Transparency throughout the food supply chain earned top honors on the list of trends Innova Market Insights projected for 2021 at the close of last year. As predicted, the heightened consumer interest in clean labeling has already shown signs of continuing and is expected to remain a top priority. Although “clean label” remains an undefined term legally, the trend is largely centered on the consumer’s ability to recognize ingredients on the labels of the foods and beverages they enjoy.

With consumers continuing to pursue more healthy alternatives to their favorite indulgences, such as baked goods and ice cream, there comes a heightened interest in calorie counts — calories from sugar, especially. This has led to a rise in the use of natural high-intensity sweeteners, such as stevia and monkfruit; ultra-low-calorie 1:1 drop-in sweeteners, such as allulose; and natural sweetness enhancers, such as certain spices, fruit extracts, and syrups.

Bulking fibers, including polydextrose and chicory root fiber, also contribute some sweetness, with minimum digestibility and thus, fewer absorbed calories than fully nutritive sugars. The inclusion of fiber for sugar modification often results in a “stealth health” benefit for the product that manufacturers choose not to call out on the package, but that might be appealing to savvy health-minded consumers. The 2020-2025 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans included calls to increase dietary fiber, since most Americans still only consume about half of the recommended minimum of 25-30g per day.

Maltodextrins are sweet fibers that remain popular for their water solubility, pH balance, and heat stability, as well as the ability to inhibit crystallization and add bulk and texture. Recreational and more committed athletes share an interest in maximizing performance with sustained energy. This generally includes a preference for carbohydrate-based energy boosters and hydration beverages. Research supports isomaltulose as a lower glycemic option vs. maltodextrin for its slower rate of hydrolysis, resulting in slower absorption and more moderate insulin response.


Make Sweetness Count

With sugar reduction a key concern among American consumers, many product makers have developed sweetener strategies to address the demand. An early pioneer in this category is Luna bars, by CLIF Bar & Co. The bars remain true to the company’s preference for employing brown rice syrup and cane sugar in formulation. The company’s Mash-up Peanut Butter + Fudge is an example of the Luna line that is labeled as “low-glycemic.”


Low glycemic or “low GI” refers to the impact on blood sugar levels that a food might have. The scale was developed to serve people with diabetes and other blood sugar management conditions but became a source of confusion for many when it was incorrectly applied to weight loss considerations and mainstream marketed as such.

The Glycemic Index (GI) of 0-100 uses a relative reference of 100 for pure glucose measured in the digestive system two hours after ingestion. Glycemic load (GL) adjusts for portion sizes consumed, multiplying the food’s GI by the actual grams of carbohydrate consumed, then dividing that number by 100.

A GL above 20 is considered high, and below 10 is low, compared to a GI of 70 or greater indicated as high. A GI below 55 is considered to be low. Although the American Diabetes Assn. does not advocate a low-GI diet as a primary strategy for diabetes management, the information is useful as guidance for whether a food, on its own, might have a significant or less impactful effect on blood sugar levels.

Overall, dietary recommendations continue to emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy with guidance to limit food and beverage choices high in added sugars. Beverages account for about 15% of total calorie intake for Americans above two years of age, with some consuming up to 60% of total added sugars from sweetened beverages.

Ironically, serving sizes for both ice cream and sweetened carbonated beverages both increased with the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, this was done to more accurately reflect portions consumed. The 2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend lowering the intake guideline for added sugars to less than 10% of total calories. Individual choices continue to be stressed, based on overall health and lifestyle management factors, including exercise.


A Natural Original

Fruit pastes, purées, syrups, extracts, granules, and powders all provide nutrition, flavor, aroma, and texture in application. Brightly colored fruits enhance visual appeal, as well. However, dried fruits such as dates, raisins, prunes, and figs are the most common sources of natural fruit sweetness. New to the sweetener scene is one of the most ancient plants, carob. Carob extract is currently in use as the main sweetener in Inno-bev, Ltd.’s functional natural energy beverages BioLift and WakeUp!

Chocolate Candies
Natural, non-nutritive sweeteners such as rebaudioside-M from stevia leaf have become refined enough to more closely match sucrose in flavor.

Dates are the primary sweetener for most of the oat-based bars that make up the line of refrigerated CORE Foods Co.’s probiotic, energy, and kid-targeted bars. Most flavors feature zero added sugars in an ingredient deck that also includes the slightly sweet prebiotic fiber inulin. Date paste has been found to work well in formulations where syrups such as honey or maple syrup could cause crystallization.

The Kids Fudgy Chocolate Brownie offering differs from the rest of the CORE line via agave syrup, cane sugar, and monkfruit extract. Strawberry Basil Tea and Dark Chocolate Cherry bars include strawberries and cherries, respectively, while boasting “0 grams added sugars.” Tart cherries, in addition to adding natural sweetness and sweetness-boosting capacity, are hailed for their antioxidant, anti-hypertensive, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Tart Montmorency cherries in formulation present an opportunity to customize targeted sweetness. Dark, sweeter black cherries — most commonly Bing cherries — are blended with cane sugar, honey, and molasses for KRAVE Pure Foods, Inc.’s pork-based Black Cherry BBQ Jerky. All cherries are a good source of potassium and contain anthocyanins, the purple and red pigments that are the source of the fruit’s polyphenolic anti-inflammatory properties.

