Sweetener Options Are Evolving for Food and Beverage Processors

Sept. 16, 2021
A growing toolbox of ingredients play key roles in formulations—and not all involve sweetness.

Consumer wants and needs vary as greatly as consumers themselves. Desirable product attributes—from clean label to a great taste and texture—provide numerous goals from which to choose when designing a food or beverage. Even with a task like sweetness addition, a range of ingredient and technological solutions exist. While some approaches are tried and true, the industry continues to develop innovative ingredients and processes.

Sweeteners can be considered “nutritive” or “non-nutritive,” the latter are also known as “bulking” ingredients since they contribute to the bulk and texture of foods moreso than sweetness. They are often combined with high-intensity sweeteners, which have negligible calories when used at their typical very low levels.

Sugar alcohols (aka polyols) are carbohydrates and considered nutritive sweeteners since they contain calories and provide energy when consumed. Polyols include erythritol, maltitol, isomalt, lactitol, sorbitol, xylitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). In general, they have about half the calories of sucrose, although they range from 4.4 kcal/g in glycerol down to 0-0.2 kcal/g in erythritol, says Alex Woo, CEO of W2O Food Innovation.

The FDA has approved eight types of high-intensity sweeteners, often more technically referred to as high-potency (HP) sweeteners. They are acesulfame potassium (ace-K), advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle (Luo Han Guo), sucralose and fruit extracts (SGFE). The last are certain high-purity steviol glycosides purified from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni). However, whole stevia leaves and crude stevia leaf extracts are not approved food additives.

Sweet tooths “on trend”

While the Covid-19 pandemic shifted how and where U.S. consumers satisfied their sweet tooths, the desire itself didn’t diminish. Indeed, the volumes of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners consumed increased last year, a trend that's expected to continue, according to Euromonitor International. In 2020, 14.7 million metric tons of sweetener ingredients were consumed in the U.S., which is projected to grow 4.6% this year, reaching 15.4 million metric tons in 2021.

According to Euromonitor’s report, “Disruption in Sugar and Sweeteners: Consumer Priorities Triggering Change,” consumers have turned to comfort foods such as snacks and sugary products during the pandemic. The report adds that reduced sugar products became attractive since consumers saw them as having “fewer consequences.”

Euromonitor points out that despite artificial sweeteners' apparent unpopularity with consumers, these sweeteners continue to exhibit steady growth due to their entrenched use in low-calorie soft drinks as well as their ability to prove a cost-effective way to entirely remove sugar from beverages. The market research firm also notes that there has been no great clamor for natural sweeteners such as stevia, which has seen slowing growth.

On the other hand, as “sugar taxes are imposed and with negative perceptions of artificial sweeteners hard to shift, natural sweeteners retain huge importance to manufacturers and suppliers as a tool for sugar reduction, and as such innovation here remains high,” according to Euromonitor.

Current & emerging ingredient tools

Some clever ingredients and technologies came together to aid in Chobani’s recently launched Zero Sugar yogurts.

Allulose, citrus fiber, rebaudioside M (a stevia leaf extract) and monk fruit help make up the sweetener system in Chobani’s Zero Sugar yogurt. They replace sucrose but still deliver the texture and sweetness of a full-sugared product.

Lactose is a primary challenge in the creation of sugar-free dairy products. Called “milk sugar,” lactose is about 4-5% of cows’ milk and 7% by weight in human milk. Chobani uses an ultra-filtration step that reduces lactose in non-fat milk. “Cutting-edge natural fermentation methods” then allow yogurt cultures to consume the remaining sugar to a dietarily insignificant amount.

The second task is to then sweeten the yogurt, which Chobani does with monk fruit, stevia leaf (rebaudioside M) and allulose. Citrus fiber also plays a key role.

Rebaudioside M has benefited from a dramatic price decrease due a new fermentation production process, says Woo. RM-95, i.e., 95% rebaudioside M, has become a standard. It is used at less than 500ppm in beverages. It shows minimal to no bitterness, astringency or metallic taste, the latter sensed by the trigeminal nervous system, he adds. (Reb A and D still benefit from a price point advantage.)

