Low-calorie, no-calorie, sugar-free and diet drinks are experiencing relatively strong growth in slow- and no-growth markets, according to Information Resources Inc. (www.infores.com), Chicago. At the same time, consumer interest in products that are "all-natural" or contain no artificial ingredients has never been stronger. These two trends create ripe opportunities for beverages creatively sweetened with natural sugar alternatives that lower the total amount of calories without compromising taste.
Agave extract, such as that used in some Honest Tea products is an up-and-coming natural sweetener to keep an eye on.
"An organic diet drink that tastes great and has no artificial sweeteners - we've accomplished that," says Barry Nalebuff co-founder Honest Tea, of its newest variety Tangerine Green. It has only 10 calories per 8-oz. serving and is sweetened with agave syrup, a nectar from the plant in the cactus family (better known for its bolder beverage: tequila), and erythritol, a fermented sugar found naturally in many fruits such as grapes, pears and melons which contains only 0.2 calories per gram because it is not metabolized by the body.
Nalebuff, who is also a management professor at Yale University, described Honest Tea's creative use of sugar: "We don't put in sugar to maximize taste, even by our own standards. That's because the peak of the taste profile is flat - like most maxima. Cutting back the sugar costs you very little in flavor but still saves you a whole lot of calories. In technical terms, it is a second-order loss of flavor, but a first-order savings in calories. We like to think that we maximize the flavor-calorie trade-off, which is not the same thing as maximizing flavor-ignoring calories."
Crystalline fructose is one of the single sugar units that form sucrose (fructose plus glucose equals sucrose). While not technically an alternative, its level of sweetness by weight is slightly higher than sucrose. Using crystalline fructose in combination with other natural, non-sugar sweeteners can help in formulating lower-calorie beverages.
Several successful beverages in this "less-sweetened" category are doing well in the marketplace. The Fruitwater line of flavored waters from Glaceau (www.glaceau.com), Whitestone, N.Y. is sweetened with only 20 calories of crystalline fructose per 8-oz. serving. Trinity Springs Ltd. (www.trinitysprings.com) Boise, Idaho, offers several lines, including its Trinity Enhanced 50 calorie-per-serving flavored waters.
Trinity Springs is one of several companies seeing benefits to using crystalline fructose with natural flavoring to make low-calorie beverages.
Beyond clever portioning of sugar, companies are turning to unique plant extracts as ways to cut sweetener calories. Talin thaumatin is a mixture of sweet-tasting proteins from a West African fruit. The compound is several thousand times sweeter than sucrose and is approved for food and beverage manufacturing in the U.S., strictly as a flavor enhancer.
It is a part of the sweetening system in Blue Sky Lite carbonated beverages by the Corona, Calif.-based Hansen Beverage Co. (www.hansens.com). Used in combination with erythritol, the sweetener system reduces the product's sugar content to only 13g per 12 oz., compared with 37g in the company's regular line.
Guru Lite (www.guruenergy.us), a low-calorie energy drink, is sweetened with luo han guo, a non-caloric fruit extract, and cane juice concentrate. It has only 10 calories per 8.3-oz. can. The drink also contains stevia, a naturally sweet, non-caloric herb. Stevia currently is approved only for use as a dietary supplement in the U.S., so Guru Lite is sold as an "energy supplement" beverage.
BioVittoria Ltd. (www.biovittoria.com), New York, recently announced its PureLo luo han guo extract has been affirmed as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for use in a variety of foods and beverages as a sweetener. But luo han guo can be used and labeled simply as any food would be.
"It's no different from using blueberry or raspberry juice concentrate," says Stefan Wypyszyk, vice president of marketing for MB North America (www.mbnorthamerica.com) Torrance, Calif. The company is involved in growing and processing the Asian fruit with unique sweetening properties through its partnership with Guilin Layn Natural Ingredients in China.
Growth was said to be driven by "the more innovative and exciting sectors within the overall landscape."
MB North America provides luo han guo to a number of beverage manufacturers under its Go-Luo brand. "The concentrated juice allows for a reduction in caloric content of 25 to 50 percent with no negative impact on taste profile, and high sweetness while maintaining an 'all-fruit' or 'all-natural' status," says Wypyszyk.
Grown exclusively in Guilin, China, luo han guo is 300 times sweeter than sugar, highly stable, soluble and available in liquid or powdered formats. (For more on this unique, natural sweetener, go to www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2006/048.html.)