulations are not only limited to formulations featuring zero-calorie sweeteners, Corn Products’ Shafer points out. The company’s three portfolio areas, which include zero-calorie Enliten Reb A stevia sweetener, offer synergies to create reduced sugar and calorie formulations, while delivering great taste, she says. Corn Products offers nutritive, partially nutritive and non-nutritive options of sweeteners. Its nutritive lineup includes glucose, fructose and maltose syrups, dextrose and maltodextrins, Shafer says. It also offers erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and polyglycitol partially nutritive sweeteners.

The Corn Refiners Association has a Food and Drug Administration petition pending to change the terminology for HFCS to corn sugar, Erickson says. In the mean time, the association continues to promote the benefits of HFCS, which is available in HFCS 55 and HFCS 42 options. The ingredient is stable in an acidic or high pH environment, it blends well and also enhances fruit and spice flavors instead of masking them, Erickson explains.

Popular in diet formulations, aspartame can be used on its own or in blends with other sweeteners. The ingredient is featured in the Top 13 diet beverages in the United States and five of the Top 7 diet beverages formulate with 100 percent aspartame, according to Ihab Bishay, director of product development for Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLC, Chicago. In addition to carbonated soft drinks, aspartame can be used with citrus, dairy, vanilla and many fruit flavor systems. Bishay also notes the high intensity sweetener can be formulated into refrigerated products, such as chocolate milk, with similar shelf-life to sugar-sweetened options.

Aspartame, which is made of components naturally occurring in common foods and beverages, can be used as a sole sweetener, but also blends well with acesulfame-K, sugar and many other sweeteners, Bishay says.

In addition, Ajinomoto Food Ingredients also created advantame, which is a new sweetener that is under review by the Food and Drug Administration. Advantame is 20,000 times sweeter than sugar and will be able to replace a portion of the sugar in beverages, Bishay says.

The recent attention on flavored milk also attracted the attention of John Curry, president of business development for Sweetener Solutions LLC, Pooler, Ga. The company offers sweetener blends, such as a neotame solution that can be used as a 20 to 30 percent reduction of sugar or HFCS with a taste that’s close to full sugar, Curry says. The company also offers several multiple sweetener blends that can be used to replace 30 to up to 100 percent of sugar or HFCS, he says.

The flavored milk debate calls for reduction proposals, he says. Presently, high intensity sweeteners are not allowed in school milk programs, but a change in those regulations would provide the opportunity to create reduced calorie options that provide children with the benefits of milk, such as vitamin D, Curry explains.


Future frontiers

In the search for the next sweetener solution, Kempland says ingredient companies are taking an approach similar to the pharmaceutical industry, and screening various compounds of a natural base in order to identify how some of these products can be used and maintain a natural proposition.

Going forward, the increase of supply chain consolidation and globalization will continue to affect the market, Corn Products’ Shafer says.

“Given this, there are many challenges and opportunities for the sweetener industry both in developing new technologies as well as increasing operational efficiencies,” Shafer says. “Innovation continues to be important with strong growth in developing countries particularly India and China, but even in mature markets as consumers are looking for direction to balance between their enjoyment of good food and beverage and being healthy.”

Identifying possible new sources for sweeteners also will help keep up with the increased worldwide demand for existing natural sweeteners, such as sucrose and HFCS. As developing markets grow, their demand for the ingredients places a strain on the world’s supply, Kempland says.

“China at one time was a net exporter, now they’re a net importer,” he says. “The demand in India, which is the largest per capita consumption on the planet, has increased as their middle class has increased. I think there will become tremendous pressures on sugar and/or corn-based sweeteners because the demand for sugar and corn, whether you’re going to convert it into sweeteners and/or other foodstuffs. With that the advent of these all-natural high-intensity sweeteners, there definitely opens the door for blending opportunities.”