Steviol glycosides such as rebaudiosides A, D and M are known for their sweetening ability. However, at lower levels and with a FEMA GRAS approval, “stevia also can be used as a Flavor with Modifying Properties (FMP)” says Christina Coles, associate marketing manager for sugar reduction and specialty sweeteners at Ingredion Inc. 

“It can improve the sweetness quality of finished products by developing sugar-like flavors, enhance desirable flavors (such as honey or vanilla) or mask undesirable flavors (such as bitterness),” she adds. The company’s extensive stevia portfolio under the PureCircle by Ingredion brand offers a range of FMP’s that can be labeled as “natural flavors.”

“Seven ingredient tools traditionally have been the bases for clean-label sugar reduction, with stevia Reb M still being a foundation,” offers Woo. Besides stevia-based ingredients, they include allulose, monk fruit, erythritol, inulin and soluble corn fiber. He considers the “seventh tool” a short list of sweetness modulators, which make the above blends taste more like sugar.

For example, inulin-type fructans have been versatile ingredients in the food industry for decades. While playing an important role in fiber-enriched, prebiotic and also reduced sugar products, the Covid-19 pandemic has given renewed reason as to why product developers may consider it in formulations.

Found in a range of plants such as Jerusalem artichoke, agave and bananas, inulin-type fructans are primarily extracted from chicory root by hot water for industrial use. In nature, they are found as mixtures of various fructose polymers, part of them connected to a single terminal glucose molecule, ranging from 2 to some 60 degrees of polymerization (DP).

Ingredients consisting of inulin fractions (called oligofructose) with DPs under 10 possess a natural sweetness 0.4 to 0.6 times that of sucrose, according to Punit Kumar and Kashyap Kumar Dubey in the 2019 book Applied Microbiology and Bioengineering.

“Standard” inulin has very low sweetness, while ingredient fractions of only longer-chained inulin molecules are not sweet. Colorless and without flavor, they function well as bulking agents in sweetener systems. In 2018, the FDA confirmed the dietary fiber status of inulin and inulin-type fructans, allowing this designation on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Beneo offers the functional fibers Orafti Inulin and Oligofructose from chicory root, says Kyle Krause, regional product manager-functional fibers and carbohydrates. Oligofructose is derived from inulin through partial enzymatic hydrolysis. Both inulin and oligofructose have research supporting their proven prebiotic benefits through their positive impact on gut flora.

Beyond their nutritional benefits, the Orafti products have improved body and mouthfeel, thus providing fat reduction and decreased "off-notes" when its inulin and/or oligofructose are used in combination with high-intensity sweeteners, such as stevia. Using yogurt as an example, its oligofructose is also said to enhance fruit flavors. The highly soluble fiber is added to the fruit preparation stage, which is then mixed with the dairy mass (with the potential to work with alternative protein bases as well).

Recommended usage levels within any application vary based on technological and/or nutritional requirements including making fiber content and prebiotic structure/function claims.

Newer ingredients: Neither polyols nor HP sweeteners

Allulose, a monosaccharide, has been a growing favorite among formulators in part due to FDA’s decision that it need not be included in the “Total” nor “Added Sugars” amount on the Nutrition Facts panel, although it does in “Total Carbohydrates.” It has about 70% the sweetness of sucrose, says Woo.

Found in small quantities in nature (e.g., figs, raisins and maple syrup), allulose is now produced through bioconversion for a more cost-competitive product. The FDA notes that “Allulose produces only a negligible increase in glycemic and insulinemic responses and is not readily fermented in the large intestine, providing no more than 0.4 kcal/g.” Additionally, allulose does not promote dental caries.

Allulose provides functional benefits as well. For example, Ingredion’s Coles says in reduced-sugar and -calorie frozen desserts, the company’s Astraea allulose can depress freezing points to achieve a softer scoop. When combined with a high-potency sweetener like stevia, sugar reduction can be achieved with limited sensory impact.

