Up until the 1990s, sweetener options for beverage developers were somewhat limited to sugar, high fructose corn syrup and the no-calorie, high intensity sweetener aspartame, long the industry’s leading artificial sweetener. In the past two decades, new ingredient introductions have given beverage product formulators more options and the ability to create synergistic sweetener blends.
Currently, there are five artificial sugar substitutes approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “food additives” to be used as sweeteners in food and beverages: aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), neotame and saccharin.
However, the consumer trend toward all things “natural,” or at least perceived to be natural, currently is a big driver in the beverage world and it’s a trend that’s shaking things up a bit in the sweetener market. Natural sweeteners, including plant-based sweeteners, are a booming business and one that market research firms predict could make up 25 percent of the global intense sweetener market by the middle of this decade.
Mintel, a Chicago-based research company, forecasts that the $763 million natural sweeteners market will grow to $1.3 billion by 2013.
“Right now, natural is a huge trend, whether it’s sugar or stevia. People want to get away from high- intensity sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup and people are paying more attention to labels and what each ingredient is,” says Jessica Jones-Dille, senior manager, industry trends and market research, Wild Flavors.
Leading the charge within this new, emerging sweeteners category is the stevia leaf-based ingredient rebiana (rebaudioside A or Reb-A), which is a zero-calorie, all-natural sweetener made from the South American stevia leaf. Although not brand new, as the FDA gave the green light for Reb A sweeteners back at the end of 2008, in just two and a half years, the use of stevia has grown steadily as manufacturers leverage its “all natural” positioning and its sweet taste profile. Stevia’s share of the total U.S. sugars and sweeteners market is expected to rise from 1.8 percent in 2010 to 9.1 percent in 2011, says Packaged Facts. And across the Atlantic, it’s predicted that stevia will gain EU approval at the end of this year, which presents European countries as an untapped market. (Technically speaking, Reb A is not approved as a food additive in the U.S., but instead the FDA gave “no objection” to its Generally Recognized as Safe status to be used in food and drink.)
Beverage giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola helped usher stevia into the mainstream market by partnering with major ingredient companies to help develop Reb A sweeteners and then quickly introduced stevia-based beverages into the market. Coke partnered with Cargill to develop Truvia while Pepsi worked with Whole Earth Sweetener Co. (a subsidiary of Merisant) and PureCircle to introduce PureVia. And there are now other stevia extracts on the market.
As ingredient cost is always an issue with product development, many ingredient suppliers now offer different purity grades of Reb A, such as Reb A 80 percent and 60 percent.
“We have a stevia leaf extract RA 80, that’s rebaudioside A 80 percent purity. So you’re getting similar sweetness and flavor character, but at a cost savings,” says Andy Del-Rosal, team leader of Cargill’s beverage applications scientists. Likewise, Wild, which markets Sunwin stevia, also offers different varieties of stevia extracts, such as Reb A 80 or Reb A 60. Shanyn Seiler, senior scientist with Wild Flavors, says these sweeteners can be used with Wild’s Resolver taste modifying technology to achieve a higher sweetness level but at a cost advantage. Taste modifiers also help with some of the off-notes associated with stevia.
In many cases, stevia extract is combined with erythritol, a sugar alcohol, such as in Coke’s Vitaminwater Zero product. Erythritol is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener that occurs in fruits and fermented foods and when combined with stevia it works synergistically to provide a sugar-like taste and mouthfeel without added calories. Xylitol is another sugar alcohol (polyol) that is gaining some ground and has a minty flavor profile.
Germany-based Dohler has worked extensively in the area of sugar reduction and sweetener systems and offers its MultiSweet Plus product group, including MultiSweet stevia.
While stevia has gone from novel to mainstay, monk fruit, or luo han guo, is the new flavor of the month as ingredient giant Tate & Lyle partnered with BioVittoria to market a branded form of the natural fruit-based, zero calorie sweetener under the name PureFruit.
Agave (agave nectar) is another all-natural plant-based sweetener gaining ground in the food and beverage category as food and beverage retail sales of the sweetener grew 80 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to Mintel.
Other emerging natural sweeteners include coconut sugar, licorice extracts and glycyrrhizin (derived from licorice) and thaumatin, sourced from an African plant.
Large ingredient and beverage manufacturers, with large R&D budgets, continue to explore alternative natural sweeteners as a report indicates PepsiCo filed a patent for a natural sweetener it developed by modifying oats.
Meanwhile, Cargill is researching a novel sweetener derived from monatin, an amino acid sourced from the root bark of a South African plant. Reportedly, monatin has a flavor profile close to sucrose with a clean, sweet taste and no noticeable bitter aftertaste, which could make it ideal as a sole sweetener in a food or beverage product.