A Spoonful of Sugar Substitutes

 Americans like sweets, but their love affair with sugar may be souring. Concerns about obesity are driving many consumers away from candy and soft drinks, and toward healthier fare made with alternative sweeteners. In fact, demand for low-calorie sugar substitutes could exceed $1.1 billion in the United States alone by 2010, according to a new report by The Freedonia Group Inc. (Cleveland).

 

Americans like sweets, but their love affair with sugar may be souring. Concerns about obesity are driving many consumers away from candy and soft drinks, and toward healthier fare made with alternative sweeteners. In fact, demand for low-calorie sugar substitutes could exceed $1.1 billion in the United States alone by 2010, according to a new report by The Freedonia Group Inc. (Cleveland).

In the crowded market for sugar substitutes, competition is fierce. Sucralose, the current market leader for tabletop sweeteners, has already outgrown its “niche status” and is likely to continue its expansion into other applications, notes the report. Meanwhile, the report predicts that aspartame and acesulfame potassium (ace-K) will remain the leading sweeteners in the diet-drinks category. Other ingredients, like low-calorie polyols and the herb Stevia rebaudania, are also poised for growth.

Things are moving so fast that even venerable sweeteners like molasses could see swift gains. However, there are complications. High production costs, coupled with growing demand, could lead to price spikes for some ingredients, especially if the industry fails to invest in manufacturing R&D. Given the intense demand for healthy products made with sugar substitutes, however, the industry seems primed for a sweet future.

SUCRALOSE AND ASPARTAME

The high-intensity sweeteners sucralose and aspartame are rivals, both in the supermarket and in the courtroom (see sidebar on p. 42). However, the two ingredients, which are approved for use in a range of foods and beverages, dominate the sugar substitute market.

Sucralose, manufactured by Tate & Lyle (London) and sold under the brand name Splenda by McNeil Nutritionals (Fort Washington, PA), is the undisputed market leader, with about $212 million in U.S. sales in 2006, according to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI; Chicago). Noting its rapid expansion into different kinds of applications, The Freedonia Group dubbed it a “market powerhouse.”

Tate & Lyle manufactures sucralose using a patented process that alters sugar molecules by substituting three hydrogen-oxygen groups with chlorine atoms. The resulting ingredient is about 600 times sweeter than sugar, but it is not digested by the body and does not add calories to foods.

Aspartame, which is manufactured and marketed by Merisant (Chicago) under the brand names Equal and NutraSweet, had U.S. sales of about $49 million in 2006, according to IRI. Derived from the amino acids phenylalanine and L-aspartic acid, aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and has about the same amount of calories as sugar. Aspartame may break down during heating, which limits its potential applications. Moreover, because people with phenylketonuria (PKU) have difficulty metabolizing phenylalanine, products made with aspartame must contain PKU warning labels. (Neotame, an ingredient that is structurally similar to aspartame, is much sweeter but does not carry the same risk to people with PKU.)

Another high-intensity sweetener, ace-K, is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. Sold under the brand name Sunett by Nutrinova (Dallas), ace-K is often blended with other sweeteners to flavor diet beverages and sodas. More than 5000 products worldwide contain Sunett, which is calorie free and noncariogenic.

POLYOLS

Some sweeteners, like sucralose and aspartame, are hundreds of times as intense as sugar. Others are less sweet but possess other properties that are equally useful for food and beverage manufacturers. Polyols, for instance, can act as thickeners and stabilizers as well as low- or zero-calorie sugar replacers.

The growth of polyols over the next decade could echo the growth of sugar substitutes in general. In 2005, polyol sales had reached $517 million in the United States, according to a report from Frost & Sullivan (San Antonio, TX), which predicts that demand could hit $822 million by 2012. “The key factor driving the growth of polyols in the United States is their obvious health benefits,” says Frost & Sullivan research analyst Ashwin Sukumaran.

Using enzymes, polyol manufacturers convert starches, typically derived from cereal grains, into simple sugars that are then hydrogenated into sugar alcohols. The resulting polyols offer a mild sweetness but are not digested in the same way as sugar. Each polyol has different physical properties, such as molecular weight, melting point, and heat of solution.

