The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new Nutrition Facts label, in conjunction with continued consumer demand for transparency, less sugar and clean-label products, have resulted in an increased demand for natural, non-caloric, high-intensity sweeteners (HIS), like stevia, monk fruit and erythritol. These ingredients now are garnering more attention from beverage-makers looking to reduce or eliminate sugar in their products.

“Attempts to reduce sugar consumption have been the trend in recent years,” explains Akshay Kumar Anugu, associate at Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “Several countries are not only educating citizens about their consumption of caloric-sweetened food products, but are also providing disincentives through regulations, taxes and prohibitions. Growing natural and organic trends have also prompted some beverage manufacturers to focus their product development efforts toward clean-label and/or natural sweeteners for replacing added sugars. These trends have opened a tailor-made gap for high-intensity natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit extracts across the world.”

Andy Ohmes, global commercial manager for high-intensity sweeteners at Minneapolis-based Cargill, expects these trends to continue. “Sugar reduction in beverages will continue to be a hot topic driven by a combination of factors, including evolving consumer attitudes around sweetness intensity and sweeteners of choice, global regulations and taxation on the sugar content of beverages and upcoming changes to the Nutrition Facts panel in the United States,” he says.

Mark Rainey, vice president of global food marketing with Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), adds that clean-label trends have been impacting the sweetener market.

“Demand for lower-calorie sweeteners from natural sources continues to be driven by consumers who are seeking products with recognizable, natural and fewer ingredients on the label,” he says. “There is no single solution for sweeteners. Our goal is to help customers address added sugar and clean-label improvements while at the same time finding solutions to the potential product development challenges of taste, cost, calories, labeling.”

Although consumer demand remains an inherent factor in developers switching to natural HIS solutions, the Dietary Guidelines and FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label also could contribute to a growth in usage, experts say.

“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting the use of sweeteners and having provided recommendations surrounding added-sugar intake,” explains Satya Jonnalagadda, director of nutrition at Kerry Ingredients, Beloit, Wis. “Additionally, the upcoming regulation changes to the Nutrition Facts panel labels will require manufacturers to declare the amount of added sugar in a product. We are even seeing some cities implement a sugar or soda tax.

“All of these activities in the policy arena, compounded with nutrition science evidence, have resulted in consumers paying closer attention to their sugar intake and added sugar in their foods,” she continues. “In order to satisfy consumers, food and beverage manufacturers have made commitments to reduce sugar content, including added sugars, in their products as well as pledging to use natural sweetener solutions, like stevia or monk fruit.”

Mel Jackson, chief officer of science at Bellingham, Wash.-based Sweet Green Fields, notes that the Added Sugars section will enable consumers to be more informed. “The fact that added sugar will be clearly indicated in the new labeling format, consumers are going to be much better informed about the amount of sugar they are consuming, and so I think they will look to move to beverages that have less of a sugar impact. Natural HIS will definitely benefit from this change.”

In line with the growth in demand, Ingredion’s Anugu notes that ingredient suppliers are innovating with these sweeteners to provide sugar reductions at many levels.

“Next generation sweeteners such as Rebaudioside M (another steviol glycoside from [the] stevia leaf) and allulose (a rare sugar) can help achieve higher sugar-replacement targets,” Anugu says. “Ingredion’s Rebaudioside M is a clean-tasting steviol glycoside used to help replace high amounts of sugar in beverages.”

Sweet Green Fields’ Jackson adds that ingredient suppliers and beverage formulators have made strides to provide higher-quality products sweetened with natural HIS. “In general, beverage-makers have looked initially at sugar-reduction targets for their beverages for a number of reasons,” he explains. “First, they have taken time to get used to the optimal ways to formulate with stevia and other natural HIS to reduce sugar without compromising taste. In addition, and in concert with this notion, stevia extracts, in particular, have become better tasting, and makers and consumers of beverages have slowly adapted to the lower-calorie environment to the point where, in some cases and for some market segments, diet beverages made with the new generation of natural HIS are now becoming accepted.”

Stevia evolution

Reducing or eliminating sugars is not always an easy task, but some challenges can be overcome by the use of stevia, according to Carol May, president of Gilbert, Ariz.-based Wisdom Natural Brands, makers of SweetLeaf Stevia Sweetener. “Reducing and/or eliminating added and hidden sugars from the American diet poses a challenge for consumers, health professionals, and manufacturers of foods and beverages alike,” she says. “… Stevia is an excellent alternative sweetener to sugar.”

