Natural sweeteners edge out synthetic alternatives in race towards zero sugar 

“Excessive consumption of alcohol is harmful to your health,” is a tagline that every alcoholic beverage advert must have. This part of the ad is so common that it has almost become a chorus we kind of expect from every alcoholic beverage advert. Tobacco is another heavily regulated product that also carries a similar warning.

Interestingly, sugar – which equally has adverse health effects if consumed in excess – has for a long time stayed under the radar with little to no regulation when it comes to its use. Unfortunately for sugar, those sweet days are over as a growing body of research has linked excessive sugar consumption to a host of health concerns including obesity and diabetes.  

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The negative health consequences associated with sugar consumption has more individuals then ever before conscious of the amount of sugar in the food items they eat and drink. A 2021 survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that 72% of consumers were trying to limit or avoid sugar entirely.

Governments have also stepped-up efforts to regulate the sector, introducing a raft of measures, including sugar taxes to try to curb its consumption. A warning on excessive sugar consumption may not be in the pipeline, but food companies are working round the clock to replace sugar with other alternatives that offer the same sweetness but without the calories.

It’s not easy to reduce sugar

Finding the sweet spot in sugar reduction requires more than just replacing sugar with other sweeteners. “It’s not easy to reduce sugar,” says McKenna Mills, Senior Technical Manager at Cargill. “Sugar doesn’t just add flavour to the table, it also brings functionality like adding mouthfeel.”  When sugar is eliminated or reduced, the syrupy body for beverages or a more structured texture for items such as baked goods is lost. Studies also suggest that sweetness, when not accompanied by calories, might result in ambiguous psychobiological signals that confuses the body’s regulatory mechanisms, leading to a loss of control over appetite and overeating.

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Additionally, when sugar is removed from a product, the sweetness levels will drop and this may reveal other tastes, such as bitterness and off-notes. According to a report by Kerry, this may impact product acceptance as consumers would still want their product to taste just like it did when it had sugar. “Although consumers are sounding off on sugar, most want to consume products that have around the same level of sweetness,” Kerry says. McKenna Mills, Senior Technical Manager at Cargill adds: “It’s really important when reducing sugar, you replace it with products that will also replace the functionality that sugar brings to the table”.

Formulating with artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, which are sweeter than sugar but low in calories were the first go-to ingredients when it came to sugar reduction.

Unlike sugar, these sweeteners offer an insane amount of sweetness without the additional calories that sugar adds to foods. Aspartame is for instance 100 to 200 times sweeter than sugar while sucralose is reported to be 600 times sweeter. Some like alitame and neotame have sweetness levels that exceed that of sugar by over 2000 times. This level of sweetness implies that only a fraction of the sweetener could be used to replace sugar from beverages. 

Like earlier noted, replacing sugar is not as simple – manufacturers quickly realise that although intensely sweet, these sweeteners have a bitter aftertaste when used on their own.  To mask the bitter aftertaste that sweeteners can have on their own, manufacturers have resorted to developing blends of different sweeteners. It’s thus rare to find a diet soda or any other low calorie food product carrying only one artificial sweetener. For instance, Acesulfame-K which is around 200 times sweeter than sugar is usually blended with other sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose to achieve a more acceptable taste. 

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When first introduced to the market, artificial sweeteners were a success. They were the magic bullet required to ensure people avoid sugar but continue indulging in sweet treats such as soda, chewing gums, ice creams and other high-sugar products.

Growing research on the negative effects that these products might have on human health has however cast a shadow on their continued use in future. Researchers from the Sorbonne Paris North University and French Network for Nutrition and Cancer found that participants who consumed the most artificial sweeteners had a 13% higher risk of developing cancer compared with those who didn’t consume artificial sweeteners.  The sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame-K were associated with the highest risk, according to the data, particularly with risk of breast cancer and obesity-related cancer. This study and many more like it have had an impression on consumers who are now reconsidering their options. According to a Mintel study, “consumers largely distrust artificial sweeteners, and 69% of consumers regard them as unhealthy.” Another 2021 IFIC study found that consumers look to the ingredients label and the Nutrition Facts panel as sources of information — more so than claims.

The presence of artificial sweeteners on the ingredient label is thus more likely to dissuade a consumer from picking that product.  In the United States, experts now recommend that products containing artificial sweeteners are not marketed to children or sold at schools, further damaging the reputation of products made with artificial sweeteners.

Natural sweeteners find favour among consumers

With artificial sweeteners carrying a “unhealthy” tag, the search for sugar substitutes of natural sources has led to the discovery of a number of substances that possess an intensely sweet taste or taste-modifying properties.

Monk fruit and stevia are currently the leading natural sweeteners used in ready-to-drink (RTD) protein drinks, carbonated soft drinks, energy drinks, flavoured waters, water enhancers, hard seltzers, coffee drinks, sports nutrition, recovery drinks, nutritional supplements among many other applications.  “In the U.S., stevia and monk fruit have been primary growth drivers for the beverage market, with year-over-year volume growth of products containing these sweeteners at 12% and 26% respectively, per Nielsen,” says David Nichols, senior manager for category strategy and planning at Tate & Lyle.

Technological advancements have allowed ingredient manufacturers to commercially produce some natural sweeteners which before were unfeasible to produce at scale. American biotechnology company Conagen recently unveiled two high-intensity sweeteners from thaumatin, which is a group of proteins found in the fruits of the tropical plant Thaumatococcus danielli.  The products thaumatin I and thaumatin II have been evaluated as 100,000 times sweeter than sugar on a molar basis and 3,000 times sweeter on a weight basis. 

Taste solutions supplier Sweegen also recently launched brazzein, a high-intensity sweetener that is reportedly 500 to 2,000 times sweeter than regular sugar.  Sweegen becomes the first food ingredient provider to make the sweetener commercially available under the Ultratia brand. 

