More than ever, Americans are connecting sugar with weight gain. Mintel (www.mintel.com) reports 84 percent want to reduce their intake of the sweet stuff, and nearly 50 percent focus on sugar content when checking nutrition labels.
Weight management is the main reason consumers try to avoid sugar; some research indicates they currently blame sugar more than they do fat. So more Americans are searching for non-nutritive sweeteners that can help them reduce calories and sugars while keeping taste.
"There's a very segmented approach to what consumers consider healthy or not," Danone's chairman and CEO Emmanuel Faber told analysts and investors in February. "Sugar is clearly not what they want to see, but fat, including animal fat, is a trend that's back. However, fat contains more calories than protein or carbs."
However, Mintel reports 31 percent of consumers think they can lose more weight by cutting sugar than by cutting fat, and consequently steer clear of health problems. Many consumers (49 percent) are also convinced diet soft drinks that contain no sugar are just as unhealthy as regular versions, Mintel adds.
Chuck Lombardo, marketing/communications director at Graceland Fruit, said sugar concern was one of the drivers behind Graceland's new retail cranberry product, which has no added sugar nor artificial sweeteners.
In March, Bolthouse Farms (www.bolthouse.com), part of Campbell Soup, launched B Strong Balanced protein smoothies as a tasty, on-the-go way to enjoy nutrition with less sugar. The drinks blend fruit and vegetables with 16g of protein and contain 50 percent less sugar than 100 percent juice smoothies, says Todd Putman, general manager of Campbell's C-Fresh Division. Campbell opted for monk fruit as the non-nutritive sweetener, although cane sugar remains one of the essential ingredients.
Eliminating synthetic sweeteners paves the way for natural, non-nutritive sweeteners like monk fruit, stevia and stevia blends. Recent developments in stevia have focused on extracting rebaudiosides D and M, which are found in smaller quantities in the stevia leaf but which don't have the bitterness or metallic taste of the more plentiful rebaudioside-A.
Bestevia is a new (early this year) stevia sweetener focusing on reb-D and M. It's marketed by Ingredion (www.ingredion.com) and was developed in partnership with Sweegen (www.sweegen.com), formerly Blue California. It's 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and is suitable for beverages, dairy, bakery products and confections, among others, and claims a 70 percent sugar reduction is typical.
"Reb M has been the focus as it is a superior product, but Reb D materials are also available," says Kurt Callaghan, Ingredion's marketing manager for global sweetness innovation.
Both the reb-D and reb-M versions are made via 'bioconversion,î which Callaghan points out is not the same as fermentation. Both versions also are Non-GMO Project Verified.
"Sweegen's proprietary bioconversion process starts with the stevia leaf, utilizes enzymes to attach glucose molecules [to]increase the quantity of the better tasting steviol glycosides, reb-M or reb-D," he says.
"Some of our competitors are utilizing a fermentation process, which starts with a corn dextrose or sucrose raw material, then through fermentation [they] develop steviol glycosides of choice," Callaghan continues. "The key difference is bioconversion starts with the stevia leaf, while fermentation starts with a different raw material."
Between the newer stevia glycosides and the different methods by which they can be created, "It's a complex category now," says Mark Eisenacher, sales & marketing vice president of Pyure Brands (pyureorganic.com).
He warns of a growing storm against the rarer stevia glycosides being created by fermentation rather than leaf extraction. He claims the fermented varieties are being perceived as less than natural. One brand/product in particular uses a genetically engineered yeast in the fermentation process, but markets itself as non-GMO — although not certified by the Non-GMO Project.
Most of Pyure's products involve reb-A created via leaf extraction. One product, Pyure Trio, contains reb-A, D and even some reb-C. Most of the company's products are organic and/or certified by the Non-GMO Project.
Many of Pyure's products also are blends of stevia with other sweeteners, including erythritol and agave, and Eisenacher assumes commercial customers also are blending it. "100 percent sugar reduction remains a challenge, but 50 percent is surely possible, maybe even 80 percent."
PureCircle (purecircle.com), which claims to be the world's biggest producer of stevia, also is dedicated to leaf extraction, "because they feel it fits in with the consumer perception of a 'natural,' whereas fermentation doesn't," says a spokesperson.
With a "world-class agronomy program [that] partners with farmers around the world," PureCircle is improving its sweeteners by improving the plants they come from. It's touting its newly developed Starleaf variety, which 'contains more of the best-tasting stevia sweeteners, such as reb-M, than other stevia plant variants.'
And while most of the world's stevia comes from China, PureCircle, a Malaysian company, just harvested its first commercial crop in the U.S., from North Carolina. That crop was the Starleaf variety. Calling the first crop a success, PureCircle plans to increase significantly the acreage used to grow stevia in the U.S. over the next two to three years.