Natural Sweeteners: Going for Green Gold

June 6, 2012

After three years on the market, is stevia still the resource of riches food and beverage manufacturers had hoped?

Three years have passed since the naturally derived, high-intensity sweetener stevia was granted GRAS status, an event that was hailed as a massive regulatory milestone with the potential to change the way food and beverage products are sweetened in the United States.

Stevia hasn’t disappointed.

According to James Kempland, vice president of marketing with Washington-based supplier Sweet Green Fields, the percentage of stevia-based product launches has been increasing by triple digits since 2009. Mintel forecasts that U.S. sales of products containing stevia will top $1.3 billion by the end of next year.

Cargill (Minneapolis), owner of the Truvia brand of stevia, cites 2011 Nielsen data showing that nearly 50 million U.S. households have products containing stevia, to illustrate that the ingredient has become mainstream and that manufacturers are confident working with it.

“Stevia has experienced significant and steady growth since it was first introduced. Large and small manufacturers alike have switched to Truvia stevia in their brands to meet growing consumer demand for natural, zero-calorie sweetness,” says Breah Ostendorf, global commercial manager for Cargill’s Truvia ingredient business.

His positivity is shared by the International Stevia Council’s (Brussels) executive director Maria Teresa Scardigli, who says the launch of stevia-sweetened products in the United States “has been extremely positive.”

“We’ve seen product launches across a wide array of aisles in the grocery store, ranging from beverage and confectionery to yogurts and ice cream,” she says.

Others too, report cross-category success for stevia. Market leader PureCircle (Chicago) says stevia can be found in a wide range of products, including carbonated soft drinks, juices, flavored waters, energy drinks, and sports drinks, as well as cereals, yogurts, salad dressings, and breads. “We see the market continuing to grow as consumer awareness of stevia and demand for more natural yet lower-calorie foods and beverages continues to increase,” says Jason Hecker, the company’s vice president of global marketing and innovation.

Drinks Dominate

There are some examples of food products containing stevia, but so far it is really the tabletop sweetener and beverage markets where stevia has taken off.

Cargill’s tabletop sweetener Truvia, a combination of erythritol and stevia, is now the number-two sugar substitute in the United States with a 13% market share (source: Nielsen). Whole Earth Sweetener’s PureVia, which uses stevia from PureCircle together with isomaltulose and erythritol, and Stevia in the Raw, which uses its purity and the absence of any additional sweeteners as its main selling point, are also looking to grab a slice of tabletop action.

The stars of the stevia-sweetened beverage stage so far are Tropicana Trop 50 and Vitamin Water Zero, both of which have evolved into $100 million brands. Trop 50 is a 50% sugar- and calorie-reduced fruit juice drink sweetened with PureCircle’s PureVia stevia, and Vitamin Water Zero is a calorie-free beverage sweetened with Truvia. Not as high-profile but nevertheless noteworthy is MonaVie EMV Lite: an energy drink based on acai containing stevia and Beneo’s (Manheim, Germany) sugar beet–derived Palatinose isomaltulose.

Broadly speaking, two approaches to creating beverages with stevia are emerging. The first is to use stevia as a single-source sweetener. However, this only really works for drinks that require a low level of sweetness, such as vitamin waters and flavored waters.

The second and arguably more interesting approach is blending stevia together with reduced amounts of sugar.

“The majority of applications using stevia combine it with sugar (or another nutritive sweetener), depending on the degree of sugar reduction the customer seeks,” says Cargill’s Ostendorf. “This allows manufacturers to maintain a ‘naturally sweetened’ position for their product. Blending with sugar also helps to overcome the bitter or licorice characteristics that can be detected at higher use levels.”

By taking this approach, John Fry, director of Connect Consulting and also a sweeteners expert, says careful formulation can achieve sugar reductions of 30 to 50%, while maintaining taste that consumers like just as much as full-sugar versions.

“This approach has been successful in the United States, where juice-based drinks sweetened with a combination of fruit juice and stevia are a real hit,” says Fry.

Indeed, according to Sweet Green Fields’ Kempland, a completely new option for consumers, referred to as the “right calorie” segment, is starting to emerge in the United States, based on this approach.

“In the past, soft drink manufacturers could only choose between full-calorie drinks with sugar and HFCS or zero-calorie diet drinks with artificial sweeteners. Consumers are happy with their zero-calorie choice, yet the full-sugar drinkers don’t like the extra calories and have not chosen diet as an option. Today, we can blend sugar with stevia and create an all-natural, great-tasting, good-for-you soft drink with less than half the calories, giving consumers a new option.”

An alternative nutritive sweetener that lends itself to combination with stevia in these types of drinks is the natural fruit extract Fruit Up from Wild (Carcaixent, Spain).

“When combined with steviol glycosides, Fruit Up offers the opportunity to make natural sweetening claims with an excellent sweet taste profile,” says Paulo Braga, technical manager, food, EMEA, with Univar, which distributes Wild’s Sunwin stevia products and taste-modification technologies in Europe.

Beyond Beverages

As for the reason beverages are dominating stevia-sweetened new product development, Braga suggests it is because they are easier to formulate with stevia than food products are.

“In beverages, there are no problems with loss of bulk, and it is easier to adapt recipes to decrease the sugar content or substitute artificial sweeteners...The use of stevia in food products is more challenging because stevia does not provide any body or structure to food systems.”

He says the industry is still in the process of identifying the best ingredients to combine with stevia to provide body, and that so far, hydrocolloids, fibers, and polyols have proven to be successful.

PureCircle’s Hecker agrees that filling the bulk gap created by replacing sugar content with stevia is a challenge. “Since sugar provides sweetness and structure, formulations may need to account for these bulking modifications,” he says.

