The “functional foods” category, while not yet clearly defined, is quickly growing, with recent reports showing it to be one of the top food trends in 2007. Functional foods can range in shape and specific health function and may include natural and organic foods, protein cereal bars, fruit smoothies, yogurt products, diabetic items and other medical foods. The best type of sweetener for the job depends on labeling and nutrient requirements, product characteristics and functionality requirements.

Sweetener Functionality

Sucrose is a multi-functional ingredient. Available in a variety of forms, it can be used in many different food products. Sucrose has a range of properties that, either individually or in combination with other ingredients, makes it an important ingredient in modern food production. Its functions include sweetness, flavor, bulk, texture, viscosity control, aroma, shelflife, fermentation, freezing point depression and color.

Sugar (sucrose) is not easy to replace; therefore, the sweetener choice for any product is based on the formulation requirements, which may range in flexibility. For example, the sweetener requirements will differ according to whether a product is low-carb, all natural, non-cariogenic or whether it has nutritional properties like high-protein or no-sugar.

The method of sweetening also depends on the desired textural properties of the product. “The classic example is a cereal bar. In a product such as this, the sweetener system can sometimes be up to 50% of the formula. Sugar is not good at maintaining humectancy or viscosity, so when using all sugar for the sweetener, the product will be crunchier. If softness is desired, then both a starch-based (corn syrup) and a sugar-based sweetener are needed,” states Bob Hansen, manager of technical service at a popular supplier.

All Natural and Starch-based Sweeteners

Starch-based sweeteners such as corn syrup are used to build viscosity, maintain humectancy and softness in baked goods, and for browning. They have approximately the same number of calories as sucrose. If a soft granola health type bar is desired, then a starch-based sweetener like corn syrup is needed. However, if the product is to be considered all natural, corn syrup is likely not an option, because it typically is made from GMO corn using mineral acids and enzymes from GMO organisms (as well as sulfur dioxide-activated carbon and ion exchange). It may be useful to remember that the term “natural” is not regulated.

“For a product requiring a natural or organic sweetener, malt extract, starch or grain-based sweeteners such as rice syrups, tapioca and tapioca dextrin are good choices,” offers Hansen, supplier of these products. “The growth in demand for natural and organic sweeteners parallels the growth of the organic food industry.” The organic category includes a variety of functional foods as well as other types of products searching for natural labels.

“Malt extract is the original starch-based sweetener and has been around for hundreds of years. The only ingredients are barley and the water added to it. Barley malt extract can be made 100% organic,” adds Hansen. Malt, tapioca and rice syrups and extracts are other natural starch-based sweeteners that can also be used in ice cream and candy to build viscosity and control crystallization. Ironically, even ice creams and candies can be considered nutritionally functional in some cases.

As starch-based compounds, these sweetener syrups are long polymers of glucose units of different chain lengths as well as the sugars fructose, glucose and maltose. The chain length and composition of these starch-based sweeteners control the level of sweetness, viscosity, and the ability to control crystallinity and water activity. Rice and tapioca syrups and extracts have similar properties.

Typically the more refined the syrup, the cleaner the flavor and the fewer other components present. For instance, malt extract contains approximately 8% protein on a dry basis as well as a lot of vitamins and minerals. In the process of making malt extract, a lot of the components of the grain are carried through to the finished extract.

Brown rice syrup also contains vitamins and minerals but not to the extent of the malt extract. Tapioca extract is cleaner yet. The more refined the natural product, the closer it is to its conventional counterpart.

If an all-natural sweetener with the properties of sucrose is desired, evaporated cane juice can be used and functions as sucrose. Sucrose is not a reducing sugar, so it is not the best on its own for browning. “Starch-based sweeteners like the tapioca syrups and malt extracts have reducing ends; in fact, malt is the best ingredient for browning,” says Hansen. When using an artificial sweetener, there are usually no browning functions.

Other all-natural options for sweetening include fruit, honey and molasses. “Honey has limitations based on its sugar profile (sucrose, fructose and glucose). It does have some browning capabilities and is okay for building viscosity, but is not as good as a low-DE (dextrose equivalent), starch-based sweetener,” offers Hansen. The DE defines to what level of enzyme hydrolysis a starch-based sweetener has been processed. Honey is similar to malt extract functionally, but the honey flavor may or may not be desired. Honey often is used in combination with a cleaner starch-based sweetener.

Fruits and Juices

Fruits and fruit ingredients also are used for sweetening foods. Fruits contain fructose (often referred to as “fruit sugar”) and sometimes glucose, providing sweetness in a formulation. “Juice concentrates such as apple, pear, white grape, peach and pineapple are often used to sweeten energy bars, fruit bases for yogurts, fruit smoothies, fruit drinks and baby food,” says Mabel Yawata, R&D manager at a well-known fruit supplier.

