Have Food Processors Found the Holy Grail of Sweeteners?

Will stevia live up to its promise to consumers?

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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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).