Many consumers today are clamoring for clean labels and products that have neither added sugar nor chemical-sounding ingredients (like many non-nutritive sweeteners). Also, the new Nutrition Facts panel, which will be required in 2020, will call out added sugars, which has many food & beverage marketers worried about how their labels will be perceived.
There is a handful of natural ingredients that are not intrinsically sweeteners but can be used to sweeten. Most come from fruit purees and other fruit ingredients, and they can help decrease or replace some of the added sugars while maintaining sweetness levels. Natural, nutritive sweeteners like honey or apple puree can be listed under their own names — recognizable and familiar to consumers — and which add significant sweetness to a product.
What follows is a sampling of available options.
Sweet potatoes are sweet
Sweet potatoes are rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium and other nutrients … but they're also sweet. Consequently, Carolina Sweet, a sweet potato juice concentrate manufactured by Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients (cifingredients.com), Nashville, N.C., is more than a natural sweetener; it’s a functional ingredient, says Elaine Fiser, the company’s director of technical sales.
“Consumers today want power foods and better-for-you options,” Fiser emphasizes. “But at the end of the day, the food has to taste good.”
Used as a sweetener in food & beverage formulations, 75-Brix Carolina Sweet, which is low in fructose, tastes similar to honey with just a hint of sweet potato flavoring, Fiser says. The Non-GMO Project-Verified product also acts as an emulsifier and can replace many types of gums, she notes.
With numerous applications, sweet potato juice concentrate is ideal for marinades, barbecue sauce, ketchup and other condiments, as well as for food bars, baked desserts and confectionary products, Fiser says. Additional applications for Carolina Sweet range from craft brewing to sausages.
Honey an obvious choice
Honey remains a top replacement for cane sugar and is favored by formulators and non-vegan consumers alike. Honey is 1 to 1.5 times sweeter than sucrose on average, so food & beverage processors can use less honey than sugar to achieve the same degree of sweetness.
More than 300 varietals of honey are produced in the U.S., each with a different level of sweetness and other flavor characteristics, depending on the floral source of the nectar gathered by the honey bees. Honey contains flavonoids and phenolic acids, which are potent antioxidants, as well as trace amounts of potassium, calcium and iron.
“From a flavor perspective, honey is composed of both carbohydrates and acids. This gives honey a more complex flavor than most sweeteners that consist of just carbohydrates,” says Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board (www.honey.com), Frederick, Colo. “Honey also carries exceptional aromatic notes.”
Honey’s use in the food and beverage industry spans all categories. “We’re seeing the most interest in baking and beverage products, where honey is being used both to flavor and sweeten the products,” Barry says. “Plus, it reads clean on an ingredient listing and looks great in a product name. Honey has a long track record of use in the food and beverage industry, and there are no significant formulation challenges.”
During his gap year in Jerusalem 15 years ago, Brian Finkel, co-founder of D’Vash Organics (www.dvashorganics.com), Los Angeles, discovered Israelis have a penchant for silan, or date syrup. It's a ubiquitous tabletop condiment in the Middle East and North Africa that performs similarly to honey. “In every Israeli supermarket, you have 10 to 15 brands on the shelf,” he says.
Indeed, the biblical phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” actually refers to date honey rather than bee honey, Finkel maintains. He and D’Vash co-founder David Czinn, whom he met during that year in Israel, decided in 2017 that the market was ripe for launching a similar product in the U.S.
Made from organic dates produced in southern California, D’Vash Date Nectar will soon be carried by nearly 4,000 stores nationwide, according to Finkel. He is currently partnering with other companies to provide date nectar in bulk as an ingredient to restaurant chains and small food processing firms.
Unlike honey, date nectar is a vegan product that is also safe for babies younger than 12 months old, Finkel notes. (Honey may contain Clostridium botulinim spores that pose a risk for infant botulism.) In addition, date nectar is rich in potassium and polyphenols, antioxidant compounds that help protect the body from inflammation. What’s more, the product is a source of vitamin B6, iron and magnesium.