The advantages of using fruit as a sweetener are in the labeling and marketing areas. Claims for “no sugar added” and “all natural” often are an option. “Fruit on a label attracts consumers that do not want refined sugar, are health and fitness concerned and those that want to increase their fruit content. In addition to sweetening, fruits can add flavor, color and other nutrients including vitamins and antioxidants,” addsYawata.

An Intense Experience

While a natural sweetener can be the perfect ingredient for a product, dietary guidelines recommend reducing sugar and calories and increasing fiber. Because sugar- and starch-based sweeteners play such important roles in a formula, their replacement requires careful manipulation to ensure that all of the performance criteria are met. The best solutions often are a mixed ingredient approach.

In essence, high-potency or high-intensity sweeteners provide sweetness without bulk and without major impact on calories. High-intensity sweeteners have much greater sweetness than sucrose and often are synthetic and non-nutritive; therefore, they are not a good option for organic or natural labels. However, they are a perfect sweetener for beverages.

“Sweetening solutions in liquid products such as soft drinks or coffee sweeteners are simple in that a high-potency sweetener (or combination) can be used, water providing the bulk phase. In solid foods, replacing the bulk is done with other ingredients,” states Helen Mitchell, director of applications for a well-known supplier.

Functional foods such as diabetic items frequently use high-intensity sweeteners. For example, aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sucrose, and very little is needed to replace sugar. Aspartame contains 4Kcal/g just like sugar, but it does not contribute significantly to calories in a formulation because just a small quantity is used.

Acesulfame potassium (ace-K), another high-intensity sweetener, also is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose, contains no calories and is also used widely; it often is blended with aspartame or other sweeteners for better flavor. Sucralose is a sugar-derived, low-calorie sweetener that is highly stable under processing conditions and is approximately 600 times sweeter than sucrose.

If a manufacturer is trying to comply with a natural or organic label, the high-intensity sweeteners may not be of help. Stevia rebaudiana is a shrub in the sunflower family. The glycosides found in the leaves can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is widely used in Japan as a sweetener. Stevia is an interesting sweetener, but of limited use in the U.S. The FDA states that stevia is not an approved food additive or affirmed as GRAS. According to the FDA, available toxicological information on stevia is inadequate to demonstrate its safety. However, dietary supplements (DS) are not subject to food additive regulations, so stevia often is found in DS formulations.

Choosing Polyols

Polyols are carbohydrates derived from sugars but not metabolized by humans in the same manner as sugar. Considered sugar alcohols, their chemical composition resembles both sugar and alcohol. As sugar-free sweeteners, polyols have fewer calories but are used in the same amounts as sugar in a formula.

“Polyols fit into the functional foods category very well,” states Pete Jamieson, manager of applications research at another well-known supplier. “Not only do they not significantly decrease blood glucose or insulin levels, allowing diabetics to better balance their diets, they are also lower in calories. Furthermore, polyols provide the bulk that is significant to making the new generation of functional foods look more appealing and taste great. Without that, it doesn’t matter how nutritionally beneficial a food is for the consumer—if it doesn’t taste good, they will not buy it a second time.”

With no off-flavors and stable at high temperatures, polyols work best in applications where bulk is needed to maintain the finished product’s integrity. One example would be frozen desserts such as ice cream or sorbet, where the bulk of the carbohydrate dictates the final freeze point of the product. The freeze point consequently affects the texture and shelflife. Other examples are baked goods such as cakes or cookies where the bulk impacts their volume or spread, overall taste, texture and appearance.

Choosing the right polyol is based on understanding the traditional carbohydrates (corn syrups, sugars) being replaced. Since polyols are derived from corn syrups (in the U.S.) and sugars, they have a similar molecular weight and functionality. For example, when using a 63DE corn syrup in an application and looking for a polyol that matches it in function and carbohydrate distribution, a maltitol syrup or polyglycitol syrup would work. If using a disaccharide like sucrose, looking at polyols with similar function and molecular weight such as lactitol, isomalt or maltitol would be good choices. Monosaccharides can be replaced with erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. These are rules of thumb, and one must understand that each polyol has its own unique characteristics like solubility, melt point, cooling effects and digestive tolerances.

The main limitation of polyols is that they are low digestible carbohydrates (LDCs) and not digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, at certain levels, osmotic imbalances and/or fermentation by bacteria can cause loose stools and gas. However, it is important to note that not all polyols are the same in this regard. Typically, the smaller the molecular weight of the LDC (in combination with reduced digestibility), the greater its osmotic effects on the lower GI tract.

One thing to remember is that polyols (like other sweeteners) are meant to be tools, not crutches, used to help individuals trying to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Therefore, when used within sensible guidelines, polyols and other sweeteners can be used to create high-quality products that not only taste good, but that are good for you, too.

