High-intensity sweeteners: Where is innovation heading?

Who is at the forefront of sweetener innovation?

Sugar is one of the most popular ingredients in the diet, and consumers are used to the sweet taste and texture as a source of comfort and indulgence. Surprisingly, the majority of sugar consumption comes from highly processed foods and sweetened beverages rather than from desserts and confectioneries.

Consumer attitudes towards sugar have shifted worldwide. On one hand, processed sugar is perceived as unhealthy and contributing to the rise in obesity around the world. On the other hand, in its less-refined forms, sugar is considered clean and natural.

Global worries about sugar over-consumption, corresponding with a rise in diseases, have led to rising demand for low-sugar and reduced-sugar products, forcing food and beverage formulators to prioritize sugar reduction in product innovation, development, and marketing strategy. Likewise, sweetener manufacturers have delved deeper into the research and development of alternative sweeteners as sugar substitutes to cater to the needs of this highly dynamic market.

Categorizing Sugar and Market Opportunities

The global sugar and sweetener market amounts to approximately USD $25 billion and has undergone phenomenal change in the past decade. More research and development is being done across the board, including in low-sugar, low-calorie, high-sweetness-intensity, artificial, processed, and natural sugar options.

In general, sweeteners are classified into six groups:

  • Sugars: These are carbohydrates naturally found in many foods, including fruit, vegetables, cereals, and milk. The most common are Sucrose, Glucose, Dextrose, Fructose, Lactose, Maltose, Galactose, and Trehalose.
  • Sugar Alcohols: These carbohydrates occur naturally, though in small amounts, in plants and cereals. The body is unable to fully metabolize them, and consequently they tend to have fewer available calories per gram. The most common are Sorbitol, Xylitol, Mannitol, Maltitol, Erythritol, Isomaltose, Lactitol, and Glycerol.
  • Natural Caloric Sweeteners: These are the oldest known sweeteners and include honey and maple syrup. They contain sugar but also other nutritive qualities. They tend to have a somewhat lower glycemic index than sugar. They include Honey, Maple Syrup, Coconut Palm Sugar, and Sorghum Syrup.
  • Natural Zero-Calorie Sweeteners: These are not carbohydrates and contain little or no calories. In recent years, interest has grown in these as a better alternative to artificial sweeteners. They have zero glycemic index and can have an aftertaste. They include Stevia, Allulose, Monk Fruit, and Brazzein.
  • Modified Sugars: These are typically sugars produced by converting starch using enzymes. The list also includes sugars that have been modified, such as caramel or golden syrup. They are often used in cooking or in processed foods. They include High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel, Agave Syrup, Inverted Sugar, and Golden Syrup.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: These are synthetically developed sweeteners and are often referred to as “high-intensity sweeteners” because they provide a taste similar to that of table sugar but up to several thousand times sweeter. There are many types on the market, and some appear to be safer than others. They have been in use in America and Europe for over 120 years. The most common are Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, Neotame, Acesulfame K, and Cyclamate.

Ingredient Manufacturers Focus on Key Functionalities and Price

The key properties considered for sugars and sweeteners are sweetness intensity (relative to sucrose), caloric value (calories per gram), taste, texture, bulk, browning, and prebiotic functionality, among others. Sugars, modified sugars, and sugar alcohols are generally products with lower sweetness intensity and with a standard caloric value (2-4 cal/g), while artificial sweeteners are products with higher sweetness intensity and are generally calorie-free.

The majority of research and development is anchored around the high-sweetness-intensity and low-caloric-value sweeteners. Clean-label, natural sources have become drivers of these advancement activities. However, price remains the biggest driver of development and innovation happening in the sweetener and sugar space.

Growth in High-Intensity Sweetener Launches

High-intensity sweeteners recorded growth since 2018, with a year-over-year increase of 12% in 2019. Despite associated apprehensions about metallic off-taste and slightly bitter aftertaste associated with high-intensity sweeteners, all major food categories—nutrition, bakery, beverages, confectionery, among others—are incorporating high-intensity sweeteners.

Sweetener suppliers are under high pressure to provide the right solution, with many launching new variants combining the effects of high-intensity sweeteners with rare sweeteners and low-intensity sweeteners. Global companies are helping their customers in product formulation through digital platforms to try out different formulations to find the right taste and texture profile.

New product development is key to the sweeteners business. Most of the sweetener research and development focuses on sweetness intensity, caloric value, taste, and solving off-tastes, coupled with key functionality and price competitiveness. New product and application development; functional features, such as prebiotic functionality; product viability; and price modeling all need to be well tested before scaling up with commercial production. In general, a company usually takes 12-18 months for new product development activities for any novel process/ingredient. Wide commercialization will be relatively slower for a new sweetener product as the market has a lot of options and alternatives now.

Future Forward

As the food industry expands the horizons of low-calorie, low-sugar, high-fiber, natural, organic, clean-label, and health foods, without compromising on taste, more manufacturers are swapping out sugar for sweeteners and natural alternatives. Sweetener manufacturers are also looking into rare sugars such as fucose, kojibiose, cellobiose, nigerose, etc., but these are still in the research phase, and product viability and formulation requisites are major challenges.

Sweetener manufacturers are under rigorous new product development pressure to support formulators with the right solutions revolving around the pillars of taste, texture, clean label, and price. The natural sweeteners allulose and stevia are still unexplored domains for many manufacturers and have high prospects in the coming five years.

Sreedevi Kakkad (sreedevi.k@chembizr.com) is a consultant, food and nutrition, for ChemBizR. ChemBizR is a boutique business research and consulting partner of chemical companies globally, involved in addressing companies’ critical business challenges and strategic growth initiatives to help them transform their enterprise for sustainable growth in a highly competitive and rapidly evolving environment. For more information, e-mail connect@chembizr.com.