The drive to satisfy the sweet tooth of the American consumer seems to become more complicated and confusing every year. The realities of the obesity epidemic create a divide that nearly every consumer confronts on a daily basis. Consumers claim sugar reduction as their main priority when comes to their label-reading habits and practicing of a healthy lifestyle. Yet, sales of confections, desserts, and other sweets continue to increase.
Simply put, nowhere does having one’s cake and eating it too become less of a metaphor and more of a reality than when choosing those sweet indulgences. Over the years, ingredient suppliers have addressed this dichotomy with a number of sweetener solutions that attempt to bridge that divide.
The growing number and types of sweeteners, both nutritive and non-nutritive, demonstrate that processors are hard at work building that bridge. Here’s a look at how some processors are making life a little bit sweeter, and which ingredients they’re using to accomplish it.
Although their growth spurt is slowing down, stevia and monkfruit remain two of the foremost non-nutritive sweeteners in use today. They continue to be favored for their “natural” labeling advantages. And, as new forms and formulae of the two high-intensity, plant-derived sweeteners bring them closer to the flavor profile and performance of sucrose, they should continue to be key players.
Specifically, rebaudiosides D and M — stevia components that are also known as steviol glycosides — are increasingly of interest for product formulation and reformulation, as they have less of a metallic or bitter, licorice-like linger than the more familiar rebaudioside A. In a study published last year in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, a team of Canadian and Danish scientists reported on a yeast-fermentation method of creating and isolating steviol glycosides that do not have undesirable flavor notes. For now, available stevia forms are maintaining their position among the leading high-intensity sweeteners due to their increased use as tools to lower (but not entirely eliminate) caloric sweeteners in products.
For example, Nestlé S.A. reduced the amount of sugar in its iconic Nesquik brand chocolate powder by 25% over the leading syrup brand in 2009, but stayed true to its ingredient deck, featuring only fully nutritive sugar. This year, Nesquik proudly displays “45% less sugar” on front of the package, thanks to the use of monkfruit extract as a sugar replacer in its formulation.
Such blending, including custom blending from suppliers, will continue to appeal to manufacturers, as well as the ability to label with appealing ingredient names. Although consumers express preference for the plant-based nature of stevia, terms such as “steviol glycosides” do not resonate as well as “stevia leaf extract.”
The first sweetener — honey — is enjoying a resurgence in the product development industry, due in part to its unbeatable cachet as a natural, minimally processed ingredient. This has led the candy industry to rediscover honey as a replacer for cane sugar, beet sugar, and corn syrup in chocolate and cocoa-based confections. CocoaBee, “chocolate reinvented, made with honey,” from Canadian company Donini Chocolate LP is an example.
CocoaBee chocolates boast a minimal ingredient list, with cocoa butter, natural cocoa powder, and pure Canadian honey as the foundation. The company is scheduled to launch six new honey-sweetened chocolate products this summer. The first three slated are a dark chocolate bark with pumpkin seeds and fleur de sel, dark chocolate covered raisins, and a dark chocolate bar with almonds.
Honey is having a renaissance as product developers recognize its versatility and ability to blend with or enhance other flavors in unexpected ways.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: National Honey Board (www.honey.com)
Honey Mama’s, another recent entry in the non-traditional honey-sweetened candy segment, makes its honey-cocoa bars with direct-trade, non-GMO, and organic raw honey, unrefined coconut oil, and cacao powder. With no cacao solids, the bars do not meet the FDA standard of identity for chocolate or sweet chocolate, which includes cacao fat (cocoa butter). Instead of chocolate, therefore, the products are designated as “cacao-nectar bars” on the labels.
Honey Mama’s bars are sold refrigerated and are available in eight varieties, including Ginger-Cardamom, Lavender Red Rose, and Mayan Spice. The texture of the candy is softer than a traditional chocolate bar, due to both the honey and the coconut oil used. The unique confections also receive unique packaging. Each bar is wrapped in unbleached parchment paper and wax-lined unbleached freezer paper, both for protection and for “rustic, old-world appeal,” according to the company.
