The sweetener industry continues to evolve more by consumption than invention. Just as sugar was transformed from a luxury item to a standard on the American table, and then made huge inroads into processed foods, new high-intensity sweeteners are carving out solid ground in the sweetener tool chest.

During the last third of the 20th century, ingredient makers and product processors began taking a less passive and more proactive approach to making foods and beverages sweet. Thanks to consumer concerns about diet, health, and natural products, innovation and invention started to generate big shifts in consumption of the amounts and types of sweetened products. In addition, consumers began to focus on what specific ingredients were used to sweeten those products.

At first, progress was slow, and changes seemed to come about only every decade or so. For most of this period, caloric sweeteners were dominated by high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and non-caloric artificial sweeteners (after cyclamates and the nearly ubiquitous sodium saccharine were banned) were primarily sugar alcohols (polyols) and, later, ingredients such as aspartame and acesulfame potassium.

Part of the problem in getting new sweeteners off the ground is the difficulty in getting government approval. For example, it took about 14 years to move aspartame from discovery to FDA approval in 1981. A decade and a half later, sucralose followed a similarly slow path, gaining approval in 1991 in Canada, but not until 1998 in the US.

Polyols began to appear in foods targeting the sugar-free dental health and diabetic foods segments. Commonly used sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.

Sugar alcohols typically have 60-70% of the sweetness of sugar. They are incompletely absorbed and metabolized by the body, and consequently, contribute fewer calories than most sugars and have less of a glycemic impact on persons with diabetes.

Changes in Nutritive Sweeteners

High-fructose corn syrup was originally developed as an alternative to sucrose (table sugar). The name is somewhat of a misnomer, as the compound, on average, is made up of 55% fructose to 45% glucose, compared to sucrose’s 50-50 mix. Some health advocates began to make the claim that HFCS has a negative impact on diabetes, liver health, cancer risk, and other disease factors. However, there has been little if any convincing scientific evidence to support such claims.

Irrespective of science, damage has been done to HFCS, and consumption has declined by more than 15% since 2000. Many major producers have removed HFCS facilities from their sweetener networks in the last few years. Major sweetener producers are looking within their global networks to offer food and beverage manufacturers options that address both GMO and HFCS concerns.

Ironically, Americans have not decreased their overall sweetener intake by a similar percentage. Even with diabetes and obesity at epidemic levels, US sugar sales skyrocketed from the 2014/15 to 2015/16 crop years. According to the USDA Economic Research Service (January, 2017), cash receipts for sugar beets jumped nearly 20%, and for sugar cane, almost 10%. Research and Markets reports a global sweetener growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5% and predicts the sweeteners market will reach nearly $111 billion by 2020.

These factors have brought a number of other plant-based syrups to the table. For example, one HFCS alternative with comparable economics and a non-GMO and gluten-free label is tapioca syrup. Primarily marketed by smaller specialty companies, it can also be found within the global supply chains of major sweetener and starch companies.

Tapioca has much of the functionality of HFCS, as its DE (dextrose equivalent) rates range from 20+ to 90. At the lower DE rates, the syrups are quite viscous and less sweet and are used as binders in such products as nutrition bars. As the DE rate goes up and viscosity goes down, tapioca syrup can be used in a range of traditional beverage and food applications.

Sticky Options

Other grain-based sweeteners include rice, wheat, and oat syrups as well as barley malt. Rice syrup also offers a DE range that makes it equivalent to HFCS and tapioca syrup in many applications. Another option, barley malt extract, is made from sprouted barley, which is dried then cooked. The resultant liquid is filtered and reduced to the desired consistency. Barley malt extract is gaining in cachet, but has limitations, the most important of which is price: On the bulk market, it costs about seven times as much as sucrose.

Malted barley extracts have the potential to add a unique sweetness and color to baked goods and beverages. Other functionalities include browning in baked goods; body and viscosity in beverages, syrups, and sauces; and as a natural humectant and binding and bulking agent. Malted barley extracts are available in liquid and dry forms, giving processors additional formulation flexibility.

Honey is the oldest natural sweetener known to be used by humans. It has gained even more status lately as the cleanest-label sweetener available. In fact, unadulterated honey is considered such a pure sweetener that it ranks as one of the few ingredients that does not actually require certification under the highly strict kosher laws. It is favored in baked goods, dressings, and beverages, especially teas. (For a comprehensive look at honey in formulations, see “Make It with Honey,”)

“Challenges we face in working with honey mostly center around the somewhat high cost compared to table sugar and a lack of available non-GMO options in the US,” notes Jayme Starrak, co-founder of Busy Bee Yerba Maté Co., a maker of honey-sweetened RTD tea beverages. “Bringing a price-competitive RTD to the consumer requires strategic and transparent sourcing to ensure for us a real honey [that is] free of GMOs.”

