Looking for the sweet spot: Finding the best natural sugar alternative
Substances ranging from honey to stevia to polyols are being widely used and experimented with, but there is nothing that can perfectly replicate sugar
Sugar has become the most vilified ingredient in America, but consumers’ desire for sweetness has manufacturers hunting for healthier alternatives. How do natural sweeteners stack up?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American eats nearly 23 teaspoons of added sugar a day, with most of it (71%) coming from store-bought foods. But since too much added sugar can affect heart health and lead to weight gain, this is far from ideal. The American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of just nine teaspoons a day for men and six teaspoons for women.
Gradually, the message is getting through. Eighty-four percent of Americans say they are limiting the amount of sugar in their diet, according to Mintel, and 79% check labels for the types of sugar or sweetener used. While sugar is still the most popular sweetener, sales fell 16% from 2011 to 2016.
More consumers than ever are looking for natural alternatives — but switching sweeteners is often a complex task for manufacturers.
“Natural sugar substitutes seem like a place to focus efforts; however, some growing pains may be experienced while landing on acceptable product price points,” said a recent Mintel report. “Twenty-six percent of consumers would like to see more food/drink using naturally sourced sugar substitutes, but only a small percentage are willing to pay more for these.”
All is not sweet for naturally sourced alternatives
Alternative sweeteners like coconut sugar, agave syrup, fruit juice concentrates and honey are touted as healthier options to common refined sugar because they are perceived as more natural or nutritious. Although they contain some trace minerals, they have slim health credentials. All count as added sugars from both nutritional and labeling perspectives, and contribute to tooth decay in the same way as refined sugar.
This hasn’t stopped a surge in sales of honey, which benefits from a natural health halo. Three-quarters of those polled by Mintel said they considered the sweetener to be healthy. While sales of syrups and molasses fell 2% from 2011 to 2016, honey bucked the trend, rising 54% in the same period.
Many alternative sugars do have a lower glycemic index than sugar. They may be preferred by diabetics because they bring about slower increase in blood sugar. However, they have a relatively high amount of fructose -- which may actually be worse for the body for non-diabetics. While glucose can be used by nearly every cell in the body for energy, fructose is broken down only in the liver, and emerging evidence suggests it may be more easily converted to fat.
When the revamped Nutrition Facts label becomes mandatory, added sugars will have to be specifically listed. Food companies now have extra motivation to cut caloric sweeteners — even natural ones — from their products.
Among lower-calorie options, sweeteners used for sugar replacement are divided into two main categories: bulk and high intensity.
Bulk sweeteners are slightly less sweet than sugar and have fewer calories, but are used in similar quantities. High intensity sweeteners are used in small amounts because they are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. If manufacturers are looking for natural ingredients, their options are limited further still.
"Replacing added sugars is not a simple task."
Vice president and global platform lead for sweeteners, Tate & Lyle
Naturally derived bulk sweeteners include sugar alcohols — also known as polyols — like xylitol, maltitol, isomalt, sorbitol and erythritol. These come from plant products and berries, and are made by altering carbohydrates through fermentation or other processes.
The best known naturally derived high-intensity sweeteners include stevia and monk fruit extracts. Stevia extracts are produced by drying the leaves and separating the sweet components with water and crystallization processes, while monk fruit extracts are separated from the fruit’s pressed juice using water.
Tate & Lyle offers both monk fruit and stevia extracts under its Purefruit and Tasteva brands. Abigail Storms, the company's vice president and global platform lead for sweeteners, is familiar with what the extracts do and the challenges they present manufacturers.
"Replacing added sugars is not a simple task," she told FoodDive via email.
“High-potency sweeteners, such as stevia and monk fruit extract, enable manufacturers to drastically reduce the sugar content of products without compromising taste. However, because these sweetening ingredients are used in such small quantities in formulations, they do not provide functional attributes, like bulk and mouthfeel.”
She suggests using a combination of sweeteners and fibers to reduce sugars and help mimic the taste and texture that consumers expect.
