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Old-Fashioned Nutritive Sweeteners Are On The Rise

Aug. 24, 2022
Everything old is new again, or at least that’s what it’s sounding like for food processors wanting to formulate with natural sweeteners.

According to the company’s story, when Robert Petrarca and Tim Miller founded Maxine’s Heavenly in 2013, the idea was to take cookie recipes from Miller’s mother and make healthier versions.

“That led us down a rabbit hole of research on what each ingredient did to the body and what we felt was the most holistic approach to healthier eating,” Petrarca says. “Almost immediately sugar became a hot topic.

“A cookie, after all, is mostly sugar mixed with flour and butter,” he continues. “We could see the overwhelming research on long-term negative effects of too much added and processed sugar. So we started trying to find better sugars. Name a sugar alternative and we tried it.”

The company explored various “new” sweeteners such as stevia and sugar alcohols, but found that none of them met all of their requirements. They finally settled on coconut sugar and dates.

“They fit everything we were looking for – natural, delicious, low-glycemic, and even sustainable,” Petrarca says. “They were the only sugars that made healthy cookies that tasted like real cookies.”

The experience of the Maxine’s Heavenly founders is not unique. As consumers demand more and more “healthy” food, refined sweeteners are a major target for elimination. The use of natural sweeteners, such as dates, maple syrup, honey and sweet sorghum, is on the rise.

It’s a date

Dates are an ancient sweetener. Today, for commercial applications, the sticky, dark fruit is made into date paste, date syrup, date powder/sugar, diced dates and date puree, explains Fares Horchani, CEO of Kartago Dates. Versatility is a key virtue of dates.

“The main date ingredient used nowadays is date paste,” Horchani says. “Most of the energy bars you can find in stores use date paste as the main ingredients. It allows all the other ingredients—nuts and seeds—to stick together. It’s a natural sweetener and full of nutrients such as fiber, potassium, magnesium and iron.”

Some consider dates a “super fruit.” In addition to the nutrients Horchani notes above, they are high in antioxidants. Plus, date sugar – which is ground dehydrated dates – has only 10 calories per teaspoon, compared to 16 calories in a teaspoon of regular granulated sugar.

Date sugar is commonly used in baking, smoothies, chocolate and spreads, Horchani says. Date syrups are used in ice cream, barbecue sauce, nut spreads and smoothies; and diced dates are used in granolas and cereals.

Dates are one sweetener that Sue Berliner, owner of B Naked Chocolate Co., uses in her creations, such as Gold Bar, a protein bar that also includes almonds, rice protein powder, coconut, coconut oil, vanilla bean and sea salt. Berliner says she likes using dates – as well as maple syrup and honey – in her products because they are more nutritious and have functional benefits.

“Their sticky nature make them multipurpose, and they act as a binder, too,” Berliner says. “They add more flavor and depth to a product than traditional sugars and you need less to accomplish comparable sweetness.”

Honey do

Honey also dates to prehistoric times. Israel was described as the land of “milk and honey” in the Old Testament, and honey is found throughout ancient Greek and Roman literature. The golden liquid’s use as a sweetener has never stopped being popular.

Two attributes of honey that make it a popular sweetener for processed food are that it’s highly familiar to consumers and it adds a bit of flavor beyond sweetness.

In globally-inspired sauces, honey provides a level of familiarity unlike any other sweetener, which gives honey a big marketing advantage when trying to introduce a product not familiar to the American palate,” notes Catherine Barry, vice president of marketing for the National Honey Board (honey.com).

“Honey also plays a starring role in the hottest trend today: hot honey,” she continues. “This popular flavor combo has moved from restaurant menus to potato chips to sauces to spreads and more. We also are seeing significant honey usage in the processed meat category, where honey’s addition provides clean-label sweetness to a variety of packaged products.”

Honey has some functional benefits as well. It can improve mouthfeel and has some emulsification properties, Barry says.

“Honey also has a low pH of 3.9, which can help formulators eliminate added ingredients that provide acidity,” she adds.

Dutch Gold Honey is a supplier of bulk honey to food processors (and they sell retail packaging). Jill Clark, vice president of sales and marketing for Dutch Gold, says key buyers of bulk honey from her company are bakery/snack manufacturers and makers of sauces, dressings and condiments.

Clark concurs with Barry that honey’s familiarity among consumers is an essential attribute: “Honey has name recognition. Consumers are comfortable with honey, and it is as natural of a sweetener as you can get. And consumers know that one-third of our diets depends on honey bees for pollination and choosing honey supports beekeepers.”

Other natural sweeteners

Maple syrup is another classic, age-old sweetener that finds applications in modern processed food. A 2019 study prepared for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets noted that maple syrup is finding its way into innovative processed foods such as carbonated beverages, condiments, dressings and yogurts.

