The news is clear: We consume too much sugar. “A recent International Food Information Council study found that 80% of respondents were trying to limit or avoid sugars in general,” says Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager at Cargill. “Those findings mirror results from Cargill’s own proprietary consumer research, which revealed that sugar is the top ingredient consumers are actively trying to avoid.”
Innova Market Insights found that 8% of all new U.S. food and beverage launches tracked in 2018 had a sugar-reduction claim (Innova 2019a). Its research shows that claims of no added sugar topped all sugar-related claims at 42%, followed by sugar-free (36%), and low sugar (27%). In addition, Innova reports that the low-sugar claim is the fastest-growing claim, with the number of new products carrying this claim having a compound annual growth rate of 17% (2014–2018). And the top generational group driving sugar reduction efforts is the baby boomer generation, with data from Innova showing that one in two U.S. boomers are reducing their sugar intake or buying more reduced-sugar products and two in five are reducing their consumption of sweet snacks (Innova 2019b).
Using sugar substitutes is a key strategy for reducing sugar intake. Currently, a range of sweeteners for sugar reduction are available; some, like monk fruit and allulose, are derived from plant sources, and others, like acesulfame K and aspartame, are synthesized.
The taste of sucrose is the benchmark for sweet taste, and it has a broad sweetness intensity curve. The sweeteners used in sugar reduction efforts do not have the same sweet taste and time intensity of sucrose. Sucralose, for example, is around 600 times sweeter than sucrose and has a delayed sweetness hit that lingers, while acesulfame potassium (Ace K) is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose, has an upfront sweetness onset that disappears quickly, and has a metallic off-taste. Depending on the application and the sweeteners used, combining sweeteners (a common combination is stevia with erythritol) or adding other ingredients like flavors address these challenges.
Sweeteners gaining traction are those that food marketers are positioning as natural, such as stevia (+13% average annual growth in food and beverage launches globally, 2014–2018) and monk fruit (+21% average annual growth in food and beverage launches globally, 2014–2018), according to information from Innova Market Insights (Innova 2019c).
Let’s look at how sugar-reduction efforts are evolving and what consumers are saying about some of these sweeteners positioned as natural, starting with the buzz-worthy stevia. We’ll also explore some approaches taken to bring a new generation of stevia sweeteners to food formulators.
The 1.0 versions of stevia—composed of the steviol glycoside rebaudioside (Reb) A—helped manufacturers reduce sugar in formulations but imparted off-notes that were bitter or licorice-like. Reb A, which is up to 350 times sweeter than sugar, according to PureCircle, is the most abundant steviol glycoside. It is not the only sweet molecule in the stevia leaf though. It turns out that the stevia leaf contains many different steviol glycosides, and scientists are unlocking the potential of the stevia leaf to learn more about their taste and functional attributes.
Reb M and Reb D are two of the steviol glycosides that have received recent press coverage, particularly because they are said to have much less bitterness and lingering aftertaste than Reb A.
“Taste ultimately drives perception. Reb A works well alone in some products, and some companies are having success with those products,” says Jackson Pillow, global communications manager at PureCircle. “In many products, though, when using Reb A alone, it is challenging to get to zero added sugar without some consumers experiencing some off-notes. With our next-generation stevia leaf ingredients, including Reb D and M, we have more tools available to reach optimal taste performance, mouthfeel, and sweetness quality in low- and zero-added-sugar products.”
PureCircle has multiple ways of producing its next-generation stevia leaf ingredients like Reb M and Reb D, and it starts with its agronomy research and R&D programs, explains Pillow. Through the research, the company has developed several varietals of stevia plants that yield greater amounts of stevia ingredients, he says. Several years ago, the varietal Starleaf was born out of this research.
“Late last year we announced an even more optimized stevia varietal (which will make up 90% of our total stevia crop this year), which even further enhances our production efficiency and further improves our ability to deliver a sustainable, cost-effective supply of these next-generation stevia leaf ingredients to food and beverage companies,” says Pillow. “We produce our next-generation stevia leaf ingredients both directly from the stevia plant and other stevia sweeteners in the plant. In the latter case, PureCircle starts with purified stevia leaf extract with low Reb M, and by adding an enzyme, the maturation to Reb M is completed, just as the leaf does naturally.” Enzymes, he says, play a similar role in various products, including baby food, cheese, dairy products, and chocolate. Pillow adds that the company’s stevia ingredients come from the stevia leaf, have great taste, and are Non-GMO Project Verified.
The company is exploring other aspects of the stevia plant and the steviol glycosides to bring even more stevia ingredients to its customers. “PureCircle has developed specialized stevia blends, designed to optimize taste performance in specific categories like dairy, beverages, and teas,” says Pillow. And there’s more to the stevia leaf than Reb A, Reb M, and Reb D: Pillow notes that PureCircle is also investigating synergies of stevia leaf components such as Reb E, Reb N, and Reb O in combination with various stevia leaf ingredients. “All stevia glycosides have their own unique properties,” he says. For example, Pillow explains that researchers at PureCircle have noticed that Reb E, Reb N, and Reb O work best in formulations that have a high sweetness max such as zero-added-sugar applications. “These glycosides have great taste and sweetness quality in these deeper sugar reductions,” he says.