Beverages, too, are getting cozy with honey. 100% bee-friendly honey is trademarked as the “UnSugar” in Blume Honey Water LLC’s line of honey-sweetened flavored waters. The company makes three flavors of honey water — Ginger Zest, Citrus Vanilla, and Wild Blueberry — which it markets as “an ancient, energizing and quenching elixir.” The product is designed to appeal to consumer interest in authenticity and provenance, which honey matches perfectly.
According to the National Honey Board, the popularity of honey in beverages continues to grow, as more consumers express a preference for more natural, clean label sweeteners. More than 300 different types of honey available in the US alone create an opportunity to develop unique flavor and color profiles in product formulation.
Can't Beet It
Although fully nutritive alternatives to sucrose, especially honey, increasingly are finding their way into new product formulations or modifications, sugar remains the premier sweetener in foods and beverages. Use of sugar outnumbers the use of all other sweeteners by about eight to one. Yet, sugar has its own range of distinct varieties that developers are beginning to take notice of. Source and level of refinement can be used to add nuances to a product and help set it apart from similar competitors.
For example, there is a full spectrum of colors and textures in the range between white and brown sugar. Also, for some consumers, and depending on the product, careful tasting can reveal subtly different flavor notes between sugars from various sources. Beet sugar is an example. Although most consumers likely cannot tell the difference between cane sugar and beet sugar either in application or right off a spoon, trained palates can detect an earthiness in beet sugar, since it is a root crop. Beet sugar is more prominent in Europe and a favorite of confectioners based there.
In order to get that elusive Old World difference into its products, Colorado-based Creative Natural Products, Inc. — maker of premium chocolate line Chocolove — imports non-GMO Project-verified beet sugar from Europe. The company’s uniquely designed packaging features an outer wrap that resembles a love letter and even contains a classic romantic poem on the inside.
Cane and beet sugars can sometimes bake and caramelize differently, leading to a performance preference for cane over beet in baked items. As of 2017, sugar beets represented over 55% of the sugar grown in the US, at around $10.6B, according to the US Beet Sugar Industry.
Pop's New Rap
Sweetened carbonated beverages have been responsible for a significant amount of the spotlight shined on added sugars. Singled out for “empty” calories and blamed for weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes, sugar-sweetened beverages have become poster children for an overall move by consumers to reduce sugar in all products and all forms.
Results of research published at the end of 2016 by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute caution against attempts to isolate a single nutrient or class of nutrients as being responsible for an abundance of health or disease risks or benefits. The research concluded, “The current emphasis on added sugars… has created an environment that is ‘sugar centric’ and… risks exaggerating the effects of these components of the diet with the potential unforeseen side effect of ignoring other important nutritional practices where significant evidence of linkages to health exists.”
On Terms With Stevia
The FDA notes that “consumers can identify the presence of high-intensity sweeteners by name in the ingredient list on food product labels (High-Intensity Sweeteners, FDA.gov, Nov. 1, 2018), this is not necessarily true, if the ingredient is listed as “natural flavor.” The FDA defines “natural flavor” or natural flavoring” in CFR 21 as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Manufacturers who may blend low levels of steviol glycosides with nutritive sweeteners to reduce sugar declaration on the nutrition facts panel without declaring the high intensity sweetener by name on the ingredient statement may not be in compliance; even though the ingredient is non-caloric. The FDA recognizes numerous forms of purified steviol glycosides as GRAS for their intended use as a general purpose sweetener in food, excluding meat and poultry products, at levels determined by good manufacturing practices.
GRAS approval is also granted for use as a tabletop sweetener in numerous blended forms, such as the addition of erythritol or dextrose to balance sweetness and add bulk, for consumer acceptance and serving convenience. The labeling of stevia currently varies globally, based on a country’s own established food and labeling policies; however, guidance always dictates that stevia be called out in the ingredient statement, as per other ingredients, by descending order by weight.