Stevia production also regained prominence this year when international food standards body Codex Alimentarius adopted the specifications for four different technologies for the production of steviol glycosides. Sweegen, whose bioconversion technology was among those approved, noted that the move by Codex will provide greater access to less common and better-tasting steviol glycosides at scale and a more sustainable supply. 

Separating the sweet from the bitter

Just like their artificial sisters, natural sweeteners also tend to impact a bitter taste or metallic flavor when used in food formulations. Consumers may desire to lower their calories, but at no point in history have they shown interest in giving up the taste they so much relish.

Kerry, in its taste chart for 2022, highlighted taste as one of the key trends to watch. In the report, Kerry said, “taste remains at the core of consumption desire and people now want the best of both worlds—sugar-free, lower carb, plant-based, vegan and diet-specific foods like keto — and they are not willing to compromise on taste any longer.” 

Its really important when reducing sugar, you replace it with products that will also replace the functionality that sugar brings to the table.

Mckenna Mills, Senior Technical Manager, Cargill Tweet

Ingredient manufacturers from Ingredion, to Kerry, ADM and Cargill have responded by developing sweetener blends that work synergistically to mask any undesirable taste traits that could potentially exist if a sweetener was used on its own.

In December 2021, Ingredion launched an evolved flavor modifier PureCircle NSF-13 which has “exceptional sweetness quality across a wide range of applications, from beverages to dairy alternatives, thanks to its combination between Reb M and other steviol glycosides,” according Aymeric de Ganter, Ingredion’s flavors business lead. Another key benefit is the increased targeted flavor tonalities as well as the reduction of bitterness. In March 2022, Cargill also updated its stevia sweetener, combining it with a natural flavor to enhance its performance in food formulations. According to the food ingredients supplier, the new sweetener system provides multiple benefits, including flavor modification, faster dissolution and improved solubility and stability in formulations. 

Novel sugar reduction technologies emerge

Food formulators and ingredient suppliers are also moving the needle when it comes to sugar reduction.

Israeli food technology company DouxMatox is among the leaders in this field. Its unique sugar reduction solution Incredo Sugar is a first-of-its-kind, sugar-based sugar reduction solution that helps food companies achieve up to 50% sugar reduction. With Incredo Sugar, companies don’t have to introduce a new sugar alternative, they just have to use a lesser amount of sugar. The solution has been used by a number of companies including Pangea for its better for you super bars and Blommer Chocolate Company to produce chocolate with much less sugar. 

In 2021, Tetra Pak and Sumol+Compal unveiled a fermentation-driven technology that reduces the sugar content in juice. “We just use fermentation to convert virtually all the sugars in the juice to alcohol, much like what happens in wine-making,” said Paulo Marques, head of the biotechnology unit at Sumol+Compal.

Another not so novel way is replacing sugar with other natural sweeteners such as honey or fruits. The practice that is popular in beverages and dairy products allows food companies to legally add a “no added sugar” claim to their food products.

The no added sugar claim can however be technically misleading, as the product may lack sugar but still contain high amounts of calories and thus expose the consumer to the risk of obesity and other lifestyle diseases, which sugar is associated with. This practice is losing popularity as consumers become more informed. 

Sugar taxes accelerate adoption

With obesity on the rise across the globe, governments have introduced sugar taxes to try to limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

According to a report by Kerry, sugar taxes have gained traction at a remarkable pace in recent years, with around 50 countries and jurisdictions currently enforcing such measures and others requesting voluntary recipe changes.

In 2021, Africa’s largest economy Nigeria, joined the sugar tax club with its US$0.024 tax per liter of sugar-sweetened beverages to discourage excessive consumption of sugar in beverages. South Africa introduced its sugar tax in 2018 and research by health experts highlight that since the introduction of the tax, there was a 51% reduction in sugar, a 52% reduction in calories, and a 29% reduction in the volume of beverages purchased per person per day.

In the United States, researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago found that a sugar tax introduced in Seattle created a 23% reduction in grams of sugar sold from taxed beverages, while declines were larger for family-size (29%) compared to individual-size (10%) beverages; particularly for soda (36% decrease for family-size compared to no change for individual-size). 

In addition to applying pressure to cost-conscious consumers, sugar taxes incentivize manufacturers to rethink recipes and create healthier soft drinks and beverages. For example, ahead of the introduction of the UK Soft Drink Industry Level (SDIL) sugar tax in April of 2018, manufacturers began reformulating products, shrinking the number of high- and mid-sugar soft drinks in their portfolio and increasing their low- and zero-sugar offerings.

A study in BMC Medicine found that 6 of the top 10 brands affected by the SDIL reformulated more than half of the products in their portfolios between 2015 and end of 2018. As these products hit the market, the total volume sales of high- and mid-sugar soft drinks was cut in half, while volume sales of low- and zero-sugar drinks rose by 40%.

Low sugar indulgence to become the norm

Low and zero sugar products have historically faced taste and texture challenges which made them unappealing to the majority of consumers. Advances in technology have however allowed food ingredient suppliers to develop superior sugar alternatives that deliver the sweetness without the calories.

Natural sweeteners have particularly hit the sweet spot when it comes to health indulgence and are expected to be a key growth driver of the low and zero sugar products. According to Markets and Markets, the global natural sweetener market which was valued at US$2.8 billion in 2020 is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1% to reach US$3.8 billion in 2025.

Sugar taxes have also proved to be a critical driver of growth in the sector and their continued adoption is expected to spur further growth in future. Indeed, sugar may not carry a mandatory “harmful to your health tag” anytime soon, but it is certainly going to be used in lesser and lesser amounts by food and beverage companies.

This feature appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Food Business Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE

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