The classic refrain of Neil Diamond’s 1969 “Sweet Caroline” extended beyond radios and recording studios when it became the anthem for the Boston Red Sox, being played during the eighth inning of every game at Fenway Park since 2004. When it comes to sweetening solutions like stevia, erythritol and monk fruit, ingredient suppliers and consumers alike are “singing the sweet refrain” of healthier beverages with reduced sugar content and calories.

Nancy Polito, innovation project manager for Pyure Brands LLC, Naples, Fla., notes that the impact of COVID-19 has resulted in an 11 percent increase in alternative sweeteners’ consumption, boosting sweetener category growth to the $5 billion mark.

Andrew Ohmes, global director for high intensity sweeteners at Minneapolis-based Cargill, notes that stevia sweeteners are a clear winner in new product formulations. In fact, stevia was utilized in more than 6,885 new foods and beverages globally in 2019, up 20.6 percent over the previous year, according to data from Innova Market Insights.

Two big trends continue to drive the beverage space: the desire for products with less sugar and a move toward simpler, cleaner labels, Ohmes says.

Data from the International Food Information Council’s most recent Food & Health Survey supports this theory. The survey found that 74 percent of consumers say they are trying to limit or avoid sugars in their diet, Ohmes says, pointing out that IFIC’s results align with Cargill’s proprietary consumer research.

“Our annual survey determined sugar is most top of mind when consumers are asked which ingredients they try to avoid, mentioned more often than fats, sodium and GMOs,” Ohmes explains. “Artificial sweeteners are out of favor, too. Almost two-thirds of global consumers (61 percent) say no artificial sweeteners is an extremely or very important statement on food labels. Nearly a third (30 percent) say they’d pay more for a beverage made without them.”

Sugar reduction trends are resonating. A whitepaper from Apura Ingredients, Chino, Calif., notes that as much as 8 percent of new product launches for food and beverage brands in 2018 advertised a reduced-sugar claim, a percentage expected to continue growing according to industry reports.

“Recent innovations in sweeteners have given formulators more tools to replace sugar in everything from juices and sports drinks to baked goods and frozen desserts,” the whitepaper states. “Monk fruit extract is one of the fastest-growing alternative sweeteners on the market today. Its popularity is linked to its clean label appeal and its desirable flavor profile. The sweetener blends well with other natural sweeteners, such as stevia, for achieving finely tuned, well-rounded sweetness.”

COVID-19 has further increased demand for clean-label products and away from sugar with a “stratospheric trajectory” because of the on-set of COVID-19, explains Thom King, chief executive officer of Portland, Ore.-based Icon Foods. The company has seen a 28 percent year-over-year spike in product usage.

“[It} is widely known that metabolic disease has been the number one underlying condition for mortality and sugar is the number one culprit in metabolic disease,” he says.

The company offers KetoseSweet plus, a blend of allulose, erythritol, stevia and monk fruit, which provides a sugar-like mouthfeel and neutral sweet flavor that is suitable in any product that looks to employ clean label sugar reduction into any of their formulas.

Improved sweetening solutions

Chronic health issues like diabetes, obesity and heart disease are escalating worldwide, necessitating the need for new and improved sweetening solutions. Overall, about 13 percent of the world's adult population (11 percent of men and 15 percent of women) were obese in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. Additionally, at least 2.8 million people each year die as a result of being overweight or obese, WHO reports.

Yet, experts contend that sugar is not the only culprit; heredity, a lack of portion control, physical inactivity and diets high in fats and carbohydrates also are chronic issues.

“Long story short, you can’t outrun a bad diet,” says Malcolm Greenberg, vice president of sales for Cranbury, N.J.-based Adallen Nutrition, the North American sales office for Hunan Huacheng Biotech. “Diabetes, obesity and heart disease are directly affected by the foods we eat or don’t eat. Reducing sugar consumption is vital to reducing obesity numbers as well as treating diabetes and heart disease.”

Based on Chicago-based ADM’s proprietary research Outside Voice, 55 percent of beverage shoppers review added sugar for each serving on labels, and 57 percent look at the type of sweeteners, says Sarah Diedrich, marketing director for sweetening solutions and fibers.

However, while consumers might be limiting sugar and avoiding artificial sweeteners, they still want beverages that taste great. That’s why high-intensity sweeteners like stevia continue to make inroads in the beverage aisle, experts note.

“Dramatic improvements to next-generation stevia products, combined with consumers’ greater familiarity with the ingredient, have opened the door to a new wave of reduced-sugar beverage formulation,” Cargill’s Ohmes says.