To combat these challenges, Starrak recently began sourcing honey from a region that has specified non-GMO zones with a large enough area to ensure that hives are not contaminated by GMOs or pesticides. Another challenge Starrak faces is the slight change in the taste of honey from season to season and hive to hive. “What pollens the bees bring back to their hive absolutely affects the taste,” she says. “However, typically this is only noticeable to the most sensitive palates.”

To overcome the pricing obstacle, Starrak mixes small amounts of pure cane sugar into Busy Bee beverages. But the calculated combining of sweeteners is not just about cost savings. “This also helps create a consistent flavor,” she explains, pointing to how the combination of the two sweeteners ends up becoming more than the sum of the parts, as the two mutually enhance the preferred qualities in Busy Bee’s beverages.

Honey’s natural attraction for consumers includes environmental concerns. “Honey is not only used for its delicious taste,” says Starrak. “Although it certainly provides an additional layer of flavor that sugar does not, using honey also is an attempt to keep apiaries thriving and researching ways to save the bees.”

Starrak continues, adding that, “Because apiaries are directly and immediately affected by colony collapse disorder, honey companies are spearheading the movement to salvage our pollinator friends. Working with these folks not only increases our awareness—and Busy Bee’s consumers’ awareness—of the issue, but we are also direct supporters of the Save the Pollinator initiative.”

Fruit Sweet

Refined table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are high in calories, yet provide almost no other nutrients. On the contrary, whole sweet fruits such as raisins or apples can be used to replace some of these refined sugars. While raisins and other dried fruits contain sugar and provide sweetness, they also supply fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that sugar doesn’t have.

Potassium and fiber—two of the four shortfall nutrients identified in the USDA dietary guidelines—are ample in fruit purées. “For example, in experiments, we’ve replaced all of the corn syrup in pecan pie with apple purées, and the brown sugar with date and raisin paste in Bananas Flambé without subjects noticing a difference,” explains Jim Painter, PhD, RD, adjunct professor at the University of Texas and author of “Let's EAT Mindfully” (2017).

Raisin purée functions particularly well in combination with chocolate (e.g. fruit purée coated in chocolate to create a low -sugar bonbons), or as the sole sweetener in chocolate cake. “This is because the strong flavor and color of the chocolate hide the dark color and astringent notes of raisins,” says Painter. “Fruit purées can also positively affect the mouthfeel of baked goods when used as a substitute for oil because of their ability to maintain moisture,” he continues. “However, they might not perform well when used as a substitute for butter or margarine.”

Fruit concentrates also have potential to create cleaner labels in line with the FDA Labeling Laws. These laws require the display of added sugars on the nutrition facts panel. When using fruit purées as a sweetener to reduce the amount of sugar that is declared as added sugars, the laws state that “...whole fruit, fruit pieces, pulps, purees ... should not be considered added sugars because they are nutrient rich and maintain the basic properties of a fruit, which is not considered to be an added sugar.”

Fruit purées can also contribute to shelf stability through phytonutrients that that retard spoilage and by controlling water activity through binding “free” water. To control water activity a product must have a water activity of 0.60 or lower.

Intense Situation

Another major driver of sweetener innovation is the growing population of overweight, obese, and diabetic patients. This factor is strongly fueling growth in the HIS segment, according to Research and Markets. Although high intensity sweeteners (HIS) don't constitute a major share of the total sweetener market, this is the fastest growing segment. estimated in 2015 that the sugar substitutes market was valued at $13.26 billion, and projected it will reach $16.53 billion by 2020, a CAGR of 4.5%.

Aspartame and sucralose are the most well-known and still widely used sweeteners in the HIS segment. But stevia is experiencing ever-increasing demand in the natural sweeteners category, due to the product’s natural derivation and clean label.

Stevia has a sweetness level about 150 times that of sucrose, and thus products sweetened with it are essentially non-caloric. The compounds that provide the sweetness from stevia–stevioside and rebaudioside–were first isolated in 1931, but FDA and EU approval for use in food did not occur until 2008 and 2011 respectively. 

Those approvals have unleashed exceptional growth. Research and Markets forecasts that the global stevia market will grow at a CAGR of 8.82% during the period 2016-2020. This growth will be generated by increased application in soft drinks and juices, ice creams/frozen novelties, and various other products. The stevia market is expected to account for around 15% of the overall sweetener market by 2020, according to Future Market Insights.