However, consumers create demand. Last year, a Mintel study revealed that 84% of Americans they surveyed claimed they are seeking to reduce sugar intake, with 31% believing they can lose weight by reducing sugar more than by reducing fat intake. Interestingly, the same study also showed that 49% of respondents believed that sugar-free or “diet” sodas are “just as unhealthy as regular sodas.”
While scores of carbonated beverages sweetened with high-intensity sweeteners have hit the market, a number of beverage makers have taken advantage of both sides of this new “soda war.” They have opted for crafting beverages that either use less sugar overall or are sweetened with different combinations of nutritive sweeteners, including natural fruit juices.
Brands such as DRY Soda Co. and Izze Sparkling Juice are popular examples. DRY describes its beverages as being made with “culinary-inspired flavors and a touch of cane sugar.”
Another trend is recent crush of sparkling waters with hints of fruit flavors, such as National Beverage Corp.’s La Croix, PepsiCo.’s bubly, and similar offerings by numerous other bottled water maker. These products have zero calories, yet natural flavorings lend them a mild sweetness.
On the opposite side of the coin are companies that pull no punches when it comes to being sugar-sweetened. Minars Bottling Co.’s Top Pop Soda drinks (owned today by 3rd Generation Enterprises) are naturally sweetened with pure cane sugar and a good dose of it, at nearly 200 calories in a 12oz serving versus 140 in a Classic Coca Cola of the same size.
The Top Pop product line includes traditional cola and citrus flavors, as well as whimsical offerings such as bubble gum, raspberry grape, fruit punch, and berry blue. As with many soft drinks and other products, the company’s website touts that its products “do not contain high fructose corn syrup.”
The demonization of high-fructose corn syrup was built on a double irony. In the 1970s, during a previous time when “sugar” was considered a “dirty word,” sugar from corn was given the moniker “high-fructose corn syrup” to avoid a negative association. Moreover, the “high-fructose” part was in reference to pure glucose syrup.
High-fructose corn syrup ranges on either side of the 50% glucose/50% fructose that makes up the disaccharide sucrose (table sugar).
Most, though not all, high-fructose corn syrup will come in at 55% fructose to 45% glucose (HFCS 55). In contrast, HFCS 42, at 42% fructose, is actually lower in fructose than sucrose.
In a Jan. 4, 2018 release entitled, “High Fructose Corn Syrup Questions and Answers”, the FDA that there does not appear to be a difference in safety “between foods containing HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content.”
The FDA continues to align with the recommendation of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to consume less than 10% of calories daily from added sugars. “Added sugars” continues to include all forms of nutritive sweeteners in granular/crystallized or fluid form, including white or brown sugars, honey, agave, and syrups of all kinds. Waning consumer interest in high-fructose corn syrup, however, is also exacerbated by the GMO nature of most corn ingredients.
Halo Top Ice cream was named by Time magazine as one of 2017’s “25 Best Inventions.” It is billed as “a flavor-packed, low-sugar ice cream with no more than 360 calories per pint.” Halo Top sales out-performed Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs that year. Founded in 2012, and owned by Eden Creamery LLC, the product line is sweetened with a combination of organic stevia and erythritol. Halo Top flavors include dairy or dairy-free and vegan options in pints and pops.
Although Häagen-Dazs ice cream flavors remain true to their calorically indulgent roots, Unilever plc’s Ben & Jerry’s folded Moo-phoria Light Ice Cream pints into its portfolio last year, boasting 140-160kcals per ½ cup serving. The company’s mission was to stay true to its commitment to have every flavor “heavy on the flavor, funky chunks, and whirly swirls” that set the brand apart from its competition.
On April 17, 2019, the FDA released its draft guidance for industry for the low-calorie sugar allulose. Allulose is a naturally occurring type of sugar found in many plants, as well as certain fruits, such as wheat, raisins, figs, and kiwi fruit. It’s around 70% as sweet as sucrose but while the taste buds recognize it as sugar, the body does not metabolize it. This translates to a yield of only about 0.2-0.4kcals/g — about one-tenth the calories of sucrose. Not only does allulose provide similar functionalities (such as bulking, browning through the Maillard reaction, and freeze point depression), it helps induce the high foaming property of egg-white protein and the production of antioxidant substances. Allulose gives a clean, sucrose-like sweetness to beverage, bakery, frozen, confectionary, and dairy applications. With a price point similar to erythritol, allulose could be positioned to solve a number of challenges other sweeteners can’t easily overcome.