He suggests stevia works well with polyols and other oligosaccharides, which replace sugar’s bulking quality.

Partnering Polyols

In the United States, the zero-calorie sugar alcohol erythritol has proved to be one of the most popular polyol partners for stevia.

“In the United States, erythritol is considered natural, and this polyol is an ideal blending agent for steviol glycosides. Erythritol not only has zero calories but displays qualitative synergy with steviol glycosides, improving the taste profile markedly. It is a bulk sweetener, so it can also contribute to bulk replacement,” explains Fry.

Jungbunzlauer (Basel, Switzerland) has developed an erythritol and stevia blend branded Erylite. A spokesperson for the company explains why erythritol and stevia make such a good team.

“The blend of Erylite and Rebaudioside A is highly synergistic. Rebaudioside A brings an off-taste along with the sweetness and has no bulk. Erythritol in turn has a sweetness level of 50% compared to sugar but is a bulk sweetener and has a strong taste-enhancing effect, as well as eliminating the off-taste and lingering sweetness,” says the spokesperson.

Isomalt Meets Its Match

Isomalt is another polyol that is a good match with stevia-particularly in confectionery and gum products.
“Isomalt is derived from sugar beet, which means it has a sugar-like sensorial profile, but it delivers a milder sweetness than sucrose-around 50%,” says Dr. Thomas Walter, head of new business development at Beneo. “The sweetness gap is filled with stevia, so you end up with a very sugar-like taste profile, no bitterness, and no off-tastes, and the bulk gap is filled with isomalt, which provides mouthfeel and texture that stevia alone does not offer.”

Furthermore, he points out that isomalt enables manufacturers to adopt a tooth-friendly positioning.

For instance, besides promoting a calorie reduction, beverage manufacturers may also be able to make a tooth-friendly claim if they opt for Beneo’s “next generation carbohydrate” Palatinose isomaltulose-the first sugar to have tooth-friendly credentials.

Beneo says it has trialed Palatinose in conjunction with stevia in tooth-friendly iced tea drinks (both ready-to-drink and powder formats) and found it to deliver a masking effect and mouthfeel.

Buyers Beware

Of course, developing good-tasting stevia-sweetened products isn’t just about finding the right blending partners to provide bulk and mask off-flavors-it is also about selecting the right steviol glycosides in the first place.

In the United States, suppliers must adhere to the JECFA guidelines, which stipulate that steviol glycosides should be a minimum of 95% of nine named glycosides, with the predominant glycoside being either Reb A or stevioside.

Fry of Connect Consulting warns that there can be substantial variation in the composition of steviol glycosides offered, and buyers need to be aware that not all stevia is the same.

The safest policy is to go with a supplier who is a member of the International Stevia Council, as manufacturing to JECFA specifications is a condition of membership.

The International Stevia Council has also created a Proficiency Testing Program so that the purity and methods of analysis of stevia extracts can be benchmarked and continually improved.

However, as Maria Teresa Scardigli points out, meeting the legal requirements is only half the battle; ensuring a consistent supply is equally important.

“Variance in quality is unacceptable to a food and beverage manufacturer, as they cannot continually adjust their formulations due to variances in taste. Each individual steviol glycoside has its own taste profile so it’s important that the specification requested by the end user can be reproduced consistently by their ingredient supplier; otherwise it creates formulation headaches,” she says.

Monk Fruit Makes Its Mark

Stevia might be stealing all the headlines, but another natural sweetener with GRAS status-monk fruit-is quietly making a name for itself.

Monk fruit is native to Southeast Asia where it has been used for hundreds of years. Its pulp is steeped in hot water to release a natural, calorie-free sweetening ingredient that is around 200 times sweeter than sugar.

The two leading global producers of monk fruit are BioVittoria and Layn, with both companies operating manufacturing facilities in the city of Guilin, southwest China. Monk fruit is indigenous to China, and 95% of monk fruit cultivation takes place in this area.

In the last two years, both companies have received FDA GRAS non-objection for monk fruit powdered extract concentrated on mogroside-V (the particular sweetening compounds in monk fruit) as a sweetening ingredient for food applications. Since last May, Tate & Lyle (Decatur, IL) has been marketing BioVittoria’s line of PureFruit monk fruit extracts in the United States.

“A few launches have hit the market, and we are expecting several more in the next 12 to 18 months,” says Caroline Sanders, global marketing and communications director, Tate & Lyle Speciality Food Ingredients. “We have a number of collaborative customer projects in our pipeline.”

The only fruit-based calorie-free sweetening system from natural origin available today, monk fruit enables a “sweetened with fruit extract” label claim, which Tate & Lyle says is appealing to consumers.

In terms of applications, Tate & Lyle says PureFruit is suitable for use in beverages, dairy, cereals, confectionery, and baked goods, although at present the beverage and dairy markets are showing the greatest interest.

Monk fruit extract can be blended with other sweeteners, and Layn USA says it sees a strong synergy with stevia. In fact, Layn has developed a patented product, Lovia, which combines the synergistic properties of the two sweeteners.

“The two compounds work in unison together. Whereby Rebaudioside A provides an intense upfront sweetness sensation but may tend to elicit a lingering, undesirable aftertaste, mogroside-V has a notably less intense upfront sweetness but a pleasing and sustained aftertaste,” explains Chris Tower, president of Layn. “Layn has discovered an essential balance in Lovia, effectively leveraging the strengths of each ingredient.”

PureCircle’s Hecker also highlights variability as a potential issue with stevia. “As stevia is a naturally derived ingredient, this variability can begin with the plant and continue through to the finished product. Manufacturers must evaluate several factors to ensure a stevia supply with consistent quality, quantity, and taste.”