Date nectar has 25 percent less sugar than the same amount of honey and has a glycemic index (GI) in the mid-40s, which is “significantly lower than a lot of other [sweeteners] out there,” Finkel adds.
With a light, crisp, fruity flavor, the product isn’t a neutral sweetener, but the date flavor isn’t overpowering either, he contends. Date nectar can be used in alcoholic beverages, iced tea and lemonade, ice cream, cookies and many other applications. “It’s great as a marinade,” Finkel says. “It’s great on savory chicken or barbecue. It’s also great as a base for salad dressing.”
In formulations, Finkel recommends a 1:1 swap with sugar or honey.
Coconut sugar and yacon syrup
Jedwards International (bulknaturaloils.com), Braintree, Mass., supplies a variety of organic sweeteners such as coconut sugar and yacon syrup.
Coconut sugar, also known as palm sugar, is produced by evaporating the sap made from the flowers of the coconut tree, explains Gigi Dolloff, the company’s sales manager. “It’s naturally high in potassium, magnesium and zinc and has a molasses-type aroma, so it is very different from cane sugar,” she says. The increasingly popular sweetener is also brown in color and has a larger granule size than cane sugar.
Coconut sugar can be used as a 1:1 replacement for cane sugar. Because coconut sugar has a lower melting point and higher burning temperature, it is well-suited to confectionary recipes, Dolloff points out.
Yacon syrup, a new sweetener for Jedwards, is derived from the root of the yacon plant (Smallanthus sonchifolius), a type of perennial daisy native to South America’s Andes Mountains. The yacon root’s sugars are primarily composed of fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a low-calorie carbohydrate that is sweet like sugar. “It has a consistency that is similar to molasses, so it is a very thick, dark brown sweetener,” Dolloff adds.
High in potassium and antioxidants, yacon syrup is believed to have weight-loss properties and other health benefits. It can be used as a substitute for sugar, honey or molasses in baking and other cooking applications.
Blueberries as sweeteners
Manufacturers have discovered that using blueberries and blueberry formats to provide sweetness offers the dual advantage of sweetening and enriching the product naturally.
"With consumers reading labels before they buy a product, blueberries in the ingredient statement say “wholesome” and “natural” in a way that consumers understand," says Thomas Payne, U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (www.blueberrytech.org).
In fresh blueberries, fructose is 50 percent and glucose is 49 percent of the total sugars. This pattern is similar to the distribution in sugar which is about 50-50. Per 100g, fresh blueberries are 9.96g total sugar, 0.11g sucrose, 4.97g fructose and 4.88g glucose. Blueberry concentrate (45-65° Brix) can be used to sweeten and color confections.
Matsutani Chemical Industry Co. spent more than 15 years developing, researching and refining the world’s first "rare sugars," including allulose. The Japanese company brought allulose to market 2-3 years ago under the name Astraea.
Rare sugars occur in very small quantities in nature, too small to allow for economic separation from their sources – typically figs, raisins and jackfruit. So most commercial versions are made through biological processes such as fermentation or enzyme conversion to create the identical compound.
Allulose is absorbed by the body but not metabolized, making it nearly calorie-free. Allulose has a texture and performance behavior similar to sucrose providing comparable bulk, sweetness and functionality (e.g., browning, freeze point depression).
Last year, Ingredion Inc. (www.ingredion.com) took over marketing of Astraea in the Americas.
Icon Foods (iconfoods.com), Portland, Ore., also distributes allulose. Although originally considered an added sugar by the FDA, King expects the FDA to allow the sweetener to be listed as a separate line item on Nutrition Facts panels as soon as the end of this month. “This is going to be a huge game-changer,” he says.
A monosaccharide, or simple sugar, allulose is about 70 percent as sweet as sucrose. Icon Foods has done in-house pilot testing showing that allulose even decreases blood sugar levels slightly while increasing blood ketone levels, according to King. Allulose is an optimal sweetener for baked goods, cereals and beverages, he says, noting that he has gotten many requests to use it in product reformulations.