All Ben & Jerry’s light ice cream flavors are made with nonfat (skim) milk instead of cream as a first ingredient, but are sweetened with fully nutritive sweeteners, including sugar and corn syrup. Corn syrup, which may be confusing to consumers who mistake any type of “corn syrup” for high-fructose corn syrup, is cornstarch-based glucose syrup valued for its humectant properties and ability to control crystallization in candy making and in frozen confections.
Unilever’s Talenti brand also introduced a line of four gelato flavors “crafted with less sugar.” They have 480 calories per pint, or 160 calories per ²⁄³ cup serving size. Flavors include Lemon Bar, Chocolate Fudge Swirl, Mint Cookie Crunch, and Vanilla Cinnamon. All are sweetened with a combination of erythritol, cane sugar, and monkfruit juice concentrate.
A third Unilever light ice cream by Culture Republick launched recently. This line contains active live cultures, 16-18g protein, 11-12g fiber (primarily from non-GMO soluble corn fiber), and no artificial sweeteners. “Support Culture” has a double meaning for the company, relating to the probiotic (good bacteria) content of its light ice creams that support the body’s microbiome, and the company’s mission to support culture in the community. A declared 10% of the company’s profits go to support local emerging artists who also provide the graphics on the ice cream packages.
The Culture Republick line features creative flavors with chunk inclusions, such as Turmeric Chai & Cinnamon, Lemon & Graham, and Matcha & Fudge. They are sweetened with fully nutritive, 100% fair trade sweeteners, including sugar, corn syrup, honey, and molasses, depending on the flavor.
The story behind Honest Tea Inc.’s tag line, “Just a Tad Sweet,” originates with the company’s founding 21 years ago. According to founder Seth Goldman, Honest Tea was developed to be “lightly sweetened”, with about 17kcals per 8oz serving. The company discovered, though, that this wasn’t sweet enough for the convenience store market, so the question became, “What if we make it 30 calories per (8oz.) serving?” The challenge then became how to position the line as sweeter than it was but not too sweet and the tag line “just a tad sweet” was born.
Now owned by The Coca-Cola Co., Honest Tea’s product development efforts also center on its kid-friendly line of Honest Kids organic juice drinks, sweetened only with organic fruit juice. The goal was to make the juice line just sweet enough so kids wouldn’t reject it. The early adoption of using only fruit as a sweetener has proven successful and served as an example to other developers.
Flowers Foods Baking Co.’s Dave’s Killer Bread line uses an original formulation of fruit sweetening for its Powerseed Bread. Marketed as being “sweetened only with organic fruit juices instead of added sugar,” the bread is made with a blend that includes organic apple, pear, and peach juices, contributing only 1g sugar per 42g slice. The company’s other “Killer” breads, including bagels and newly launched English muffins, are made with organic cane sugar, organic molasses, and organic honey.
According to FDA guidelines, fully reconstituted juices can be used in formulation to provide sweetness, along with other attributes, but are not considered “added sugars” unless added as concentrates, contributing a greater amount of sugar per volume than they would otherwise, when 100% reconstituted or diluted to full strength.
Raisin syrup, powdered dried figs, grape syrup, and dried fruits in various forms also are popular sweeteners for formulators seeking to naturally sweeten products without using artificial sweeteners or high-intensity sweeteners, yet avoiding sucrose or corn syrup on the label. Blueberries are an excellent fruit sweetener in this respect, as the sugars in them are a near-identical match for the sugar in sucrose at about 50% glucose and 49% fructose. Whether dried, freeze-dried, puréed, or as a concentrate or juice, they can be used to add natural sweetness and true fruit flavor to baked goods, jams and fillings, snacks, marinades, dairy, juices, and other beverages.