Two big consumer trends—natural ingredients and obesity—are fueling increased interest in natural, non-caloric sweeteners and this opens up significant market potential for fruit-derived sweeteners. Stevia kicked off the current wave of natural sweeteners when it hit the U.S. market back in 2008 and its rapid success—Coca-Cola offers stevia-sweetened Sprite and Nestea in France—has prompted beverage makers to continue looking to natural sources for that sweet spot.
Two years ago, ingredient company BioVittoria’s zero-calorie Fruit Sweetness sweetener gained the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe status. The sweetener is made from the Southeast Asian monk fruit, also called luo han guo, and is 200 times as sweet as sugar and is heat and acid stable and soluble in water.
Stevia and monk fruit are hailed for being all-natural sweeteners with long histories of being used in Asia and South America.
And now monk fruit is making some inroads on the heels last year of Tate & Lyle’s move to become the exclusive marketer and distributor for BioVittoria’s monk fruit sweetener, now known under the Purefruit brand name.
The monk fruit sweetener market has grown to include ingredient maker Amax Nutrasource’s Perfecta, a zero-calorie blend of monk fruit extract and erythritol launched earlier this year. Like stevia, monk fruit sweeteners can be combined with other sweeteners, including sugar, erythritol or other fruit concentrates, for either reduced-calorie drinks or zero-calorie offerings. Also, monk fruit’s high sweetness, zero calories and lack of bitter aftertaste enable beverage developers to remove more sugar in applications that are typically high in sweetness without compromising taste.
And many beverage formulators are finding that a mix of Reb A stevia and monk fruit extract creates a good natural sweetener solution. Stevia sweeteners are widely known to have a bitter aftertaste that some liken to a licorice off-taste, and it can present challenges when used in some beverage applications. Monk fruit extract can help eliminate that bitterness that comes from stevia, formulators say.
Kate Ratliff, technical director at Flavorman, a product development company based in Louisville, Ky., works with beverage companies to develop natural drinks and often works with many natural sweeteners to find the right blend.
“When you’re working with a variety of sweeteners such as a blend of erythritol and Reb A stevia and monk fruit, each of them have different sweetness peaks, with some peaking earlier than the other, and getting that ratio to maximize that flavor impact is often a process of trial and error,” she says.
Erythritol is a polyol, or sugar alcohol, that occurs naturally in fruits such as pears, melons and grapes, and it’s often used in combination with other intense sweeteners to add bulk to the drink.
Although there is a lot of excitement about new natural sweeteners like monk fruit extract, as Ratliff noted, there are still some challenges in the product development process.
“When working with new natural sweeteners, it gets complex and it requires a lot of customization,” says Steve Wolf, director of flavor applications at Robertet. “We have found that each sweetener system requires a different set of flavor enhancers. And then, in turn, a different flavor might require a different enhancer or a different sweetener. For instance, a modifier, or even a flavor that works with a specific type of stevia extract from one supplier, might not be as effective with a different extract from a different supplier.”
So far, monk fruit extract is a premium ingredient, due to its higher price, and has found a small niche in the all-natural or health drink market, but some ingredient experts are seeing its potential for more mainstream products like dairy, juice drinks and waters. If the price of monk fruit falls, it could open up the market to make it a major competitor to stevia.
Turtle Mountain markets a line of So Delicious Dairy Free drinks, including varieties of Coconut Milk beverages that contain a mix of Reb A and monk fruit.
According to Hilary Martin, a media rep for the Eugene, Ore.-based company, the company’s No. 1 customer request is less sugar. So looking for ways to provide delicious drinks with less sugar, the company found that a combination of the two natural sweeteners offers a slightly sweet taste that works well with the coconut milk flavors, like chocolate.
Trim Toniq, a botanical-based diet beverage from the makers of Brain Toniq, uses a combination of naturally sourced sweeteners, including stevia and monk fruit as well as cranberry and chokeberry fruit extracts, to keep the sugar content of the drink to 3 grams a can and the calories to just below 30, says Brett Lemker, operations manager at Brain Toniq.
Along with having a health halo for being sourced from fruit, coconut sugar is emerging as another all-natural sweetener, as it offers the added benefit of being low glycemic. Previously only available in limited ethnic and health food stores, Madhava Natural Sweeteners now offers an organic, unprocessed coconut sugar, Madhava Organic Coconut Sugar, that’s consumer friendly and with two varieties similar in texture and color to traditional brown and white sugars.
Germany-based Döhler has worked extensively in the area of sugar reduction and sweetener systems and offers its MultiSweet Fruit sweetener, which is made of decolorized or de-acidified fruit juice concentrate for natural beverage and dairy applications.
Although not sourced from fruit, one of the more innovative alternative sweeteners to hit the market recently is derived from oats. Oat Tech’s OatSweet is a nutritive sweetener with a clean flavor profile similar to brown rice syrup with subtle caramel and honey notes, the company says.