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By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor and Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief | 03/12/2012
"The movement to steer away from high-fructose corn syrup is becoming more apparent with other soft drink companies," says Andrew Baumann, brand manager for Jones Soda Co. (www.jonessoda.com), Seattle. "We already have seen a trend toward this after we raised the standard to use only pure cane sugar in our beverages."
And now Jones is working on stevia. "We've all learned about its inherent limitations in use, but through our work with our flavor developers and the major stevia suppliers, we've adopted ways of working with the ingredient to overcome some of the challenges it can pose."
As a no-sugar, zero-calorie option, Jones created its Zilch line of sodas, which uses sucralose for sweetness. A more recent launch is Au Naturel, "a more ‘grown-up' beverage option," Baumann says, sweetened with stevia and a blend of sweeteners. Au Naturel is a flavored sparkling beverage with 35 calories, 7g of sugar and 5g of fiber per serving.
"Our Au Naturel line will be the beverage alternative for devoted Jones fans who may have outgrown our traditional pure cane sodas and are looking for a lower-calorie, less sweet sparkling beverage option," he says. Another trend with respect to color in beverages is none, and Au Naturel conforms by being virtually clear. The product is available in three flavors (and colors), Green Apple, Lemon Limelight and Orange Ya Glad It's Mango.
Luo han what?
As stevia finds its legs, a sweetener with a very similar history is just starting to make inroads. Luo han guo, or monk fruit, has been around since at least the 13th century and is native to China (whereas stevia was brought to that country from Paraguay). Like stevia, it adds zero calories and is considered natural.
Luo han guo was one of those nichey sweeteners found at natural products shows until Tate & Lyle (www.tateandlyle.com) placed a big bet on it at the 2011 IFT Food Expo. Introduced under the name Purefruit (and Tate & Lyle prefers to call it monk fruit), it's 150-200 times sweeter than sugar. A water extraction process keeps it natural. Tate & Lyle actually further-developed a monk fruit extract supplied by BioVittoria, which had been marketing it for a few years and had greatly expanded the fruit's propagation.
Perhaps hedging its stevia bet, Blue California recently introduced BlueSweet luo han guo extract. "We are working on producing unique blends for our customers; natural sweetener blends that satisfy the taste and cost requirements in order to produce successful consumer products, says McCollum.
Honey of a deal
As the beverage industry continues to seek creative ways to reformulate and rebrand products according to the sweeteners employed, many are turning to honey due to its consumer appeal and its versatility as a flavor and sweetener. Honey is an ideal natural sweetening agent for beverages because it provides desirable flavor notes that allow for a sweet flavor profile familiar to consumers. There are more than 300 unique kinds of honey in the U.S., originating from such diverse floral sources as clover, eucalyptus and orange blossom.
This simple yet complex variety of flavors allows beverage manufacturers to launch complete product lines of honey-sweetened beverages, all with different flavor profiles. For example, a product with buckwheat honey offers a robust flavor, while a clover or alfalfa honey provides a simpler, lighter honey taste. In general, lighter colored honeys are mild in flavor, while darker honeys are stronger.
Sweetleaf Iced Teas Inc. (www.sweetleaftea.com), Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing, all-natural and organic beverage companies, offers several flavors that include honey as the natural sweetener. Texas Teas (www.teasoftexas.com), another organic sweet tea maker based in Austin, uses a combination of real fruit with locally sourced Goodflow brand honey (www.goodflowhoney.com).
The National Honey Board recently conducted a consumer survey to measure honey's perception as an all-natural sweetener. Interview participants were read a list of sweeteners they might find in foods at the grocery store and asked to indicate whether they perceive it as a natural sweetener. Nearly all — 96 percent — of participants felt honey is a natural sweetener, followed by granulated sugar (74 percent), molasses (73 percent) and cane juice (61 percent).
Honey also is becoming increasingly popular in sports and energy drinks. Chicago-based Athlete's Honey Milk LLC (www.honeymilk.com) recognized that athletes are choosy about what they put into their bodies and responded with a product composed of just two natural ingredients: milk and honey. These ingredients provide the essential energy and nutrition needed for fuel and recovery while training.
Red Heart Energy Drink (www.redheartenergy.com), is naturally sweetened with honey and provides a natural boost without excessive ingredients. Honey gives the drink a great flavor and keeps the label clean.
Fruity & functional
Healthful flavor infusions are likely to become more integral to beverages in the near future. "I think we will see more functional beverages," says Kevin Holland, product developer for Tree Top Inc. (www.treetop.com), Selah, Wash. "In the past, most people never considered what a beverage does for them beyond [the basics]. Now they've learned about the importance of phytochemicals. Instead of blueberry-flavored tea, we'll see [drinks such as] tea sweetened with blueberry concentrate and the manufacturer will tout the natural antioxidants present in both tea and blueberries."
Holland also notes beverage manufacturers are moving with the rest of the food industry toward cleaner labels and simpler ingredients. "This trend will continue with the public expecting new products to have these attributes," he says. "High-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are being avoided by significant portions of the population, forcing the industry to look for natural sources of sweetness. Cane sugar, honey, fruit juice concentrates, brown rice syrup and stevia are all finding new applications. Being able to read an ingredient label and decipher what is in a food is increasingly important to consumers, and we have to remember most of them are not food scientists," he adds.
"Consumers are interested in beverages with lower sugar and that are more nutritious than carbonates or energy drinks," says Jeannie Swedberg, Tree Top's director of business development. "Juice remains a popular choice. It provides great flavor and often additional health benefits. More than most other foods, fruit carries the ‘halo of heath' consumers understand. The types of claims we see most often in the fruit beverage category are centered on reduced sugar and calories, with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber – plus all natural/not from concentrate."
Swedberg delineates the traditional fruit juice flavors that predominate in this category, specifically grape, orange, berry, apple, cranberry, pomegranate and now açai. More emerging flavors include dragon fruit, mangosteen, passionfruit, yerba maté, goji berry (wolf berry) and yumberry. "Most of these nontraditional fruits are paired with more commonly known fruits, such as blueberry, raspberry or a generic berry blend," she adds.