Something else that has come out of this research is a new stevia leaf sweetener called Sigma Syrup, which Pillow describes as an optimized blend of PureCircle’s next-generation stevia leaf ingredients, including Reb M and a new sweetener found in the leaf that is proprietary to the company. “Sigma Syrup provides superior taste and overcomes solubility challenges encountered when using other stevia sweeteners in products which are high in sweetness intensity, such as syrups and liquid tabletop sweeteners. Sigma Syrup, like all of PureCircle’s stevia leaf ingredients, is made from the stevia leaf and is non-GMO,” says Pillow.
Cargill’s sweetener portfolio runs deep to include various types of sugar, polyols, tapioca syrups, corn sweeteners, and, of course, stevia. “Many consumers are seeking plant-based sweeteners to replace sugar,” says Stauffer. “In our survey of 9,000 U.S. consumers, when compared to 12 of the leading low-/no-calorie sweeteners, consumers ranked stevia leaf extract as the most healthful, as well as having the most positive perception on the label.”
Cargill produces a few stevia brands—Truvia and ViaTech are a couple that were developed early on. EverSweet stevia sweetener is its most recent addition, and it promises to help food and beverage manufacturers formulate products that taste great (without bitterness or a licorice aftertaste) and have greater calorie reductions than products formulated with traditional Reb A stevia ingredients, says Andy Ohmes, Cargill’s global director, high intensity sweeteners. He adds that EverSweet delivers a more rounded taste profile with a faster onset of sweetness. “This dramatic step forward in sweetener technology enables up to 100% sugar replacement. Additionally, the zero-calorie sweetener has no effect on blood glucose levels and is well-suited for individuals with diabetes.”
So, what did it take for Cargill to develop this type of stevia ingredient that offers manufacturers several benefits over the previous generation of Reb A stevia sweeteners? It started with Cargill scientists studying the unique properties of the stevia leaf for the optimal balance of sweetness and taste, an effort that Ohmes says took more than 300,000 hours. Through this extensive research, the scientists focused on two molecules in the stevia plant—Reb M and Reb D—that offered heightened sweetness and a taste closer to real sugar, he says. According to research from Cargill, the stevia plant has more than 40 steviol glycoside components (Cargill 2019a). “While these molecules are extremely rare in the stevia plant, we produce them through fermentation. The result is a cost-efficient, great-tasting sweetener, produced with the environment in mind,” says Ohmes.
Developing the fermentation process for Reb M and Reb D started with Cargill and DSM food scientists analyzing the enzymes in the stevia plant that convert simple sugars to the various steviol glycosides to create a specially crafted yeast that produces the type of enzymes used by the stevia plant. The yeast is then fed a simple carbohydrate source to produce Reb M and Reb D glycosides that the company reports are identical in structure and sweetening potential to those found naturally in the stevia plant. The remaining yeast is filtered away, and the glycosides are purified to produce EverSweet stevia sweetener. The market for high-intensity sweeteners produced by fermentation is expected to be more than $3 billion by 2025, according to Cargill (2019b).
The next step was determining the best way to scale up production to meet anticipated market demands. For this, Cargill partnered with Royal DSM to form a joint venture, Avansya, which in November 2019 began production at what Ohmes says is “the first commercial-scale fermentation facility for the production of EverSweet stevia sweeteners in the United States.” Cargill operates the $50 million fermentation facility, which is located on the company’s biotechnology campus in Blair, Neb. “Production runs are executed in batches, and volumes are calibrated to market demand, so we have the ability to easily scale up to meet this demand,” says Ohmes.
EverSweet is GRAS and FEMA GRAS approved for use in food and beverage products sold in the United States and Mexico, and additional regulatory approvals for use in other countries are being evaluated, Ohmes says. It functions in beverages such as soft drinks and chocolate milk and in yogurt, confections, bars, and cereal.
Sugar reduction requires a delicate balance between flavor and function, which is top of mind for both product developers and sweetener producers. “Innovation in sweeteners has been a key area of development to address the need for great-tasting sugar-reduced products, especially high levels of sugar replacement,” says James Carr, Tate & Lyle’s director of global ingredient technology for sweeteners. Tate & Lyle’s approach to sugar reduction includes investing in the development of sweeteners like allulose and next-generation stevia that help meet this challenge.
Allulose, a monosaccharide isomer of fructose, is found in extremely small quantities in foods like maple syrup, brown sugar, and caramel sauce and in fruits like raisins and figs. This is why it is often referred to as a “rare sugar.” Tate & Lyle developed a proprietary process that uses corn as a carbohydrate source for an enzymatic conversion process to produce its allulose ingredient called DOLCIA PRIMA. It is 70% as sweet as sucrose, has the same temporal profile as sucrose, and because it is a sugar, Carr says that it provides some of the functional benefits of sucrose, such as texture and mouthfeel, browning in baked goods, and freezing point depression in ice cream and other frozen desserts.
