Reb M from sugarcane is just one newcomer challenging the natural sweeteners space.
There is no shortage of innovation when it comes to natural sweeteners. Ingredient manufacturers are constantly improving their products and pushing the boundaries of what they can accomplish. Stevia sweeteners are an excellent example, because while they have been associated with certain formulation and flavor limitations, stevia manufacturers have made these concerns practically irrelevant.
“The majority of stevia product launches are new products, not reformulations, so these ingredients are also prompting significant innovation in many product categories, from energy drinks and baked goods to frozen treats and desserts,” says Andy Ohmes, global director of high-intensity sweeteners, Cargill (Minneapolis). “As a result, the market is now seeing expanding product launches featuring low-, no-, or reduced-sugar claims, especially in segments like bakery and dairy products.”
One such innovation is the use of fermentation to produce minor steviol glycosides such as Rebaudioside M (Reb M) and Reb D, which offer a sugar-like sweetness without the perceived bitterness of other steviol glycosides such as Reb A. Cargill’s EverSweet ingredient is an example of fermentation-derived Reb M and Reb D. Other stevia firms like PureCircle (Chicago) use more typical leaf extraction for Reb M and Reb D production and have increased stevia acreage and bred stevia plants to have a naturally high Reb M and D content.
One of the few remaining challenges in the alternative sweetener space involves the functionality of alternative sweeteners in specific applications, particularly bakery. Sugar is highly functional when baking, providing not only sweetness but mouthfeel, texture, and structure. Stevia alone cannot provide the ideal texture and mouthfeel for a baked good, therefore the addition of bulking agents such as the alternative sweetener erythritol as well as a fiber sweetener such as chicory root fiber can help.
Stevia is not the only player in the natural sweeteners game. Continued innovation from other ingredient sources showcases just how competitive the natural sweeteners space is.
For example, one brand called Purecane (Amyris Inc.; Emeryville, CA) manufactures a Reb M product derived from sugarcane. This is accomplished by pressing the sugarcane to remove the juices and adding them to fermentation tanks filled with yeast. The fermentation process converts the sugar into Reb M, says Beth Bannerman, senior vice president of corporate communications and engagement at Purecane. The Reb M is then separated from the yeast. The finished product is a zero-calorie, zero-glycemic-index sweetener with the functionality of traditional sugar, says Bannerman.
“Our process produces the best tasting, zero-calorie sweetener that is healthy and uses about 10 times less land than stevia farms use,” explains Bannerman. “And we use Brazilian sugarcane, which is one of the most regenerative and sustainable plants on the planet.”
Ingredients like Purecane could pose a challenge to other natural sweetener companies because sugarcane already enjoys name recognition with consumers. So, while stevia has been the most successful natural sweetener of late, it should not turn its back on competitors coming up the natural sweetener chain.
Above all, sweetener companies and formulators stay mindful that innovation and differentiation are important but only go so far if consumers don’t understand what they’re buying. For example, in a consumer survey1 conducted by Kerry International (Beloit, WI), stevia was just behind honey, sugar, and maple syrup as a preferred natural sweetener, but only 46% of the 760 surveyed consumers perceived stevia as natural. Other important and functional sweeteners were among those least preferred by consumers, including erythritol, monk fruit, and xylitol.
On the other hand, research from Mintel from 2019 shows that 59% of U.S. consumers would like to see more foods and beverages with naturally sourced sweeteners. So, as the market becomes more crowded, the way to compete for consumer spend may be through educational branding and helping consumers make informed decisions so that they can select the right natural sweetener for them.