Stevia Seeps Into Beverages

So do honey and monk fruit/luo han guo extracts, as drink makers try to reduce calories while also keeping labels clean and simple.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor and Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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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."

"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.

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