While food manufacturers use polyols for a variety of reasons, they are most often used as sweeteners, sugar replacers, and low-glycemic-index ingredients. Some notable polyols include erythritol, a mildly sweet ingredient with a low molecular weight that does not produce a strong glycemic response; maltitol, a sugar-free, low-calorie sweetener derived from corn; isomalt, an ingredient that is popular in confectionery products; and lactitol, a milk-based sweetener that also has prebiotic properties.

Polyols are becoming more common in food applications. However, the process of converting raw materials into polyols remains expensive. Sukumaran cites the high costs of growing and fermenting raw materials as a major challenge. But he adds that future investments in R&D may help keep a lid on prices down the road.

“Techniques for fermenting and extracting polyols are traditionally more expensive than chemical synthesis,” he says. “Moreover, strong capacity utilization in the corn wet milling industry has pushed up prices for corn syrups that are used to produce polyols, thus narrowing the profit margins.” According to Sukumaran, the keys to managing costs will be R&D into cheaper manufacturing methods, such as those involving bacterial strains, and economies of scale.

OTHER RELATED INGREDIENTS

Dextrose and polydextrose are two ingredients that share some similarities with polyols, namely their sweet taste and their ability to act as sugar replacers. Dextrose has a clean, cooling flavor caused by the high amount of heat required to make it dissolve. Moreover, dextrose can act as a bulking agent to replace volume normally taken up by sugar.

Like dextrose, polydextrose can also be used as a sugar replacer; however, it also replaces fat, has a low glycemic impact, and can act as a prebiotic fiber, making it useful for products designed for weight and blood sugar control. One example of a branded polydextrose ingredient is Danisco’s (Ardsley, NY) Litesse.

Another similar ingredient, isomaltulose, is a slowly digestible sweetener that has the added benefit of not promoting tooth decay. Manufacturers use isomaltulose to provide a prolonged supply of energy that does not provoke a major glycemic response. Examples of branded isomaltulose ingredients include Cargill’s (Minneapolis) Xtend and Palatinit’s (Mannheim, Germany) Palatinose.

STEVIA REBAUDANIA

In its 2007 report on alternative sweeteners, The Freedonia Group also predicted the rise of another ingredient: Stevia rebaudania. The herb is an approved food additive in many countries, including China and Japan. While FDA has not approved stevia as a food additive in the United States, some companies sell it as a dietary supplement.

One stevia supplement, Sunwin Stevia International Corp.’s (Fort Lauderdale, FL) OnlySweet, is about to benefit from expanded distribution in more than 1500 grocery outlets beginning in June, greatly increasing the herb’s visibility. Jeffrey Reynolds, Sunwin’s CEO, says the company is currently negotiating with additional national and regional grocery chains, and is confident the product’s distribution will grow within the next six months.

“Having spent years in the consumer packaged goods industry representing a wide variety of products, I am particularly encouraged by our clients’ responses regarding the taste of our product, our packaging, and our pricing,” Reynolds says. “We believe that these elements will create consumer success, and in the near future, OnlySweet will be in front of more consumers than any other stevia product in the United States.”

While interest in stevia is high, its regulatory status raises some questions about its use in the United States. Because FDA considers stevia an unapproved food additive that is not generally recognized as safe (GRAS), the agency objects to labeling that implies the herb can be added to foods as a low-calorie sweetener. For instance, in 2007, FDA refused the importation of several shipments of stevia for unapproved uses. Moreover, in 2006, FDA sent a warning letter to a company that marketed stevia as a sweetener on its Web site.

MORE GROWTH TO COME

With a projected annual growth rate of 4% per year, sugar substitutes appear ready to enjoy a promising future. Ingredients that can help provide the sweetness of sugar without the extra calories may help usher in the next wave of weight-management and diabetes-control products. Because of sugar substitutes, reduced-calorie items no longer need to taste bland or unappealing. One day, they may even demonstrate the wisdom of the old saying, “Half an orange tastes as sweet as a whole one.”