Being sweet is evidently a good thing, especially when it comes to processed food. After all, sugar appears as an ingredient in 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets, according to SugarScience, a program of the University of California at San Francisco. Americans simply like their food to be sweet.
But sugar causes health problems, ranging from obesity to dental caries. A 2014 study at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who consumed a diet high in sugar had a 38% increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease; a 2018 study at the National Institutes of Health indicated that sugar can contribute to binge eating.
And the final straw: The new Nutrition Facts panel, which went into effect January 1, 2020, requires "added sugars" to be called out separately from naturally inherent sugars – ascribing a scarlet letter to processors who have added sugar to improve their product's taste. As a result, many processors already have reformulated to lower that declaration, and others are still trying to find ways to clean up their labels.
Studies such as those, and the general perception that sugar is bad for you, have made consumers wary. In 2019, consumer research firm Mintel reported 74% of consumers believe a healthy diet should be low in sugar.
“Over recent decades, the role of dietary sugar intake as a major driver of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes has become more widely recognized among consumers,” confirmed a 2018 study by the National Institutes of Health.
At the same time, synthetic sweeteners are also considered unhealthy. According to Mintel, 60% of consumers think "artificial" sweeteners are bad for them.
This represents an opportunity for food processors to increase appeal by using natural, non-nutritive sweeteners. Since consumers want sweetness but many don’t want sugar or synthetic sweeteners, the use of natural sweeteners such as stevia and allulose is growing.
More than sweetness
An important issue regarding sweeteners in food processing is that consumers’ palates are accustomed to natural sugar, which has a distinct flavor and mouthfeel. Sugar provides a rapid onset of sweetness without distasteful aftereffects.
No alternative sweetener exactly matches that profile, especially in a 1 to 1 ratio. Food scientists trying to replace sugar in a recipe, consequently, need to consider more than just how sweet the replacement is.
“Each sweetener has a different taste profile and functionality,” explains Nancy Hughes, president of Apura Ingredients, which carries a large portfolio of sweeteners.
“For example, aspartame is commonly used in carbonated soft drinks and confectionary products," she continues. "Sucralose and stevia are popular in waters, juices, baked goods, nutritional and pharmaceutical products. Developers must consider the desired taste profile while taking into consideration the manufacturing process.”
Modulants also play a role in the sweetness of processed food. These are additional flavorings that affect the sweetness perception, such as by masking an undesirable aftertaste or heightening a specific mouthfeel.
However, monk fruit extract can leave an aftertaste described as “melon rind.” Consequently, it is often mixed with another sweetener, such as stevia, to mask its unpleasantness. It also is relatively expensive, because the fruit only grows in certain parts of China.
Icon Foods, formerly Steviva, sells a monk fruit extract called MonkSweet. The company combines the extract with stevia to create a highly functional sweetener. “Monk fruit extracts produced by Icon Foods are optimized with proprietary combinations of mogrosides and glycosides to reduce aftertaste,” the company states on its website.
Another common natural sweetener used in food processing is erythritol. This component naturally occurs in grapes, mushrooms and some other plants, but for commercial uses it is created using fermentation.
Nutritionally, erythritol is a sugar alcohol that contains zero calories and does not impact blood glucose or insulin secretion. It is 60-80% sweet as sugar.
The ingredient is popular in food processing for a number of reasons. It has a low molecular weight, which makes it suited for low viscosity applications. It dissolves well in water and its solubility increases with temperature. It also can improve the flavor of other sweeteners, such as stevia.
As with monk fruit extract, Icon Foods offers an erythritol product combined with stevia called Erysweet+ With Stevia.
These natural sweeteners are helping food processors create quality products that meet consumer demands for sweetness with fewer calories. But undoubtedly, more natural sweeteners are on the way – after all, research firm Future Market Insights predicts that sales of naturally derived sweeteners will grow 5.1% annually and exceed $37 billion by 2028.