She notes that there are a variety of stevia forms and combinations thereof that can benefit beverage formulations.

Carolyn Clark, director of global marketing at PureCircle, Oak Brook, Ill., says that as stevia’s use has increased, ingredient suppliers have been able to innovate and expand their stevia offerings.

“With so many different types of sweet-tasting molecules (steviol glycosides) from the leaves of the stevia plant, companies can really find the perfect custom stevia solution that works for them and create a product that will make consumers happy,” she says.

Suppliers also are using their research and development departments to create solutions that address common formulation challenges, explains John Martin, senior director of global technical innovation at PureCircle. “Using stevia in beverages has been traditionally challenging because beverages have a high sweetness max, and using stevia to get to that sweetness level often leaves an aftertaste or linger,” he explains. “At PureCircle, we’ve recently launched Sigma-Beverage, a stevia ingredient that is perfect for the beverage sweetener system because it really addresses this high sweetness challenge and overcomes it.

“Additionally, PureCircle’s Zeta Family, which is comprised of premium, sugar-like steviol glycosides, offers additional solutions for overcoming taste challenges,” he continues. “We are far beyond the days of Reb A-only solutions and can provide formulators with so many more options now to fit their needs.”

Cargill’s Ohmes echoes similar sentiments. “With the early Reb A-only stevia sweeteners, developers were focused on managing aftertastes, such as bitterness, metallic or licorice notes,” he says. “Given the huge leap forward in [the] quality of sweetness, today’s next-generation stevia products give developers more versatility in their quest to create great-tasting, reduced-sugar beverages.”

Yet, Reb A stevia still can provide solutions for beverage-makers, Ohmes says. “Traditional high-purity Rebaudioside A (RA95, RA80, RA50) stevia products still have a place in reformulation efforts,” he says. “Depending on the application, these can be effectively used to replace 15 to 25 percent of the sugar in a beverage.”

Benefits of blending

As these natural, HIS solutions garner more attention from beverage-makers, the benefits of combining stevia with erythritol and/or monk fruit extracts are becoming more evident, experts say.

“With continued pressure to reduce sugar and calories in food and beverages, maximizing sweetness intensity without compromising quality has become the critical taste hurdle,” Cargill’s Ohmes explains. “Sweetener combinations can be very useful to achieve greater sweetness intensity, improved sweetness quality and even optimizing formulation costs.

“... The most successful reduced-sugar beverages are designed to optimize sweetness, replace the mouthfeel of sugar solids and, occasionally, manage minor aftertastes,” he continues.

Thom King, founder and chief executive officer of Portland, Ore.-based Steviva Ingredients, notes that stevia-erythritol blends are becoming a go-to natural sweetening solution. “This combination has a very nice, neutral flavor profile that pairs perfectly with most flavors, but particularly well with citrus,” he says. “We have had amazing luck with a stevia, monk fruit and erythritol blend.”

He notes that blends can benefit zero-calorie goals as well as sugar-reduction goals. “Zero-calorie goals can be easily achieved with a stevia-and-erythritol blend and/or a stevia-monk fruit-and-erythritol blend,” he says. “… Additionally, if the goal is simply sugar reduction, combining nutritive sweeteners, such as sugar, agave or fructose, with [a] stevia-and-erythritol blend and/or stevia-monk fruit-and-erythritol blend can deliver up to 70 percent clean-label sugar reduction and deliver a brilliant flavor profile with a fantastic mouthfeel.”

Although experts note that some of the aforementioned blends might not require masking, this formulation step often plays a role when formulating with natural HIS. “These alternative sweeteners typically have a different temporal profile than real sugar,” explains John Buckley, vice president of taste innovation at Kerry Ingredients. “... Often times, these natural sweeteners also have off-tastes that can linger on the palate. Masking technology may be employed to ‘clip’ lingering sweetness and to mitigate off-tastes that consumers may describe as metallic, astringent or bitter.”

Kerry offers its TasteSense portfolio, which features a variety of solutions that help hide or disguise any non-desirable attributes, while enhancing those that are desired, adds Renata Ibarra, senior research, development and applications director of taste at Kerry.

Bob Verdi, business director of health and wellness at Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y., highlights the unique characteristics that sugar provides to beverage formulations and notes the challenges beverage-makers encounter in efforts to create a perception that is close to sugar without the offnotes.