Long-noted disadvantages to stevia have been reports of an aftertaste often described as licorice-like. Much of this has been overcome through purification—surprisingly, levels of 95-97% have proven to perform better organoleptically than higher levels of purity—as well as combining stevia with other sweeteners. Also, stevia seems to present a less prominent aftertaste in fruit beverages, especially higher acid juices.

A new form of high-purity stevia sweetener has hit the market. While most stevia sweeteners in the marketplace are based on rebaudioside-A, the new sweetener system is based on the rebaudioside-M structure. It boasts a, clean, sweet taste, said to be comparable to sucrose (table sugar). Customer feedback following a large-scale trial by major global beverage company in one of its bottled beverages proved “exceptional.”

This is the first sweetener of this type to be made commercially available through a proprietary and patent-pending enzymatic bioconversion technology. The ingredient is suitable for multiple food and beverage applications.

Naturally New

Food scientists have been poring over Mother Nature’s recipe files for years to find new sweetener sources. Luo han guo extract, commonly known as monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) has been available as a refined powdered sweetening ingredient for a decade or so, but has only recently begun to find commercial success.

The fruit derives its intense sweetness from naturally occurring constituents called mogrosides, which can range from 150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Monk fruit does not seem to impart the same prominent aftertaste as stevia.

That sweetness intensity can provide cost-in-use benefits to food and beverage manufacturers. Monk fruit extract can be found in Dole Food Co.’s No Sugar Added Fruit Bowls and 2B, a natural, low-calorie beverage that has been approved for sale in New York City schools.

Also relatively new to the market is allulose, one of many different sugars that exists in nature. It was identified in wheat over 70 years ago, and is present in very small quantities in certain fruits such as figs, raisins, and jackfruit as well as in foods like caramel sauce, maple syrup, and brown sugar. A monosaccharide that is absorbed by the body but not metabolized, allulose is nearly calorie-free.

Allulose is claimed to have the taste and texture of sugar, with 90% fewer calories than sucrose. Unlike most high-intensity sugar replacers, allulose acts more like sugar and can provide desirable browning in baked goods. It also adds bulk and texture.

When it comes to caloric natural sweeteners, food formulators looking to differentiate their products can choose from a grab bag of ingredients, including wild palm syrup and coconut sugar. Wild palm sugar has been a popular sugar alternative in Asia, and it is now distributed in the US. It comes from the tropical palm forests of Sri Lanka and is wild-harvested and traditionally processed by hand. The low-glycemic index product can substitute for sugar, honey, maple syrup, and corn syrup in baked goods and beverages.

Another arrival from Asia is coconut sugar, produced from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm. Coconut sugar has been used as a traditional sweetener for thousands of years in the South and Southeast Asian regions, where the coconut palm is in abundant supply. It is produced in a manner similar to maple syrup, where the palm blossoms are tapped and the sap is collected to create syrup. It is later reduced to a crystalline block or paste. Coconut sugar might have a lower glycemic index than cane sugar, but conflicting study results have prompted a healthy debate on whether coconut sugar is a healthier option.

Reformulation Challenges

Replacing and reducing added sugars is not always a one-for-one exchange, especially when high-potency or high-intensity sweeteners are used in place of traditional sugars or corn syrup. Each manufacturer has a unique need regarding labeling requirements. Aspartame, sucralose, stevia, and monk fruit extract, for example, enable manufacturers to significantly reduce sugar in formulations without compromising taste.

However, because these sweetening ingredients are used in such small quantities in the final product, they do not deliver functional attributes like bulk or mouthfeel. With this in mind, ingredient suppliers will often recommend a combination of sweeteners and hydrocolloids to reduce calories and sugars, and deliver the taste and texture experiences that consumers expect. The strategies employed vary across categories based on each manufacturer’s set of formulation challenges.

Today’s formulators may be faced with too many choices to sweeten their beverages and foods. Nevertheless, there’s hardly a consumer or manufacturing issue they can’t address with the plethora of options.

The products that have appeared on the global market in just the past 10 years make it easier than ever to overcome non-GMO, calorie reduction, appearance, taste, texture, or economic issues. The challenge facing the food formulator is selecting just the right ingredient from the broad sweetener menu, and the appropriate texturizer to ensure consumer needs are met.

