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By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor and Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief | 03/12/2012
Beverages ceased being about mere thirst ages ago. Although not without their share of controversy, beverages have become a preferred delivery system for energy and sustenance — so much so that the hand naturally reaches for a beverage when the body feels a lack of vigor.
Let's focus on that moment of controversy though: Research has uncovered evidence the body perceives calories taken in liquid form in a different fashion than it does those from solid food. Specifically, the calories are not "counted" as readily. So while a sugary drink might deliver 140 calories, our internal accountant dismisses that energy and seeks more to fill the need – even though the need is no longer there.
With the needle of the obesity compass pointing toward this, beverage makers stepped up to the plate — or bottle, as it were — and set R&D to the task of creating functional drinks that not only satisfy taste and other cravings but act as aids to weight and energy balance instead of hindrances.
New research from Cargill Inc. (www.cargill.com), Minneapolis, indicates three key factors affect the taste experience of beverages: sweetness, flavor and mouthfeel. These factors must be examined in relation to each other because any time one is modified; it affects the way the others are perceived.
"When producing calorie-reduced beverages, manufacturers typically lower the sugar content of their product, a move that affects the sweetness of the beverage and impacts mouthfeel and thus the total taste experience," says Andy del Rosal, leader of Cargill's North American beverage applications group of scientists. "To compensate for the reduction of sweetness, zero- or mid-calorie sweeteners are added and often combined with taste-masking and enhancing flavors. Although this combination effectively addresses the loss of sweetness, the beverage is still likely to deliver a ‘thinner' mouthfeel and a different taste profile."
Cargill developed texturizing components — "pre-screened texturizing blends," commercialized under the brand name Trilisse — to optimize mouthfeel in reduced-calorie beverages, based on specific applications.
Stevia takes its place
Technical considerations in using stevia as a beverage sweetener have become less and less of a concern since the ingredient was approved in the U.S. for food and beverage applications three years ago.
"American consumers prefer all-natural products. They are more educated about artificial sweeteners, even colors and flavors, and this seems to be a growing trend," says Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California (www.bluecal-ingredients.com), Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
As a result, Blue California was one of the first companies to claim GRAS status for a stevia sweetener, Good&Sweet, in 2009. Theirs is perhaps the highest-purity rebaudioside-A – the most desirable isolate of the stevia plant — on the market, at 99 percent.
While stevia as a solo act did not take off as some vendors hoped, it's coming along quite nicely as a co-star with sugar and other natural sweeteners.
"Blending all-natural stevia extracts with other forms of sugar, such as fructose or sucrose, helps to create excellent-tasting products," says James Kempland, vice president of marketing for SGF LLC (www.sweetgreenfields.com), Bellingham, Wash. "Food and beverage manufacturers who target this mid-calorie — or what SGF refers to as the ‘right calorie' segment — have been successful."
Kempland said he believes mid-calorie products are "the future of beverages." But so is the "natural" claim that stevia can make.
"Globally, according to Mintel data, the highest growth rate and potential for stevia is blending with sugar for low-calorie beverages," he continues. "This makes sense, as most beverage drinkers fall into either of two camps: full-calorie or zero-calorie. Full-calorie drinkers are concerned with calories, but don't like ‘diet' products or don't want to consume artificial sweeteners. By blending stevia and sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, consumers get an all-natural, great tasting and ‘good-for-you' product" that also has fewer calories."
An example of a successful mid-calorie formulation is Tropicana's Trop 50, a blended orange juice product with less than half the calories of regular orange juice.
Kempland notes SGF's technical formulations team has created tasty 50 percent-reduced calorie prototype products for customers.
Another consideration when sweetening drinks is cost. "As formulators, we also have to consider the rising market prices for traditional, nutritive sweeteners, high-intensity sweeteners and other ingredients while working to create reduced-sugar products," says Wade Schmeltzer, another Cargill principal food scientist.
Cargill's Truvia stevia RA80, which contains 80 percent rebaudioside-A, is designed for reducing sugar in beverage applications such as juice drinks, sweetened teas, carbonated beverages, dairy-based beverages and alcoholic drinks. "Up to 30 percent sugar reduction can be achieved, depending on the beverage, while maintaining great taste and flavor relative to traditional full-sugar beverages," he says.
Enliten is a stevia sweetener from Corn Products International (www.cornproducts.com), Westchester, Ill. It's extracted from stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant leaves without undergoing any chemical modification. Corn Products (which currently is undergoing a name change to Ingredion) notes that Enliten "enhances the sweetness and intensity of other sweeteners, including sucrose, erythritol, high-fructose corn syrup and crystalline fructose."