Showcase: High-intensity Sweeteners; Bulking Agents and Dietary Fibers and Fruit-based Sweeteners

Food developers looking for sweeteners with a genuine sugar taste may be interested in a no-calorie sweetener made from sugar. SPLENDA® sucralose, made by Tate & Lyle, has a great sugar-like taste and is exceptionally stable, retaining its sweetness through all commonly used food and beverage manufacturing processes as well as during the shelflife of finished products. Its versatility enables manufacturers to offer consumers a far greater range of great-tasting, reduced-calorie products than ever before. SPLENDA is a trademark of McNeil Nutritionals LLC, Tate & Lyle, 866-772-7347,

This soluble fiber provides high dietary fiber and improves mouthfeel, taste and aftertaste in low-sugar, sugar-free and low-fat beverages and dairy products. NUTRIOSE® is a clear, low-viscosity, prebiotic fiber that compensates for body typically lacking in such beverages and foods and masks off-note flavors caused by high-intensity sweeteners, added vitamins or acid bite from juices or teas. NUTRIOSE provides extended energy release, low glycemic response and outstanding digestive tolerance, making it ideal for health and fitness products. National Starch Food Innovation, 1-877-OUR-FIBER,www.foodinnovation/

An innovative sugar replacement system that delivers the taste and texture of sugar in healthy food formulations with the benefit of reduced calories and sugar and added soluble fiber in one product is available in the form of POLYSORB® FM. This product line, from Roquette America Inc., is a unique family of polyglucitol and maltitol syrups that can be used in a variety of good-for-you food applications, often without the need for high-intensity sweeteners. POLYSORB FM offers unsurpassed healthy performance from the production line to the consumer’s table!  Roquette America Inc., Ben Moser, 800-553-7053,,

New and versatile blueberry formats allow formulators of prepared foods to add natural sweetness and real fruit flavor bursts to baked goods, jams and fillings, snacks, marinades, dairy, juices and other beverages. Plump, delicious, sugar-infused, osmotically preserved blueberries provide moisture and intense flavor. Easy to formulate, cultivated highbush blueberries are available year-round fresh or dried, freeze-dried, as purée, concentrate or juice. Consumers consider blueberries a value-added ingredient because they are linked to heart health, anti-aging properties, cancer prevention, improved eyesight and better memory. U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Thomas J. Payne Market Development, 650-340-8311,,

Many healthier products feature ingredients to improve health. To that end, GTC Nutrition offers NutraFlora® short-chain fructo-oligosaccharides (scFOS®) prebiotic fiber as an ingredient solution that is uniquely capable of promoting bone, digestive and immune health by improving the absorption of calcium and maintaining healthy digestive and immune functions. NutraFlora also provides many positive functional benefits including adding fiber, enriching flavors, improving moistness, lowering carbohydrate content and increasing the shelflife of products. GTC Nutrition, John Musselman, 303-216-2489,,

A family of internationally approved bulk sugar replacers/nutritional sweeteners from Palatinit is derived exclusively from beet sugar and is similar to sugar in sweetness, taste and technological properties but with half the calories. ISOMALT brand variants can replace sucrose 1:1 in terms of bulk, texture, volume and shelflife in products such as ice cream, cereal, fruit bars and jam, while reducing their glycemic effect. In baked goods, ISOMALT does not react with amino acids and thus is not involved in Maillard reactions. No caramelization or other discoloration develops during melting, extrusion or baking processes. Palatinit of America, Renee Tallman, 973-539-6644,,

Cherries are emerging as the newest “superfruit,” packed with powerful antioxidants that offer a wide range of health benefits. Commonly enjoyed in dried, frozen, juice and concentrate form, tart cherries are available year-round and are a versatile, healthy ingredient. Consumers and food manufacturers are adding cherries to other fruits and juices for great-tasting, good-for-you smoothies, muffins, snacks and salads. Great cherry usage ideas and recipes are available Cherry Marketing Institute, 312-988-2043,

Consumers love the taste and the natural image of honey. They perceive a higher value for foods that contain honey. Honey’s roles as a humectant and as an antimicrobial agent add shelflife to foods. The National Honey Board provides information and usage ideas geared to the food processing industry. Please visit its website for substitution charts, technical information, market research, industrial applications, new product ideas and more. The National Honey Board, Charlotte Jordan, 303-776-2337,,

With neutral flavor, low sweetness and extremely low hygroscopicity, Organic BriesSweet™ Tapioca Maltodextrin 10DE makes an ideal bulking agent for organic and/or gluten-free dry blends. Enzymatically produced from 100% pure tapioca starch, the ingredient is an agglomerated powder that delivers improved flow and dispersability. All-natural, non-GMO and kosher-certified, it is offered as a natural choice when a clean label is desired. Available in 50lb bags. Briess Malt & Ingredients Company, Ann Heus, 920-849-7711,,