Not just a sweetener
Professor Kathy Groves, head of science and microscopy at Leatherhead Food Research in the UK, specializes in understanding the way ingredients combine in foods and drinks to create their sensory attributes. While there is a lot of interest in sugar reduction, it is not as simple as just taking the sugar out – even if another ingredient can replace its sweetness, she said.
“We have been working to show that it’s not that easy," she told FoodDive.
Sugar has many functions in foods, she explained. It affects not only taste, but also the structure of cakes and cookies, the snap of chocolate, the browning, caramelization, crispness and aroma of a product, and how fat is distributed. It is also important to consider how quickly or slowly sweetness is released, she said, as this can have a big effect on flavor.
When it comes to sugar reduction, Groves's team starts by taking a company's original, full-sugar product, such as a cookie or cake, and maps out how the ingredients work together.
“We now are talking about it in a way that seems to resonate with the industry,” she said. “We call it a blueprinting process. We make a blueprint of the product, like you would have for a factory or a house, which shows how everything works together. We make a technical map of that product in how it’s made conventionally.”
The team asks consumer panels to describe what they like about the standard product. Then they bring in trained specialists to assess characteristics -- like taste, aroma and texture -- in more scientifically defined terms. Finally, they examine how the product’s ingredients affect its texture, color and other attributes at a microscopic level. Then they look at which alternative sweeteners might best mimic those properties.
Blends of sweeteners are a popular option because nothing tastes — or behaves — quite like sugar. Stevia and erythritol is one of the most common blends among naturally derived sweeteners. Erythritol has a strong cooling effect that works well in sugar-free mints. But in products where that effect is not desirable, like lemonade, blending it with stevia helps mask that taste.
"We make a blueprint of the product, like you would have for a factory or a house, which shows how everything works together. We make a technical map of that product in how it’s made conventionally.”
Professor Kathy Groves
Head of science and microscopy at Leatherhead Food Research
“Polyols are often used in blends and some have a laxative effect, like xylitol. But erythritol doesn’t have that effect at all, so you might use a little less xylitol and more erythritol,” said Groves. “One of the properties of sweeteners is they differ in their flavor or intensity profile, and they also have differences in aftertaste.”
Cindy Beeren, director of sensory, consumer and market insights at Leatherhead, said this is one reason why stevia and monk fruit are often combined too.
“If you use stevia but keep the concentration low so you get less of the bitterness, you can top up the sweetness with monk fruit,” she told Food Dive.
“Some sweeteners have a very high sweetness and some have a very long onset of sweetness. They often have quite a synergistic effect. …It is important to understand the sweetness profile over time, not just at one point in time.”
When reformulations turn sour
Sometimes there are unexpected effects when sweeteners are combined — such as a loss of bulk, caramelization or browning. If the flavor is right, manufacturers may be able to change other elements in the processing to resolve the problem.
Beyond product flavor and texture, solubility can be an issue, particularly for high-intensity sweeteners. Since so little is used, it can be hard to ensure they are spread evenly throughout a mixture. Some bulk sweeteners can also cause problems because they pick up water. Isomalt, for example, does not, making it a good choice for hard candies.
Finally, Beeren says it is important to consider whether reducing sugar might actually increase the calories in the finished product.
“If consumers see the claim ‘reduced sugar’ on pack, they always assume it’s also reduced calories,” she said. In some applications, cutting sugar can mean that fat makes up a larger proportion of the product by weight, and the calories go up.
“If consumers see the claim ‘reduced sugar’ on pack, they always assume it’s also reduced calories”
Director of sensory, consumer and market insights at Leatherhead
“It’s often something that’s only considered right at the end,” she said.
All alternative natural sweetening options are more expensive than sugar, so it is up to manufacturers to decide whether the additional costs are worth it in the long term. Apart from the higher cost of the sweetener itself, there are also "hidden costs" for a company to change the sweetener in an existing product. These including reformulation costs and large-scale changes in handling systems, storage and monitoring of ingredients.
However, consumer and industry trends all point toward demand for less added sugar and greater interest in natural products. Now it is up to manufacturers to find the sweet spot between cost, naturalness, calories and taste.