Pushing the boundaries of clean-label sweetness at IFT 2019

June 19, 2019

Clean-label sugar reduction is a major driver of new product development and innovation. According to consumer research presented by Mintel at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting and Food Expo in June, 74% of U.S. consumers say a healthy diet should be low in sugar, 73% say some sweeteners should be avoided more than others, and 60% believe that artificial sweeteners are bad for your health. As a result, says Mintel, average sugar content in products has declined globally.

However, the picture is also more nuanced. For instance, Mintel said, sugar content and “reduced sugar” claims are not always the only thing consumers consider when purchasing a product. For some products like yogurt, for example, Mintel said that “low/no sugar” claims on products actually have no impact on consumer purchasing decisions. The takeaway: while being low in sugar may not deter consumers, it’s also not necessarily the only advantage in some cases. This leaves room for other competitive opportunities, but also challenges, for product manufacturers competing in spaces where using sugar alternatives has actual technical formulating disadvantages, such as baked goods.

And this is where ingredient manufacturers are hard at work solving formulation challenges related to using sugar alternatives such as stevia. For example, at IFT 2019, PureCircle (Chicago, IL) showcased how its stevia-based sweetener solutions function in ice cream and cheese cake. “A lot of our new tools are allowing us to go for those deeper reductions, higher taste profiles, and cleaner labels. So that has opened us up a lot of categories,” said John Martin, PureCircle’s senior director of global technical development and innovation, to Nutritional Outlook.

“The challenge is not necessarily sweetness; it’s the functionality of sugar that you need to develop,” added Martin, referring to product characteristics typically produced by sugar, such as mouth feel and Maillard reaction. “Looking at natural ingredients and keeping that label clean is a technical challenge and has been something that we’ve been trying to work through quite a bit.”

Another company overcoming technical sugar-reduction challenges is Icon Foods (Portland, OR). At IFT 2019, the firm showcased its no-sugar-added chocolate chips, which are a result of a partnership with Barry Callebaut (Zurich, Switzerland). The chocolate chips are composed of cocoa butter, cocoa powder, erythritol, stevia, and sunflower lecithin, which are run through a conch, explains Thomas King, CEO of Icon Foods, to Nutritional Outlook. A conch, he says, is a stone grinder which grinds the sweetener and fats and cocoa powder together to create a homogenous blend.

“A lot of people have attempted to make chocolate chips, but they still get a grainy sort of feeling or mouth feel,” explained King. “[The conch] breaks those particles of the erythritol down to the point where you don’t get any kind of a grainy feeling. And the sunflower lecithin that we add really works well on eliminating the cooling effect of the erythritol.”

Icon Foods is working with companies in the keto category who will be selling the chocolate chips in retail packs, but the primary market for the products, said King, will be food manufacturers, for products such as bars, nut butters, cookies, and frozen desserts.

While alternative sweeteners have been primarily associated with beverages, foods are the future, and not only that, categories of interest include dairy free, gluten free, and ketogenic, says Jackson Pillow, global communications manager for PureCircle. Ketogenic is a major category, agrees Icon’s King. “We do a lot of formulation with our sweeteners, and I would say that our biggest categories right now are plant-based and keto,” explained King.

Ingredient suppliers’ ability to incorporate alternative sweeteners into a broader range of platforms is accomplished through innovative combinations of sweeteners and continued research into ingredient sources. Recent achievements in this area included extracting minor stevia glycosides such as Reb M and Reb D from the stevia plant, and firms like PureCircle are continuing to mine the stevia plant for additional functionality.

“We’re just continuing to go back to the stevia leaf to try to find new innovations, new ingredients, functional ingredients out of the leaf that will really help complement what we’re doing with sweetness,” said Pillow. “Flavor is going to be another big area for us in how we complement other things that are going on in products, whether that’s modifying flavors or enhancing other ingredients that are in low quantities with a natural ingredient.”

Potential Disruptor

A new ingredient that made its debut appearance at IFT 2019 is Fruitlift from Gat Foods (Givat Haim, Israel). A fruit-based sweetening solution designed to replace refined sugar in cereal, the ingredient was optimized for the extrusion line, allowing the company to use its liquid fruit concentrates in the dry process. Fruitlift can be incorporated in the flour mix and the coating. A sample provided at Gat Foods’ booth had 15% Fruitlift in the base and 15% Fruitlift in the coating that offered a mild sweetness without a prominent fruity taste, despite using concentrates from apples and oranges.