One thing to consider when choosing a sweetener is cost. “While the use of allulose is currently more expensive than sugar, allulose’s unique functionality as a bulk sugar and calorie reduction ingredient allows it to compare extremely favorably from a cost perspective versus other bulk sugar replacement ingredients such as sugar alcohols (e.g., erythritol) or dietary fibers,” says Abigail Storms, vice president, sweetener platform innovation at Tate & Lyle. “As allulose demand continues to grow, increasing adoption by customers, we can expect it to become even more attractive from a cost-in-use perspective; also, when used in combination with our stevia portfolio, we can deliver both cost improvement and significant sugar and calorie reduction.”
DOLCIA PRIMA can be combined with nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners, and it works in synergy with some of the high-potency sweeteners like sucralose and stevia, according to the company. In addition to bakery products and ice cream, the allulose sweetener functions in yogurt, salad dressings, jam and jellies, chewing gum, syrups, hard and soft candies, and gelatins, puddings, and fillings.
Stevia has grown in popularity, in part because of its clean label perception, Carr observes. Natural, non-GM, and organic claims influence consumers’ food and beverage shopping behavior, says Carr, citing information from the International Food Information Council’s 2019 Food & Health survey. “Consumers want naturally sweetened reduced-sugar food and beverages but do not want to sacrifice on taste,” he says. “Formulating great-tasting products with natural sweeteners like stevia can be difficult because consumers taste stevia sweeteners differently.” Carr notes that more than 80% of the population has some degree of sensitivity to stevia’s bitter off-notes.
To improve taste, especially in formulations where high levels of sugar are being replaced, Tate & Lyle offers TASTEVA M. Instead of Reb A, this is a Reb M sweetener that “appeals to consumers’ demand for naturally sweetened products and can help developers achieve a high level of sugar replacement,” says Carr. Specifically, Carr says that TASTEVA M achieves up to 100% sugar reduction and has a clean, sugar-like taste without the bitter and licorice tastes that some consumers are sensitive to in other stevia-based sweeteners.
Lastly, Carr points to the beverage category as one where sugar and calorie reduction is happening across all types of beverage formulation. “While areas like carbonated soft drinks still continue to innovate, other categories, such as plant-based beverages, alcohol-based beverages, and dairy-based beverages, all have increased in their interest in the development of sugar- and calorie-reduced offerings.”
Regardless of the sweetener used in sugar reduction formulation efforts—be it stevia, allulose, sugar alcohols, sucralose, aspartame, or any other sugar alternatives—food and beverage formulators would benefit from gaining a better understanding of consumer preferences and purchasing behaviors.
“Before selecting a brand and working on sugar reduction, it is important to consider the target segment(s) of the consumers for that brand,” says Afrouz Naeini, regional platform leader—sugar reduction, U.S. and Canada, at Ingredion. “This helps influence and guide whether sugar reduction even resonates with this consumer group, and secondly, if the answer is yes, what is the consumer after, what type of sweeteners are preferred.”
Research conducted collaboratively by Ingredion and the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) examined sweetener usage and preferences among 1,559 U.S. adults (Ingredion 2016). Building upon this research, Ingredion found that three of five consumer segments it identified are interested in sugar reduction. These segments include a group of consumers it calls “naturelles,” which represents 20% of the population; “balancers,” who account for 23% of consumers; and “sugar-frees,” who make up 16%, says Naeini.
Sugar reduction is very important to the naturelles, and equally important is that the sweeteners they use are considered natural and clean label, says Naeini. Stevia sweeteners are popular with this segment of consumers, she adds. Something else about the naturelles Naeini notes is that Gen Zers are starting to fit into this segment.
For the balancers, limiting sugar and healthy eating gives them a sense of control, according to the Ingredion/NMI research. “The third segment, sugar-frees, are more keen about sugar reduction than necessarily the type of sweetener,” says Naeini. Overall, Naeini says that interest in sugar reduction and the demand for clean and recognizable sweeteners has led to the need to develop more and better-tasting naturally derived sweeteners.
Next month’s Ingredients section will feature ingredients that play roles in texture and stability.
Cargill. 2019a. The Science of Sweetness: Getting the Taste Right to Meet Consumer Expectations. Cargill, Minneapolis, Minn. cargill.com.
Cargill. 2019b. “Cargill-DSM Joint Venture Avansya Starts Commercial-scale Production of EverSweet Stevia Sweetener, As Consumers Increasingly Demand Reduced-calorie Food and Beverages.” Press release, Nov. 14.
Ingredion. 2016. Understanding People’s Sweetness Preferences Ingredion Idea Labs i2s Brief. Ingredion, Westchester, Ill. ingredion.us.
Innova. 2019a. “Sugar Reduction Hits the Sweet Spot.” Press release, Nov. 12. Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, the Netherlands. innovamarketinsights.com.
Innova. 2019b. “No Longer Sweet Young Things: Boomers Drive Sugar Replacement.” Press release, May 23.Innova. 2019c. “Sugar Reduction Hits the Sweet Spot.” Webinar, Nov. 20.