Categories across the entire beverage industry are changing as a result of the increased usage of non-nutritive sweeteners in energy drinks, juices, sports beverages, carbonated soft drinks (CSDs), teas, flavored milks, smoothies, still and sparkling flavored waters, mocktails and more.

Yet, the backlash over the use of high-fructose corn syrups in CSDs set in motion a colossal change in the beverage industry, Pyure Brands’ Polito says.  

“The primary beverage trend of sugar reduction or full and/or partial replacement of high-fructose corn syrups in carbonated soft drinks initiated the use of alternative sweeteners in beverage applications,” she says.

Now more than ever, consumers are paying more attention to the label and looking at the amount of added sugar.  

Los Angeles-based Koia Fruit Smoothies contains only 9 grams of total sugar in each bottle and 80 percent less sugar compared with the leading smoothie at 53 grams of sugar, the company says. Koia Fruit Smoothies are available in the refrigerated section in four ready-to-drink flavors, Magic Mango, Rise & Shine, Straw-nana Dream and Tropical Passion.

Dissecting sweetness

When it comes to the type of sweeteners being used, beverage formulators have a plethora of options from which to choose, which are often used in combination for the best taste and mouthfeel.  

On the rise year-after-year, monk fruit and stevia are go-to ingredients for consumers looking for natural, non-GMO healthfulness in their foods, beverages and nutritional supplements.

Yet, experts note there is a significant difference in how sweetness is derived. Prior to COVID-19, 100 percent juice sales were declining, largely driven by consumer concern over high sugar content.

“The sugars from 100 percent juice are genuinely natural and not added,” explains Adela Casas, technical sales and business development manager at Sweetener Solutions, Pooler, Ga. “The biggest difference between naturally occurring sugars in juice drinks and juice drinks being sweetened with stevia is that stevia is a zero-calorie option. To put into perspective, unsweetened apple juice typically contains about 113 calories per one-cup serving.”

Although stevia, monk fruit and erythritol are zero-calorie, all-natural sweeteners, they function and act very differently, Adallen Nutrition’s Greenberg notes.

“Erythritol is not as sweet as sugar. Stevia is approximately 300 times as sweet as sugar and operates in the following fashion,” he explains. “Immediate bang-over-the-head sweetness, short sweetness hang time, and when it comes down, has a metallic or bitter aftertaste [even the new Rebaudioside versions, just not as intense].

“Monk fruit, on the other hand, has a subtle ramping of sweetness, longer hang time, and when it comes down, has a fruity or floral aftertaste,” he continues. “… A way to balance the high sweetness of monk fruit is a monk fruit/erythritol blend that can be one-to-one to sugar. This blend, which is made in both organic and conventional, allows beverage-makers to formulate a low-calorie/low-sugar zero- calorie/zero-sugar beverage backed up by an excellent supply chain while being cost-effective.”

Derived from the luo han guo melon, grown for centuries in Asia, monk fruit extract is one of the fastest-growing sugar replacements, sweetening a wide array of natural, reduced calorie beverage applications, according to Apura Ingredients’ whitepaper.

Unlike other fruits, most of monk fruit’s concentrated sweetness comes from mogrosides, a non-caloric antioxidant, rather than sucrose, fructose or glucose, the common saccharides that contribute calories, the whitepaper states.

“While monk fruit contains some natural sugars, they are removed during processing. The remaining extract is zero-calorie and approximately 100 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose,” the whitepaper states. “Monk fruit extracts from Apura Ingredients come in an off-white to light-yellow powder ranging from 20 percent to 80 percent mogroside V. A lower-sweetness level of monk fruit juice format is also available.” Additionally, the company’s monk fruit extract is certified kosher, parve and halal.

Monk fruit, depending on the mogroside V level, can range from 15 times sweeter than sugar, in a liquid form, to over 250 times sweeter in powder form, it adds.  

Sweetener options abound

To give beverage-makers and ultimately consumers great taste with less sugar, ingredient companies are offering branded sweetening solutions.

Among the products ADM offers is SweetRight Edge stevia, which doesn’t require maskers, and  SweetRight erythritol that has the functionality of sugar to help build in bulk and binding that might be lost, ADM’s Diedrich says.

Sweetener Solutions offers Erythvia, a perfect blend between erythritol and stevia that is one-to-one  sugar, Casas says. Its SucraSweet Natural Erythvia features a blend of erythritol, stevia and monk fruit that facilitates a one-to-one sugar natural sweetener blend without hydrocolloids, she adds.

