Despite Innovations, Food Manufacturers Still Rely on Past-Generation Sweeteners

April 25, 2013
Acesulfame potatssium, aspartame, sucralose still rule the sweetener roost.

The latest research and scientific discussions indicate that humans have a natural affinity toward sweetness that is connected to primitive survival mechanisms. In our collective experience, sweetness equals energy and fuel, and is prevalent in mothers' milk. Bitterness, on the other hand is associated with toxicity.

Currently, however, sweetened foods are so readily available that most consumers are warned to be cautious in the amounts of sweet foods they eat and drink. So for the food processor, it is more important than ever to choose sweeteners that will meet the needs – all of the needs – of the end consumer.

That can mean simple sugars, high-intensity sweeteners or some combination of those. And the number of sweeteners available today is broader than it was just a decade or two ago. While the food industry has focused much of its attention lately on natural plant-based sweeteners including stevia extract and monk fruit sweetener, most sweetened foods (especially low- and zero-calorie soft drinks) are still made sweet by use of non-nutritive, high-intensity sweeteners aspartame, sucralose or acesulfame potassium (ace K).

While the FDA and various other public interest entities encourage consumers to consume fewer sweets, consumers continue to gravitate toward sweetness.

"There is growing pressure on the food industry to limit the levels of sugar and calories in the foods consumed, not only by adults but especially by kids," says Paul Kim, technology manager for Nutrinova, Irving, Texas. "That will mean continued pressure on CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies to reduce the level of sugar in their products."

Kim says this puts food companies (and parents) in a predicament when it comes to products such as flavored milk or breakfast cereals. Those products can deliver good nutrition, but without their sweet appeal they might be left on the shelf.

Because of this, companies like Nutrinova, which markets its own Sunett brand of ace K, provide food processors with sweetener options that allow them to offer low-calorie options that still taste good. Often that means a combination of high-intensity components like ace K, (which is highly soluble and offers a clean flavor) along with a smaller amount of sucrose or sucralose. This can allow for a 30-50 percent reduction in calories in many foods and beverages.

Ace K was commercialized in the mid-1980s, and been approved for use in beverages in the U.S. since 1988, and in other foods since 2003.

A product that has been in U.S. since 1993 is aspartame, also known as NutraSweet. In the U.S. it is marketed to food and beverage companies by Ajinomoto Co. Inc. Fort Lee, N.J. According to the company, technical benefits of aspartame include:

  • A unique sugar-like taste
  • No bitter aftertaste
  • Derived from building blocks of protein
  • Naturally digested and metabolized
  • A sweetness level about 200 times higher than sugar on a weight-for-weight basis

Also on the company's website, and available to download, is a technical booklet has been developed to provide an overview of the most important aspects of using aspartame in food and drink products.

Sucralose (also marketed to consumers as Splenda) has been available since 1998. It's 600 times sweeter than sugar and has grown from niche status to market leader since its FDA approval for use as a general sweetener. It is expected to continue to expand its dominant position in the tabletop sweetener market and to grow rapidly in other food applications.

Even though Tate & Lyle has focused much of its current marketing on its year-old monk fruit sweetener Purefruit, its Splenda brand of sucralose remains a powerhouse. The company claims "nearly 70 percent of U.S. households purchas[e] one or more products with the 'sweetened with Splenda' logo." The company says it's used in the development of more than 4,000 products in more than 80 countries.

Around the corner a next-generation of sweetening systems will be available, says Kim. These will combine high-intensity sweeteners and taste modulators, which help block perception of bitter flavors and create a taste in soft drinks that is indistinguishable from that of sugar. Nutrinova will introduce a product of this type, combining its zero-calorie Sunett and taste modulators, at the IFT Annual Meeting and Expo in July.

Meanwhile, mixing tropical beverages that are lower in calories has become easier thanks to new bar and restaurant products that include Truvia, a brand of stevia leaf extract. Cargill which markets Truvia, announced in April that Truvia is the sweetener in new Malibu Island Spiced, which claims to be the first lower-calorie, spiced rum option to appear on retail shelves and in bars and restaurants across the country.

Cargill says Truvia's clean taste mixes easily with Malibu's signature blend of Caribbean rum and coconut liqueur with light spices, smoked vanilla and cinnamon. Cargill is also offering a product called Truvia Behind the Bar, which is basically a bar sugar-type product that can be used for making simple syrups to be used in cocktail mixes.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Food Processing magazine.

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