“Why cereals? We saw a big potential. We saw the issues with [refined] sugar, and we took our expertise from producing raw materials for the beverage category, understanding that fruits are a natural sweetener,” explained Michal Katzir Emek, international marketing director for Gat Foods, to Nutritional Outlook. The amount of refined sugar in breakfast cereals, particularly for kids, has put off consumers, leading them to turn to healthier options. Fruitlift offers a healthier source of sweetness than refined sugar that can be customized to fit the flavor profile of the specific product to provide more or less sweetness, as well as more or less fruit flavor. 

Cereals using Fruitlift would still have sugar content, though the fruit source provides a healthy halo that is desirable to many consumers.

Sweetness with Benefits

Functional foods and beverages offer consumers a convenient way to get important nutrients. Some functional ingredients have a naturally sweet flavor profile that allows for sugar reductions in the finished product, and ingredient suppliers are seeing an opportunity there. Fiber ingredients such as chicory root fiber have been used in this way, providing sweetness, textural properties, and soluble fiber to products. Malted barley extract, such as that supplied by Malt Products Corp. (Saddle Brook, NJ), is another ingredient that offers a variety of functional benefits while also providing product formulators a way to replace refined sugar. Peeyush Maheshwari, PhD, business development director for the firm, calls malted barley extract a nutritionally focused sweetener.

“Malt extract has 6 g of proteins per 100 g, it has about 6-7 g of soluble fiber, and it is rich in antioxidants and minerals,” explained Maheshwari to Nutritional Outlook. “If you take two spoonfuls of malt extract, it has the antioxidant potential of half a cup of blueberries.”

Malt extract’s protein and its naturally occurring amino acid profile make it an ideal candidate for products targeting athletic recovery, and its hordenine content gives the ingredient cognitive health benefits, as well as weight management benefits. “The benefits of a malt extract are really what we’re trying to promote. It’s not an empty calorie sweetener,” said Maheshwari. “It has all the [sweet] properties, for example, of corn syrup, but why would you want to use corn syrup when you could use malt?”

Malted barley extract is suitable in baked goods, beverages, and chocolate, says Maheshwari, with some of the greatest growth potential in chocolate and fermented products as well as plant-based beverages.

Bioenergy Ribose and RiaGev, two ingredients from Bioenergy Life Sciences (Ham Lake, MN), also offer significant health benefits to consumers and allow product formulators to cut sugar in their finished products.

Bioenergy Ribose is a 5-carbon monosaccharide that supports weight management, cardiovascular health, and athletic performance. “[Ribose is] the backbone of our ATP [adenosine triphosphate] structure, which is the energy currency in our body. It’s the driving force of all cellular energy,” explained Marianne McDonagh, vice president of sales for Bioenergy Life Sciences. ATP is produced by the mitochondria, and the molecule is able to store and transport chemical energy within cells1.

RiaGev is a combination of ribose and vitamin B3 designed to enhance nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) levels to support healthy aging and immune health. “NAD is a coenzyme in all of our cells that controls the aging process. As we age or suffer from illness or disease or stress, our NAD levels drastically decrease, which is why we age faster,” explained McDonagh.

In addition to these trending benefits, because ribose is a type of sugar, it offers a sweet flavor profile that is 60% as sweet a sugar. This allows product formulators a potential 10%-15% reduction in sugar when incorporating the ingredients into foods such as baked foods, bars, or beverages. “While we explored the functional food marketplace, we realized there really weren’t a lot of functional sugars out there,” said McDonagh. “I think where the industry is heading and where it will be, ultimately, is people taking ingredients for a reason. They want the functionality of it, so you can get the best of both worlds [with our ingredients]; you can sweeten something with [ribose] and get the functionality of it.”

References: 

1. Mahoney DE et al. “Understanding D-ribose and mitochondrial function.” Advances in Bioscience and Clinical Medicine, vol. 6, no. 1 (2018)