As low- and no-calorie products are increasing in demand, Ajay Chandran, vice president of sales and business development at Amyris, Emeryville, Calif., suggests that RealSweet sugarcane RebM is the closest alternative to sugar within the natural sweetener category.

“Previously, the underlying compound RebM was limited in its availability and high pricing. Amyris, through its proprietary process, has enabled to make it commercially viable,” Chandran says. “In our opinion, RealSweet Sugarcane RebM has the most compelling proposition of taste and cost. … Stevia and RealSweet Sugarcane RebM are both lower in cost or are at parity to sugar. However, stevia has bitterness associated with which RealSweet doesn’t.”

Casey McCormick, director of product development at Sweegen, highlights that the Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based company has expanded its application technology expertise, in addition to producing sustainable non-GMO stevia sweeteners.

“Our unique production starts with the stevia leaf and uses a patented bioconversion process to achieve high purity, clean-tasting next generation rebaudiosides B, D, E, I, M and now our recent announcement of N,” McCormick says. “We recently added Bestevia rebaudioside N to our expansive portfolio of next generation stevia solutions. The new rebaudiosides available in the market for any beverage application are more sustainable, cleaner tasting, less aftertaste. Far advanced from the stevia tested or tasted from 10 years ago.”

Also noting improvements in high potency sweeteners, Cargill’s Principal Food Scientist Wade Schmelzer suggests that its next-generation ViaTech and EverSweet products have expanded the playing field, enabling beverage-makers to launch great-tasting sparkling waters, hard seltzers and more.

“For the deepest sugar reductions, we recommend EverSweet, which is made by our joint partnership with DSM,” Schmelzer says. “EverSweet allows us to access the best tasting parts of the stevia leaf, Reb M and Reb D. While rare in the stevia plant, we produce them via fermentation, creating a cost-efficient, great-tasting sweetener, which enables up to 100 percent sugar reduction in many beverage applications.”

Reducing the linger

Even though plant-based sweeteners offer consumers reduced calories, delayed sweetness, lingering sweetness and a bitter, metallic, licorice or herbal off-taste could result, says Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager at Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The solution is to add masking ingredients. “Our customized taste masking solutions support clean label formulations, such as in reduced sugar applications,” Caputo explains. “With new FDA regulations on added sugar labeling, brands turn to us to reach targeted sugar levels while retaining a high level of sensory quality in a variety of applications, including energy drinks, flavored milks, juices, smoothies, mocktails and more.”

When it comes to deep sugar reduction within beverages, the solubility of stevia is challenging, notes John Martin, head of global applications and technical for Ingredion and PureCircle, Westchester, Ill.

“At PureCircle, we have identified ingredients in the stevia leaf [that] allow for better solubility when using our best tasting ingredients (like Reb M) in beverage applications. Our ability to scale next generation stevia ingredients has helped us address the deeper sugar reduction challenges, and these stevia ingredients work well across a wide variety of beverage applications.”

Marcia Petit, NOAM technical category manager for beverages at Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., suggests that less is more when using maskers as “maskers can impact the overall flavor and potentially add offnotes.” 

“Flavor modifiers, rare sugars, bulking agents, texturizers and organic acids can be used in partnership with stevia and monk fruit to reduce offnotes and linger and provide a sugar-like sweetness perception,” Petit says. “Successful sweetening solutions are built from a combination of ingredients.”

As “the new normal” emerges, a holistic definition of health will return, and with it more attention on beverage formulations, says David Nichols, NOAM category strategy manager for beverages at Tate & Lyle.

“Consumers will seek nutritious beverages with low, no or reduced sugar content. Low/no calorie sweeteners, like stevia, monk fruit, and allulose, will help beverage formulators unlock significant levels of sugar and calorie reduction,” he says.

Exploring and innovating new category-specific stevia solutions to address sugar reduction challenges is a top goal of Ingredion and PureCircle, Martin says.

“Functional beverages continue to be a hot spot for our stevia based solutions. The rise in popularity of hard seltzers and other flavored alcoholic drinks has also been a major source of innovation,” he says.  “We are excited to be able to offer new solutions and synergies between PureCircle’s stevia portfolio and Ingredion’s larger sugar reduction platform to create comprehensive ingredient solutions to address a wide range of sugar reduction challenges.

“As the industry contemplates a post-pandemic world, consumer appetite for healthier lifestyles continues to be at the forefront,” he continues. “Finding sustainable, plant-based solutions to address chronic health issues will only be more important. We provide the toolkit necessary to meet this demand.”