The latest biennial data from the Centers for Disease Control, published in the January Journal of the American Medical Association, found the obesity rate in the U.S. appears to have steadied for the past five years. Still, more than two-thirds of adults, almost a third of children and some 10 percent of babies and toddlers are obese or overweight, a major risk for diabetes and heart disease.
President Barack Obama pushed hard to make obesity prevention part of health care reform. Measures pending in Congress include encouraging employer-based wellness programs, requirements that large restaurant chains list calories and taxes on sodas and “junk foods.”
Whether the criticism is fair or not, sugar and corn sweeteners, particularly high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), are taking heat from health “advocates” as contributors to the obesity crisis. HFCS continues to dominate the overall sweetener market, accounting for over 95 percent of demand in volume terms and more than 85 percent of dollar demand, according to Bharat Book Bureau, Mumbi, India. But criticism of HFCS mounts. In fact, First Lady Michelle Obama said she wouldn’t give her children products made with it.
Not deaf to consumer backlash, the food industry is on a mission to provide lower-calorie beverages and foods, mostly by replacing sugar and HFCS with zero- and low-calorie sweeteners, and to encourage exercise and smaller serving options.
A very big, five-year milestone comes up this year. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is expected to set a limit on added sugars. “Added sugars are a significant source of empty calories and may be associated with greater overall calorie intake, higher body weights and lower intakes of essential nutrients,” according to the American Heart Assn. “Excess sugar consumption has also been linked to several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions. No more than one-half of discretionary calories should come from added sugars.”
The limit for most women would be no more than 100 calories of added sugar per day (or 6 teaspoons) and no more than 150 calories for men (or 9 teaspoons), far below the 22 teaspoons or 355 calories of added sugar consumed by the average American each day, according to a 2004 government survey. Soft drinks were singled out as the top source of "discretionary" sugar calories.
U.S. demand for alternative sweeteners in the past decade increased about 4 percent per year to $1.1 billion in 2009, according to The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based research firm. As food processors and consumers seek healthier food options with fewer calories or less high-fructose corn syrup, U.S. demand for alternative sweeteners is projected to grow 3.4 percent annually through 2013, Freedonia projects. Sucralose (in tabletop), acesulfame potassium (ace-K) in diet soft drinks, erythritol (in sugarless candy and gum) and stevia extract rebiana/rebaudioside-A will see above-average gains.
Reb-A bursts on the scene
After years of relative stability in the product mix of sweeteners, several new options are available. But far and away, the most promising are extracts of the stevia plant, primarily steviol glycoside rebaudioside A (reb-A).
For hundreds of years, the stevia plant has been used as a sweetener in Paraguay, but in the U.S. it was approved only as a supplement in 1998. Seattle-based Zevia LLC claims to have launched the first all-natural, sugar-free carbonated soft drink in the U.S. in November 2007, with the stevia labeled as a dietary supplement, not a sweetener.
Reb-A was granted approval in Japan in the 1970s; by 1988 it comprised 41 percent of the sweetener market there. Stevia products also are approved for general food & beverage use in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Russia, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Malaysia and other countries.
But the playing field for sweeteners changed in December 2008, when the FDA issued no objection letters to Cargill Inc. and Whole Earth Sweetener Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Merisant, concluding that both firms’ reb-A is generally recognized as safe for use in beverages, foods, tabletop sweeteners and as a food additive.
Whole Earth was partnered with Pepsico, and the immediate result was PureVia as both an ingredient and tabletop sweetener. Tabletop PureVia is a zero calorie (2g carbs per serving) sweetener derived from stevia that also includes some erythritol (found in fruits), isomaltulose (found in honey and sugar cane juice) cellulose powder and natural flavors.
Cargill teamed with Coca-Cola for the debut of Truvia. Its tabletop version also includes erythritol and natural flavors. Truvia has become the leading zero-calorie natural tabletop sweetener in the U.S., with sales of $25.5 million, according to Cargill. It has 6.1 percent of the overall sugar substitute market, according to ACNielsen sales data.
Just this year, McNeil Nutritionals, a unit of Johnson & Johnson and the maker of Splenda, began selling a “natural” tabletop sweetener made from stevia and sugarcane called Sun Crystals. There are several other stevia-based tabletop sweeteners.
Battle of the soda giants
After FDA approval, the two soda giants went to work. Coca-Cola North America quickly launched Sprite Green and two Odwalla drinks sweetened with Truvia. Pepsico immediately unveiled three flavors of SoBe Lifewater made with PureVia, and shortly thereafter a reduced-calorie Tropicana orange juice, Trop50.
Coca-Cola, which had been using stevia in its products in Japan, China and Brazil since the 1970s, reportedly had been interested (and involved) in developing its own sweetener for the U.S. market for at least 10 years. Cargill also saw the potential, and commissioned a multi-year program of safety studies for reb-A beginning in 2005 to answer questions that lingered in the scientific community about the safety of stevia.