In another example, when sugar is removed in baked goods applications, color development sometimes is lost. Since allulose is a reducing sugar (unlike many other alternatives), it can help to develop browning via the Maillard browning reaction.

Tagatose also is a rare sugar found in nature (e.g., some fruits and heated dairy products). A hexose monosaccharide, its price has dropped with the advent of commercial production by bioconversion, says Woo.

It is currently labeled as a sugar but may eventually follow the precedent set by allulose regulations and become exempt from sugar/added sugar regulation in the U.S., notes Melanie Goulson, general manager of Merlin Development (, a Plymouth, Minn., contract product development firm. Tagatose is about 20% absorbed and fully metabolized. It delivers 1.5 calories/gram.

Tagatose has been evaluated in Merlin Development’s laboratory, says Goulson. A trained panel found tagatose to have a sweetness intensity about 90% of sucrose in a water solution. Tagatose has a clean, sweet taste profile, similar to sucrose.

Using drop sugar cookies to assess tagatose at 50% and 100% sucrose replacement, when compared to a sucrose control, the cookies browned more, and "although tagatose has a lower melting point than sucrose, the drop cookies did not spread like the sucrose control.” Goulson reports that adjustments in the fat-to-flour ratio helped compensate for the difference in spread.

Making the most of sugar

Innovative ideas often come from unexpected places. A solution to a sugar shortage during World War II led to DouxMatok’s Incredo Sugar.

It began in 1944 when a neighbor of Prof. Avraham Baniel, co-founder of DouxMatok and father of current chairman and co-founder Eran Baniel, asked if she could borrow starch. “What do you need the starch for?” asked Baniel. “The perceived sweetness of a small amount of sugar could be increased by adding it to a sticky starch pudding”, she said. They tried it and it worked.

The thought that this ingredient system could be improved by embedding something within sugar crystals to “soak up” the sucrose molecules intrigued him. Seventy years later he remembered the incident and a new type of amorphous crystal containing large clusters of sugar resulted. When bitten into, more sugar molecules within a food matrix dissolve and reach the sweet taste receptors.

DouxMatok now has 24 patents on the technology with applications for many more. While Incredo is based on silica and sucrose, both of which are common food additives, patents using other types of carriers and various sweeteners are under development.

Now on the market, use of Incredo Sugar allows sucrose to be reduced 30%-50% in a range of foods says Ari Melamud, CEO of DouxMatok. To help compensate for the missing functionality and volume of sucrose, typical bulking agents could be used as well as dietary fiber and/or plant-based protein, which also radically improve nutritional value.

An agave farmer trims spikes from the agave plant. He can then safely access the plant’s center to collect the aguamiel (honey water) that is reduced to create Wild Salmiana Agave Syrup.  Photo Courtesy: Nekutli Cooperative, Salmiana Wild Agave Global Organics

Increasingly, however, “clean label” means more than a short, recognizable ingredient list. The next generation of clean label encompasses ingredient sourcing and ethical issues. Social responsibility is even encroaching on sweetener ingredients.

Global Organics supplies Wild Salmiana Agave Syrup (77ºBrix). Its technical aspects include its function as a binder and browning agent. It’s about 1.4 times sweeter than sugar and it has a low glycemic index of 32. It can be used in applications from frozen desserts to baked goods to beverages.

Sourced from the wild Aztec plant Agave salmiana in central Mexico, its back story is intriguing. The plant is so adapted to its environment that herbicides, pesticides nor fertilizers are needed. Little biowaste is created since both leaves and piña are used to process agave syrup, which is done by the Nekutli Alimentos Organicos Group, a union of four farming cooperatives.

Alex Puglia, business development manager for Global Organics, notes that Nekutli Alimentos Organicos Group invests profits from their agave sales directly back into their communities. Homes have been improved by the addition of metal roofing and indoor kitchens. Recently, they voted to add computer labs to schools

New sweetener options will continue to evolve. What won’t change is consumers’ desire for a touch of sweetness.

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