A lot to choose from
Fortunately, there are more sugar alternatives for product developers to choose from now than at any time in history.
The favorite may be stevia, which is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, yet is non-nutritive. And it comes from a plant, not a test tube.
As of August 2017, stevia was used in 27 percent of new products launched using high-intensity sweeteners, Mintel reports. The top categories for new stevia-based products included snacks, carbonated soft drinks, dairy, juice and other beverages. To combat stevia's bitter aftertaste, food scientists have isolated and extracted more palatable substances such as steviol glycosides reb-D and reb-M, and are also said to be sequencing the stevia plant's genome, in efforts to find out more about its glycosides and how to effectively use them.
Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola have had colas sweetened with stevia, but each found limited success. Perhaps that's because they contained a significant amount of calories, having relied on some sugar to combat the sometimes metallic or bitter aftertaste of the stevia. Late last year, however, Coke announced it was testing in international markets a zero-calorie cola with no sugar, using a harder-to-extract glycoside of the stevia plant, rebaudioside M.
Heylo is a combination of acacia fiber (a.k.a. acacia gum) and water-extracted stevia, according to Israeli entrepreneur Yuval Maymon at Unavoo Food Technologies (unavoo.com). He claims the flavor profile is indistinguishable from sugar, and it should be able to eliminate added sugar and artificial sweeteners from food and drinks.
"Heylo won't change a formulation's viscosity, density or pH, and is extremely stable under most processing/storing conditions," says chief marketing officer Jeremy Cage, a former PepsiCo executive.
Plant-based Sucari from U.K.-based Cambridge Commodities (us.c-c-l.com) combines inulin, a chicory-based prebiotic fiber, with xylitol and stevia to deliver a taste, texture and mouthfeel similar to conventional sugar with a fraction of the calories. The company says it won't cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.
Beneo's (www.beneo.com) prebiotic chicory root fiber and oligofructose also can help cut sugar. The company is also working on "stealth sugar" developments that provide "enhanced balanced energy, bulk and mouthfeel," says Rudy Wouters, vice president of the Beneo Technology Center. "Stealth sugar reduction can vary between 10 and 20 percent per reformulation. Most companies seem to be aiming for 10 percent as a target, allowing consumers’ palates to gradually get used to mild sweet tastes."
Monkfruit, which is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, is seeing more use in ice creams, yogurts, teas, juices, flavored waters and baked goods because a little goes a long way. It's also being blended with stevia and allulose in KetoseSweet, a new sweetener from Icon Foods (formerly Steviva Ingredients). Like stevia, monk fruit extract is available commercially under a few brand names, such as Monk Fruit In The Raw.
"We're evaluating organic monkfruit as a complementary ingredient to organic stevia," says Phillip Coggins, senior director of commercial sales at Pyure Brands LLC (pyureorganic.com). "The supply and extraction processes pose some challenges and monk fruit pricing reflects these challenges," he says.
Coggins thinks major food and beverage manufacturers have been actively replacing added sugars for a while. "It has become a necessity to steer away from chemical sweeteners and [use more] naturally derived options. Every application has its own uniqueness. The key is striking a good balance between the ingredient deck, product functionality and marketing strategy."
Consumers seem to be open to trying new foods with healthier ingredients, Coggins sums. "A few years ago, the average person never even heard of stevia or erythritol, and now, these ingredients pop up in some of the most mainstream beverages available. It speaks to how quickly consumers have accepted naturally derived sweeteners and how their preference for better-for-you products can even supersede brand loyalty."