— Marc Green, CBC, is an experienced B2B communications executive with decades of experience in the food processing and food ingredients markets. His efforts have garnered him dozens of awards, and in 2011, B2B magazine named him as one of the country’s top 25 digital marketers. As a director at National Starch Food Innovation and Ingredion Inc. for more than 25 years, he developed an intimate and comprehensive knowledge of starch ingredients and their applications in food and beverage development and manufacturing. Green is the senior strategist for B2B Marketing Strategies LLC. He can be reached at

Make It with Honey  

By Catherine Barry, National Honey Board

Honey is a timeless, natural sweetener that has been around for eons and continues to grow in popularity as today’s consumers focus as much attention on what’s in their products as on how they taste. Food and beverage formulations have to include more than taste and functionality when it comes to ingredients.

Trends such as clean label or all-natural have changed the way product developers approach research and development. Almost as important as its flavor and function is how an ingredient will appear on a label and impact marketability.

Along with the increased honey usage, an increase in manufacturers using honey iconography on product packaging and in product names is evident. Bees, honeycomb, honey dippers, and hives are helping to market these products because they position the items as natural and, in some cases, more healthful.

Honey ranks high in the clean label and all-natural categories. As a result, it is being used for flavor, functionality, and marketing benefits in every category of new product development, from baking and snacks to beverages and candy.

From a formulator’s perspective, the natural place to start a conversation about honey is sweetness. On average, honey is 1 to 1.5 times sweeter (on a dry-weight basis) than sugar. This is because honey is composed primarily (69%) of fructose and glucose. 

The other significant component of honey is water (about 17%, on average). The remaining 14% includes a variety of other sugars—including minimal levels of disaccharides such as maltose, and oligosaccharides such as erlose (glucosylsucrose)—enzymes, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

However, since honey’s composition varies based on seasons, regions, and the floral source of the nectar the honey bee gathers, the percentages of the sugars and other components in honey are averages. In the US, more than 300 varietals of honey are available, each with a unique flavor profile and sweetness. This allows formulators to attain both a desired sweetness and usage level by formulating with different varietals of honey.

Beyond Sweet

Honey’s unique compositional blend gives it functional advantages rarely found in other sweeteners. Mild acidity is one such benefit. Honey, on average, has a pH of 3.9. This acidity can work to enhance flavors, inhibit mold and bacteria growth, and extend the shelflife of a variety of products. The amino acids that give honey its low pH also serve as precursors to honey’s antimicrobial capabilities.

Honey’s use as a natural shelflife extender and preservative is well documented. In the baking industry, honey increases the shelflife of products through the three main factors that also help maintain crumb softness: preventing moisture transfer, delaying starch recrystallization, and hydrolyzing starch.

Liquid honey is hygroscopic and enables products to maintain their moisture content far longer than products that use dry sweeteners. Honey, by design, does not give up its water easily. With an average water activity of 0.55, honey acts as a natural humectant.

In beverage products of all types, honey’s composition plays a critical role. Beverage processors need to accommodate honey’s sweetness levels, as well as the enzymes and potentially active yeasts that the ingredient can impart to an end-product. Fortunately, standard food and beverage industry practices can control yeast growth without difficulty.

Other ingredients that prevent moisture transfer are those that bind water, including starches, fibers, or maltodextrins. However, the amylase present in honey promotes crumb softness by effectively hydrolyzing starch, thereby contributing to moisture retention. Honey’s fructose content also holds in a baked item’s moisture, reducing dry products. The ingredient’s acidity inhibits mold growth. 

Baking with Honey

Bakers and snack manufacturers have long used honey for its sweetness and ability to naturally extend the shelflife of products. However, honey also brings several other benefits to bakers. Beyond sweetness, honey adds a depth of flavor to bakery foods and helps enhance other flavor notes in a variety of products.

Naturally occurring organic acids in honey, such as gluconic acid, enhance the flavors of spices, fruits, and nuts. When used with cinnamon, herbs, spices, or other flavors, honey helps bring out those tastes and aromas. Honey can also boost the visual appeal of baked goods. The sugars in honey caramelize during baking and add a golden color to products, especially breads. In addition, honey naturally coats, binds, and thickens products, improving overall mouthfeel.

When using honey to replace all or part of sucrose, bakers will need to make some formulation and processing modifications. The two main adjustments are balancing the liquid in a formula to account for the 17% moisture in honey, and reducing oven temperatures by about 25°F to ensure that products don’t overbrown.

Better Beverages

The increased demand to “clean up” labels and use all-natural sweeteners has influenced many beverage processors to turn to honey for new product development or reformulation. Honey is increasingly being used to replace or to enhance other sweeteners as well.