“Virginia Dare has a long history in the development and application of flavor-masking systems,” he says. “The use of natural flavor-masking systems in alternative-sweetener beverages can bring the sweetness taste profile closer to that of sugar and suppress and curtail offnotes.”

When it comes to reduced-sugar formulations, flavor perception can decrease as a result of the lower sugar content, Verdi says. “Sugar sweetness enhances overall taste and flavor impact in beverages,” he explains. “When sugar is reduced in a product formulation, the flavor taste perception is therefore also often lessened. Virginia Dare’s new taste modifiers can be used to strengthen the taste delivery in sugar-reduced products.” BI

Formulating for you

As consumers continue to avoid sugar as a result of market trends and regulations, finding the right non-caloric sweetening solution for a product can be challenging and several factors should be considered, experts say.

John Martin, senior director of global technical innovation at Oak Brook, Ill.-based PureCircle, highlights that sweetening systems are not one-size-fits-all solutions. “Beverage-makers really need to look at their sweetener system as a whole and the taste profile of the product when considering working with any new sweetener, including stevia,” he says. “Often, there isn’t a single sweetener solution and there may be some trial and error when attempting to create a new product or to reformulate.”

Akshay Kumar Anugu, associate at Westchester, Ill.-based Ingredion Inc., echoes similar sentiments. “Each sweetener is a different molecule, binds to different domains of the taste receptor cells, and elicits a distinct sweet response. Replacing one sweetener with another sweetener is always challenging due to this basic difference in sweetness mechanism. … Differences in time intensity and temporal sweet taste; objectionable bitterness, metallic and licorice attributes; missing functionalities, such as mouthfeel and osmolality; performances issues due to limited solubility, processing/storage stability; [and] dosage restrictions due to tolerance are some of the key formulation challenges with these ingredients.

“The approach to sugar replacement is application dependent,” Anugu continues. “Ingredion’s unique Dial-In Sweetener and Texture technologies are designed to help the formulator adopt the best approaches for replacing sugar. Since sweetness solutions are application dependent, Ingredion’s technology allows the customer to optimize the solution to suit the individual product needs.”

Anugu suggests that product developers consider several factors when choosing the appropriate natural high-intensity sweeteners (HIS) solution. “The product developer should consider type of beverage, required sweetness equivalence, target sugar replacement, presence of other sweeteners (for synergy), other ingredients (e.g., acids, flavors), regulations (tolerance and dosage restrictions), perception (sugar alcohols), cost and availability while formulating a beverage with stevia, monk fruit extracts and erythritol.”

When removing sugar, beverage-makers also have a plethora of solutions to help restore some of the lost desired attributes, notes Mark Rainey, vice president of global food marketing at Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

“ADM has a wide range of sweetener options to help customers strike the right balance. This includes a single-ingredient sweetener solutions and blends including stevia and monk fruit,” he explains. “Like stevia, monk fruit, for example, is an all-natural, clean-label sweetener that’s yet another great solution for natural or better-for-you food and beverages offering great taste with sugar-free, no-sugar-added and reduced-sugar options. It can be used alone or blended with other high-intensity sweeteners, flavor modifiers, natural masking agents and more.

“ADM also offers fruit extracts and natural distillates that can provide sweetness as well as satisfy the growing trend for real food ingredients,” he continues. “These non-nutritive ingredients can be used to add color, aroma, flavor and important taste aspects to lower sweetness [in] foods, especially when combined synergistically with other advantaged ADM ingredients.”

He adds that ADM’s WILD Flavors & Specialty Ingredients’ natural flavor modifiers, including sweetness modifiers, sodium modifiers, and taste and mouthfeel modifiers, also can be helpful in restoring and maintaining sweetness in products that contain reduced amounts of sugar and calories.

On a larger scale, Thom King, founder and chief executive officer of Steviva Ingredients, Portland, Ore., notes that it is important for beverage-makers to be “mindful of global food laws and how they pertain to erythritol and high-intensity sweeteners in beverages.”

He highlights that monk fruit extracts have not been approved for use as an additive or sweetener in Canada and the European Union.

Steve Fowler, director of applications for flavors at Beloit, Wis.-based Kerry Ingredients, adds that the target consumer demographic and cost also should be considered. “Within the natural sweetener category, stevia tends to be the most cost-effective option, but this can vary greatly depending on the type and from where the product is sourced,” he explains. “At this time, more obscure sweetener options, like monk fruit, are often the most expensive but tend to be attractive to younger consumers who put emphasis on living clean, healthy lifestyles.”