Prepared Foods talks sugar reduction and sweeteners with Elizabeth Sisel, manager of taste modulation at Imbibe Inc. Imbibe is a Niles, Ill., beverage development company focused on the formulation, customization and commercialization of cutting-edge beverage products. Sisel earned a B.S. in Food Science & Nutrition from the University of Missouri at Columbia. Laters, she analyzed beverage trends at Mintel before joining Imbibe in 2016 as a food technologist.

Prepared Foods: What trends do you see involving natural sugar and options such as honey, coconut sugar or beet sugar?  

Elizabeth Sisel: From a beverage development viewpoint, so much comes down to cost. Ingredients such as honey or coconut sugar can be pricy. Given the economic uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, these pricier options may be less attractive to brands and consumers even though consumers may perceive them as more natural. Additionally, neither coconut sugar nor honey are neutral tasting, which could impact flavor. 

Beet sugar and cane sugar are safe choices from both a cost and taste perspective. Sometimes customers want to call out the source being from beet or cane instead of just putting “sugar” on an ingredient statement, but both have a clean taste and are affordable ingredient options.  

PF: What successes and challenges have you seen involving sweetener systems? 

Sisel: Since manufacturers across the industry are constantly innovating and creating new intellectual property, it is hard to comment on anything outside the successes we experience at Imbibe. Imbibe truly values working with so many amazing ingredient suppliers and each contributes a piece that helps to create a unique sweetener system. 

Over the years, we have done a lot of custom work with suppliers to make those pieces fit better together—and we will continue to do so. However, there is still a lot to explore and optimize. We are particularly excited about the possibilities in bioconversion, which could reduce the cost of creating flavorings with modulating properties (FMPs) in the future. 

PF: Where does the industry stand involving “zero” sugar applications? Is there more work to do and if so, where?

Sisel: There is absolutely more to do. Some of the biggest indicators are how many artificially sweetened systems are still in the market and the number of beverages with high levels of added sugar. Currently, there is no stand-alone sweetener or FMP combination that is the answer to total sugar replacement.

There is nothing that can match the price point for sugar or artificial sweeteners. From both a cost and flavor perspective, innovation needs to continue. When natural systems can match the cost, flavor, and mouthfeel of a full sugar formula, then I’d say we are done. I’d say the emphasis is on cost, because we are very close in some of those other areas. 

PF: Which beverage category still needs the most work with sugar reduction? 

Sisel: What needs the most work are beverages with a low-cost target and those that are sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup. It is difficult to provide cost-neutral solutions for deep reductions in beverages like these. Also, functional drinks that heavily rely on sweeteners to hide aggressive off-notes. They need effective alternative solutions that are cost efficient and will counteract off-notes while still offering a pleasant, drinkable taste. 

PF: Without naming names, can you share a 2019 project success involving sweetening?

Sisel: Our ability to consistently create stevia sweetener systems that have our customers comparing their drinking experience to one that has sucralose or sugar—or even sometimes mistaking the stevia system for sucralose or sugar—has been extremely rewarding and something I would certainly consider a success. 

The team recently worked on a sweetened, zero-sugar functional sparkling water that was a line extension to our client’s unsweetened products. The product had to use only natural ingredients and have a full-sugar taste that appealed to consumers who drink carbonated soft drinks and other high-sugar beverages. We leveraged our understanding of the organoleptic effect of sweeteners and flavorings with modulating properties (FMPs) to create a stevia-based sweetener system that has a sugar-like sweetness curve. 

The product has been having great success in the marketplace, and our client and many of their customers have claimed that it tastes as close as can be to a full sugar product.  

PF: What have you learned about allulose in beverage formulating? 

Sisel: Using allulose in formulation is still very new, and up until recently we have only had a handful of customers explore using it in their products. 

There are several challenges when using allulose in the beverage space. It’s only 70% as sweet as sugar, which can drive up the cost of a product because it requires a higher usage rate to achieve the desired sweetness and mouthfeel. Also, there aren’t many places to hide in beverage and you will start to taste off-notes from allulose at higher usage levels. Therefore, more time and money will be invested into masking and flavoring. 

Global regulatory restrictions also may pose a challenge because it is not approved in some major markets. If the supply chain of allulose improves and cost of the ingredient lowers it might become a more feasible option for brands in the U.S. who are trying to deliver a great tasting product at an attainable price point. Currently, other natural options like stevia are better for sweetening beverages, especially if you know how to work with those ingredients to eliminate linger and off-notes. 

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