A McDonald’s TV commercial that aired in the late-1970s featured a little boy adorably telling a little girl who was moving away how “neat, sweet and hard to beat” she was. When it comes to sweetening solutions like stevia, erythritol and monk fruit, ingredient suppliers highlight how they also are “moving on” in search of the latest iteration of sweetening solutions that will reduce sugar content while maintaining the lower calories and sugar-like taste and texture consumers’ crave.
The need for new and improved sweetening solutions has never been more important. Government agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have long recognized sugar’s contribution to global issues of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health problems. Since 2015, WHO has recommended that consumers reduce sugar intake to have 5 percent of total calories come from added sugars. For adults with a normal body mass index (BMI), this equates to about six teaspoons, or about 25 grams of sugar a day.
Experts note that when it comes to sugar, less is more. Natural, plant-based sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit are carrying more appeal in the U.S. and worldwide.
According to MarketsandMarkets, the global sugar substitutes market is projected to reach $16.5 billion by 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5 percent from 2015. North America is estimated to be the largest market for sugar substitutes, while the Asia-Pacific region is projected to be the fastest-growing market, at a CAGR of 5.5 percent during the review period. This growth mainly is driven by the increasing beverage, food, and health and personal care industries, particularly in developing countries such as India, Japan, China, South Korea and the other Asian countries, the report states.
Today’s health-minded consumers prefer healthy, but low-caloric food and beverage products. Experts note that regular sugar/sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup increasingly are being replaced by sugar substitutes in carbonated soft drinks (CSDs), non-dairy beverages, hard kombuchas, ready-to-drink (RTD) teas and keto-friendly products.
Read the label
More educated consumers are researching and scrutinizing labels at the grocery store, actively looking for products to see if they are “natural” and “good for you,” says Angela Skubal, applications lab supervisor at Hanover Park, Ill.-based Prinova USA.
“This is driving the use of natural sweeteners because of the demand for products to have a clean label; meaning very few ingredients that are easy to pronounce and derived from a natural source,” Skubal says. “In the same token, consumers still do not want sugar or high-calorie beverages, so high-intensity, no calorie, natural sweeteners are at the forefront because they possess all of these characteristics.”
Niles, Ill.-based Imbibe’s “Trends 2019 and Beyond” report affirms that 85 percent of consumers are limiting the amount of sugar in their diet and 79 percent of consumers read nutrition facts’ panel labels specifically looking at the types of sugar or sweetener being used in a product. In addition, 57 percent of consumers think low-sugar is important in deciding what to buy.
Abigail Storms, vice president of global marketing and innovation at Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., concurs that healthfulness and consumers’ desire for natural ingredients is driving the growth of stevia and monk fruit sweeteners. “The five-year CAGR of new products launched with stevia in North America is 8.6 percent and other regions are experiencing double-digit growth,” she says, citing Euromonitor’s 2013-2017 New Product Development launches. “Stevia [is] expected to experience strong growth, with monk fruit experiencing slightly slower growth.”
As part of its sugar substitute portfolio, Storms says its DOLCIA PRIMA Allulose offers a low/no calorie ingredient with the taste and texture of sucrose without all the calories.
Thom King, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Icon Foods, Portland, Ore., continues to see aggressive growth for stevia, monk fruit, erythritol and combinations thereof. “Consumers have become way savvier and are making choices to stay away from nutritive sweeteners,” he says. “Soft drinks formulated for an adult demographic are impacting usage of stevia and monk fruit. These are less sweet and have more exotic flavors.”
Maga Malsagove, CEO of Chicago-based PureCircle agrees: “The major beverage companies are responsibly working to reduce sugar and calories in their portfolios. And in carbonated soft drinks, the diet segment is performing better than it has in recent years. The growing use of stevia … up more than 33 percent in new product launches, is proving beverage companies with a natural zero-calorie sweetener that will broaden the appeal of zero- and low-calorie products and give consumers more choices.”
Wearing the crown
The global demand for sugar substitutes is on the rise, particularly in the beverage industry. Experts note that the demand is governed by their performance quality, incorporation of food processing, sweetness intensity, and regulations imposed by international and local governments.
The Cleveland-based Freedonia Group predicts alternative sweeteners will hit $1.6 billion by 2020, or roughly one-third higher than in 2010.
“Because consumers want the same sweet flavor with less sugar, many brands are turning to sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit as alternatives,” states a New York-based Nielsen Insights. “Stevia will dominate the natural, non-nutritive sweetener category since it is approved for use in food and beverages in North America, European and Asian countries and is considered more clean label than artificial sweeteners, which 54 percent of consumers are avoiding.”
Because usage of stevia and erythritol is on the rise, ingredient companies are accelerating the development of next generation stevia sweeteners, which offer “a significant improvement in taste quality,” says Kurt Callaghan, marketing manager of global sweetness innovation at Westchester, Ill.-based Ingredion Inc.
Several ingredient and sweetening companies also are joining forces when developing, producing and distributing non-caloric and non-GMO sweeteners. For instance, Ingredion has partnered with nature-based sweetener company Sweegen Inc. as the exclusive global distributor for BESTEVIA Reb M and Reb D.