From a sweetening and flavor perspective, beverage processors are using honey to accomplish one of two goals. For a product that requires a sweet flavor note, adding honey provides consumers with a sweetness they desire from an all-natural ingredient. Honey also can be used functionally in the flavoring of beverage products.

For example, the addition of honey at a concentration of 25% to a 0.08% citric acid solution decreases the sourness of that solution by 65% to 70%. Adding honey at a concentration of 25% to a 0.15% citric acid solution resulted in a nearly 75% decrease in sourness perception. It works especially synergistically when combined with sucrose.

For products such as herbal teas or traditionally astringent beverages, honey can serve as a masker. One beverage maker, Busy Bee Yerba Maté Co., uses honey and sugar together to add depth and duration of sweetness and to override the bitterness of the maté. Honey’s ability to “smooth” the flavor of highly acidic products can help increase consumer acceptability of those products.

One new use for honey in beverage products is coming from the sports and energy drink categories. In these products and other functional beverages, such as high-protein drinks, honey improves mouthfeel and masks off flavors from ingredients such as soy protein and whey protein isolates. Plus, honey is being used as a pure source of energy, providing 17g of carbohydrate per tablespoon.

Sweet for the Sweets

Even in the candy aisle today’s consumers focus not only on flavor but on naturalness, sustainability, and other eco aspects of the ingredients in a product. “Made with honey” candies are booming in popularity, in categories ranging from jelly beans and gummies to hard candies and chocolate.

When using honey in candy, confectioners will need to focus more closely on flavor and usage levels. If substituting honey for sugar, a 1:1 substitution will not deliver a consistent or similar-to-sucrose flavor.

Honey has a more complex flavor profile than sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or other sweeteners. As previously noted, it’s also sweeter than sugar, so if the same amount was used as part of a replacement, the finished product would have a sweeter flavor profile. In most cases, confectioners using honey will be able to use less sweetening overall.

With the usage of honey in confections, it’s also important to adjust the overall liquid ingredients in a formula to account for honey’s 17% moisture. The one thing confectioners should not have to worry about is temperature, as honey responds to heating the same way as sucrose.

The flavor and functional properties of honey are unmatched in the food and beverage industry, and recent consumer trends toward more clean label and “better-for-you” products have positioned the all-natural sweetener as a top-quality, go-to ingredient for product developers.

Small and Sweet

Last November, Nestlé S.A. announced the invention of a microcrystalline form of sugar. The company’s researchers found a way to restructure sucrose into a smaller, rounder crystal with greater surface area in contact with taste receptors. The restructuring also increases solubility. This enables smaller amounts of sugar to contribute much greater sweetness, thus allowing for reduction of sugar in confections by up to 40%. In chocolate, for example, the tongue perceives an almost identical sweetness between a formulation using the microcrystalline sugar and a full-sugar formulation. Nestlé is patenting its findings and will begin to use the faster-dissolving sugar across a range of its confectionery products beginning in 2018.



The Sweet Science

Sucrose is still the most preferred sweetener by consumers when it comes to flavor. And in spite of mixed messages in the media, it is a perfectly suitable ingredient for many formulations. “When used appropriately, sugar does have a place in a healthy diet and aids in the enjoyment of a range of nutritious foods and treats,” according to Courtney Gaine, PhD, RD, newly appointed chief executive officer of the Sugar Association. As the “scientific voice” of the US sugar industry, Gaine has expressed her commitment to “continue to openly support new research and to share reliable information with consumers.” She brings strong expertise in health and science and has noted the need to “bring balance to the discussion about diet and to engage in productive dialogue with consumers, policy makers, scientists, medical professionals and public health professionals,” with a focus on evidence-based policy and facts.



No Sweet Tax

The implementation of sugar taxes around the world gained momentum when, late last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged governments to introduce a soft drinks tax. The WHO declared that it believes such efforts will help curb diabetes and obesity. The action followed the publication by the World Obesity Federation of new figures suggesting that, if current obesity trends continue, nearly 270 million school-aged children worldwide will be overweight by 2025.

Low-Cal Kids

A survey recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics disclosed that the number of children regularly ingesting artificial sweeteners nearly tripled between 1999 and 2012, from less than 9% of kids consuming foods and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners, to about 25%. The information was drawn from 17,000 men, women, and children participating in the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey (NHANES) from 2009 to 2012 and included children as young as 2 years of age. The survey also found that 44% of adults and 20% of children consumed products with low-calorie sweeteners “more than once a day,” while 17% of adults consumed three or more artificially sweetened foods or beverages per day.