Black cherries are a flavor driver for frozen confections targeting sugar reduction, as well. Beyond Better Foods, LLC’s Enlightened brand offers Black Cherry Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and other flavors that use a blend of erythritol, cane sugar, tapioca syrup and monkfruit extract to deliver 80 kcals per serving and 8g “net carbs” per (½ cup) serving.


Cinnamon and Spice

In a limited study conducted with 60 participants over 60 days, cinnamon consumed in the amount of anywhere from 1-6g reduced serum glucose, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in those with type 2 diabetes.

Cinnamon also has a natural sweetness that can be used to enhance perception of sweetness in lower-sugar formulations. A Brooklyn Crafted brand cinnamon beverage from Brooklyn Food & Beverage, LLC, made with Vietnamese cinnamon, offers the health benefits of the spice in a carbonated base.

The Brooklyn Crafted line also includes a line of Calamansi-Ade beverages, made from the tart Filipino citrus fruit that resembles a small tangerine. The calamansi (Citrofortunella microcarpa) is popular in Filipino and Malaysian cooking and the fruit grows domestically as calamondin.

Calamansi has long been lauded as an immunity booster, credited to tannin compounds in the rind, and can be used in application to replace lemon or lime. It is also touted for weight management and its ability to moderate blood sugar levels. The edible ripened orange rind of the tiny fruit, closely related to kumquats, has a slightly bitter note and is a good natural source of pectin, contributing to its compatibility for marmalades and preserves.

Mansi, Inc. grows and squeezes its calamansi fruit in the Philippines to make a line of beverages that includes a Ginger Turmeric flavor sweetened with cane sugar and erythritol. Turmeric, the common name for the rhizome of the Curcuma longa plant, is the sole source of the acclaimed compound curcumin. Several studies support the health benefits of curcumin, including hypoglycemic, cardiovascular, and anti-inflammatory effects.


Sweet Combos

Custom blending has been trending upward and will play a big part in future sweetener development as companies vie to address taste as much as sugar reduction. Although increasingly used by manufacturers, the FDA has not clearly defined and/or enforced the term “net carbs” for product development and labeling.


In general, “net carbs” is calculated to determine “digestible carbohydrate,” which is what’s left when fiber, sugar alcohol, and glycerin numbers are subtracted from total carbohydrate. The term is considered somewhat arbitrary, as some percentage of certain fibers and sugar alcohols are digested and absorbed by the body.

Natural stevia leaf extracts continue to evolve, with blends of better tasting rebaudioside-M and rebaudioside-D increasing in availability and affordability. Retail packaged options typically offer such combinations, such as LevelUp International, LLC’s Superlose Natural Sweetener, a blend of granular allulose, monkfruit, stevia leaf, and natural flavors.


Naturally Sweet

Newly exploited sugars, sometimes called “rare sugars” due to the small amounts occurring in each one’s natural source. These include allulose, allose, and tagatose, and have received a big boost after technologies such as enzymatic extraction made mass production possible. For some, production has been perfected to a level that has allowed them to be priced competitively on the sugar replacer market.

Of these sugars, allulose, an epimer of fructose, is the most mainstream. It occurs naturally in figs, wheat, jackfruit, raisins, and maple. While its declared sweetness is only 70% of that of sucrose, in many formulations, such as fruit-based products, dairy, and bakery products, compensatory amounts might not be necessary as its flavor profile – similar to crystalline fructose – could help bring out other flavors. Its hygroscopicity is higher than that of sucrose, but it also has good browning (Maillard) capacity. Most importantly, it contributes only 0.2-0.4kcals/g compared to sucrose’s 4.0kcal.

Manufacturers forge ahead with opportunities for ultra-low calorie allulose, with some challenges including matching color development and spread in some baked good formulations, such as some cookie recipes, when replacing nutritive sucrose.

Similar to allulose is allose, an epimer of glucose. With a sweetness level similar to allulose, it also is an ultra-low-calorie natural sweetener. However, so far its only source in nature is a shrub native to Africa (Protea rubropilosa). Tagatose, with 90-92% of the sweetness of sucrose, continues to present opportunities in blended sweetener formulations.

Tagatose is higher in calories than allulose and allose, yielding about 1.5kcals/g. Like the other two, it is considered highly soluble, although it still has a lower solubility than sucrose and is less hygroscopic. These are considerations to take into account when matching functionality with benefits in regard to caloric reduction, weight management, and blood sugar control.

Since these natural sugars benefit from being recognized as natural, and having similar performance (such as bulking attributes) to sucrose, they point to a promising future for natural replacers of sucrose and fructose in nearly all formulations. For developers and manufacturers of reduced-sugar products, these ingredients certainly ensure sweet times ahead.