“The partnership enables both companies to benefit from each other’s strengths: Sweegen’s industry leading manufacturing technology capabilities and Ingredion’s industry leading sugar reduction formulation expertise,” Callaghan explains. “Ingredion currently distributes the products in North America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Australia, and New Zealand, with additional countries as regulatory approvals are granted.”
BESTEVIA is made from 95 percent pure Reb M that is produced from the stevia plant, says Elena Zalewski, Ingredion’s associate marketing manager for sweet.
Among Ingredion’s other sweetening options are ENLITEN Fusion stevia sweeteners, which identifies synergies and combines the best attributes of multiple steviol glycosides. In addition, Ingredion and Itami, Japan-based Matsutani Chemical Industry Co., partnered to jointly bring ASTRAEA Allulose to the North American market. “This ingredient solution has a similar taste profile to sucrose and is 70 percent as sweet, helping you add sweet appeal to your low-calorie indulgences,” she adds.
In addition to BESTEVIA Reb M and Reb D, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based Sweegen’s newest ingredient, Bestevia e+ contains multiple stevia sweeteners and creates a taste profile close to sugar at a cost-competitive price, according to Katharina Pueller, Sweegen’s director of natural sweetener business.
“Reb M as a stand-alone has certain restrictions in non-alcoholic beverages due to patent protections,” Pueller says. “Bestevia e+ was created for non-alcoholic beverages but really works well in all formulations.”
To continue raising the bar in sweetener innovation, Minneapolis-based Cargill and Heerlen, The Netherlands-based Royal DSM announced a new joint venture: Avansya. The collaboration is designed to bring zero-calorie, cost-effective sweeteners to market faster. Avansya will produce highly sought-after, sweet-tasting molecules, such as steviol glycosides Reb M and Reb D through fermentation, giving food and beverage manufacturers an even more scalable, sustaining and low cost-in-use solution, the companies say.
Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager at Cargill, highlights that stevia and erythritol in combination provide a sweet taste without sugar or calories. “For product formulators, they are versatile ingredients that can address both the technical issues of formulating without sugar, while also meeting consumers’ label expectations.”
Stevia’s efficacious and sustainable future
As a natural plant-based product, ensuring there is enough stevia to meet supply chain demand is important. Several beverage companies have launched projects to ensure stevia’s sustainability. For example, Tate & Lyle along with Sweet Green Fields, have embarked upon a new research project with the independent nonprofit Earthwatch to identify steps to ensure that as the stevia market grows, sustainable growing practices consistently are embedded and socio-economic benefits are maximized.
Advances in extraction processes have made offnotes in monk fruit and stevia totally manageable, Icon Foods’ King says. The company maintains an exclusive contract with its stevia manufacturer partner BioLotus to ensure exceptional extraction standards and stewardship of the land, King says. “We have partnered on an exclusive water extraction process and our PuRefine resin column purification process … results in a very clean-tasting extract for our stevia and monk fruit [with] an amazing clean and neutral sweetness.”
Experts note that masking solutions can help overcome the challenges of working with high-intensity natural sweeteners.
Prinova’s Skubal notes that flavor and flavor system formulations have to be more sophisticated to make products palatable. These ingredients also have a higher raw material price and have to be used at a higher level than an artificial high-intensity sweetener would, necessitating more masking technology and flavor needs to help alleviate the bitter offnotes.
“Maskers and blockers developed for reducing metallic, licorice and bitter offnotes work the best,” she says. “We are fortunate here at Prinova to have flavorists that dedicate their time to create blockers specific to certain ingredients and taste profile based on how these ‘bitter’ tastes are perceived on the tongue. … This makes the products taste better.”
Andy Ohmes, global director of high intensity sweeteners at Cargill, notes that sweetness quality and the presence of aftertaste previously placed limits on how much first-generation stevia sweeteners could be used. “However, advances in stevia technology, such as our ViaTech stevia products, combined with effective blending of sweetener ingredients significantly improves the quality of sweetness, enhances sweet/sour balance and delivers a more robust flavor,” he says. “We’ve found that using stevia and erythritol together can result in an excellent tasting beverage.”
The company’s new EverSweet sweetener allows product developers to achieve deep calorie and sugar reductions, while reducing or eliminating the need for expensive masking agents and modifiers, achieving cost-effectiveness and a reliable, consistent and sustainable supply, Ohmes adds.
PureCircles’ Malsagov notes that the story of stevia has changed in recent years, going from a plant-based, zero-calorie, single-ingredient sweetener to the ability to offer a range of stevia leaf sweetener ingredients, including Reb M and Reb D, which have the most sugar-like taste, he says.
“We are also expanding our offerings of stevia leaf ingredient to include, not just sweeteners and flavors, but also protein, fiber and antioxidant ingredients — all from the stevia plant,” Malsagov says. “This new development will enable PureCircle to utilize much more of every stevia leaf and to make each leaf ‘work harder.’
“We anticipate food and beverage companies will increase their use of stevia as their go-to, non-GMO sweetening solution, as well as using stevia as a functional ingredient,” he continues. “This will provide consumers the great-tasting, plant-based ingredient they desire.” BI