“Given that maple syrup is all-natural and nutrient rich with calcium, potassium and zinc, it has the potential to play a large part in the healthy snack trend as an alternative sweetener to sugar,” the Vermont report notes. “It is often added to healthy snacks like nuts, cereals or energy bars; and paired with health awareness, maple can be the ideal fresh sugar substitute.”

Berliner of B Naked Chocolate Co. uses maple syrup as a sweetener in her Black Lace Chocolate Truffles. Of the natural sweeteners Berliner uses, she says, “Maple syrup tends to be the easiest to use and mixes well with most ingredients from fine cacao or coconut to chunky nuts or seeds.”

Another natural sweetener that is growing in popularity is agave syrup, made from the plant made famous by tequila. The lightly sweet syrup, often used in cold beverages, syrups and energy bars, has trace amounts of calcium, potassium and magnesium and has a lower glycemic index than white sugar.

A natural sweetener that doesn’t get much use these days, but which has potential, is sweet sorghum syrup. This product was widely used as a sweetener in the northern U.S. states during the 1800s – it helped reduce dependence on cane sugar made in the South. But the sweetener slowly lost ground in the 1900s and today is in somewhat limited supply.

Nevertheless, it is available from a number of regional suppliers. As health-conscious consumers demand more variety in their natural sweeteners, it could grow as an ingredient in processed food.

Steve Patterson, executive secretary of the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Assn., touts the product’s nutrition advantages: “It is an excellent source for minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron. It is also low in sodium, non-GMO, gluten-free and rich in phenolic antioxidants.”

Of course, regular white sugar – refined from sugar beets or sugar cane – also is a natural sweetener. It has a reputation as being bad for health and has virtually no nutrients, but its familiarity with consumers is unbeaten and it has distinct functional benefits.

“Sugar is a versatile and irreplaceable functional ingredient in food,” says Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Assn. “It's the gold standard for taste and is a familiar ingredient that has been used for generations—often for reasons that have little to do with its sweet flavor. These functional properties range from balancing acidity, browning or adding bulk to preventing spoilage through its moisture retention properties.”

Challenges of natural sweeteners

The benefits of using natural sweeteners are impressive, but most of the options mentioned above have drawbacks.

Creating or modifying recipes to accommodate a natural sweetener can be a significant challenge. A key reason for that is a lack of consistency in many natural sweeteners. The characteristics of honey, maple syrup and sweet sorghum syrup, for example, vary widely depending on geography, growing conditions, weather and other factors.

Another reason recipes with natural sweeteners are hard to make is that they usually impart more flavor than just sweetness. That sounds like a good thing, but it means the recipe needs to accommodate more factors.

“The unique flavors and undertones of maple syrup, honey and dates may not dance well with other ingredients,” explains Berliner. “Getting the right balance of ingredients takes effort.”

Other characteristics besides flavor also can be impacted by the use of natural sweeteners. Gigi Dolloff, sales manager of Jedwards International Inc., a supplier of numerous natural sweeteners, explains that the appearance of a finished product can be affected by its sweeteners.

“Color can vary depending on the sweetener used, which can carry through to the end-product,” Dolloff says. “For example, coconut sugar is a light brown, monk fruit concentrate is a dark brown, our organic sugar is a pure white, and stevia is a pure white.”

Petrarca of Maxine’s Heavenly says his company turned to experts to get the formulations just right: “We learned pretty quickly that a lot of time and money was saved when we worked with contract manufacturers and food scientists who had expertise in the natural food industry.

“Formulation is, by far, the biggest challenge. I find it to be one of the most exciting parts of what we do. It took many years and many iterations to learn how to bind, flavor and preserve our products under the high standards we implemented for our ingredients. Ultimately, building a network of experts we could ideate with helped make this process a bit easier.”

Sourcing natural sweeteners can also be challenging. Some, such as dates and honey, can be fairly easily found, but even those ingredients are not as accessible as sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

Clark of Dutch Gold Honey says, for example, that U.S. honey production only meets about 25% of the country’s demand, so her company imports honey from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, Uruguay and Vietnam.

And for less commonly used sweeteners, such as sweet sorghum syrup, getting a good supply can be exceedingly challenging. Patterson from the sorghum association says he has read that supply only meets about 10% of demand.

Despite these challenges, natural sweeteners are highly attractive to food processors who want to serve consumers interested in eating healthy.

“Brands aim to have ‘clean labels’ and to market their story,” Dolloff says. “Many labels include text on the front of their product – ‘No high-fructose corn syrup’ – to make it easier for conscious consumers to grab their products.”

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